The Relative We Don’t Talk About


Jesse Lee

My wife’s maiden name was Lee. Her tribe is directly related to Jason Lee, the first Methodist missionary in the Oregon Territory. The family is justifiably proud of this connection. Jason’s branch of the family was in Stanstead, Canada. As a young adult Jason taught school and served a nearby Methodist church. His interest in mission work eventually led to a connection with General William Clark (of Lewis and Clark). He was chosen to be part of a team sent to the Flathead Indians. Jason Lee’s team did remarkable, groundbreaking work in the Oregon Territory. Willamette University is a direct result of his ministry and a good place to learn the full story of his pioneering work.

Recently I learned the story of another Methodist named Lee. I stumbled upon a website called the Jesse Lee Project. The Project grew out of a conversation between some New England United Methodist pastors. One had recently talked with some “twenty-somethings” who’d made a difficult decision to step away from the organized church. They found it outdated, boring, and irrelevant. These “twenty-somethings” sought a church that was authentic, focused, creative, and open to “out-of-the-box” approaches to ministry. Another pastor in that group recalled the story of Jesse Lee, a pioneer Methodist missionary in New England. He was one of those focused, “out-of-the-box” characters who might mentor us on our 21st-century mission field. For example:

1)   When the Revolutionary War broke out, eighteen-year-old Jesse Lee declared himself a Christian pacifist. After serving a short jail term for his stand, he spent the rest of his military service in the noncombatant wagon service.

2)   After the war, Jesse met and grew close to Francis Asbury, one of the first bishops of the Methodist Episcopal Church. Asbury pressured him to move toward ordination. Jesse resisted, but in 1789 he became a Licensed Local Preacher. Asbury showed up for his consecration service in elaborate clerical garb–because That’s How They Always Did It. Jesse Lee asked Asbury to change his clothes. Such formality and ceremony would alienate average Americans. His approach had to change.  Asbury agreed with Lee. He changed into simpler clothes and held a simpler service. That’s hardly the way you treat your new boss when you’re starting a new job! But on the mission field connecting with people matters more than massaging the boss’s ego!

3)   Asbury appointed Jesse Lee to the Stamford, CT circuit, along with another preacher—who never showed. Jesse didn’t wait around. He went to work establishing a Methodist presence wherever he could. One community gave him a very chilly reception. He saw no way to hold a service and begin to gather a congregation. So he hitched his horse to a tree outside the small, one room school house.   As school let out, Jesse Lee started singing his way through the hymnal. In between hymns he’d tell the children stories. Jesse and those kids had a great time together. Finally Lee asked if anyone thought his or her parents might invite him to hold a service in their homes. Nearly every child’s hand shot up. Jesse picked one. What parent could refuse such an enthusiastic request? “Please, mommy, please!” This technique became a staple in Jesse Lee’s missionary repertoire.

4)      One town council grilled Jesse relentlessly. They even asked him to speak biblical Hebrew! With supreme confidence, Jesse delivered an extended monologue in the ancient language—of Dutch! The town councilmen didn’t know the difference, and they welcomed Jesse to minister in their community.

As I said, my Lee relatives never mentioned Jesse. Maybe they don’t know about that branch of the family. (I promise I’ll do some genealogical digging—one of these days!) But neither has anyone else in my United Methodist family (in my hearing) except the Jesse Lee Project. Obviously we can’t just copy his methods. Hanging around outside a school and approaching children as he did is completely out of bounds these days! But we can still follow his lead.

  • Jesse Lee knew who he was. He stood for his convictions, even when there was a price to be paid. You may not agree with him on that particular issue. But how many eighteen-year-olds do you know who’ve wrestled through similar issues and would do jail time for their core beliefs?
  • Jesse Lee knew that people mattered more than tradition—even at the risk of offending the guardians of the tradition. So he spoke up when Francis Asbury came to his consecration way over-dressed. When Lee was ordained a deacon years later, everyone dressed very simply.
  • Jesse was talked about as a candidate for bishop. But he never had the political backing. He cared more about reaching people than about playing church politics.
  • Jesse Lee did whatever it took to reach people for Christ. He’d sit under a tree and sing and tell stories to schoolchildren. He’d travel long distances on horseback. (Francis Asbury reportedly rode 250,000 miles on horseback. One of my district superintendents claimed he’d driven that far in his six-year term as superintendent.) He kept it simple most of the time. Yet he also wrote prolifically and served as chaplain for both houses of Congress.

I suspect folks in New England where Jesse Lee started many churches still talk about him. I suspect the rest of us would do well to learn more about him. Those pastors talking about Jesse Lee were onto something. He practiced authenticity and integrity. He was clearly focused on reaching people for Christ and he’d do anything to make that happen–including what “nobody ever did” and what “the experts” say can’t be done. 

The relative we don’t talk about just might be the one we need to talk about–and listen to–very intently. What if that authenticity, honesty, missional focus, and “whatever-it-takes” conviction became the marks of our discipleship? Who knows? We might even find some of those “twenty-somethings” coming back to check us out. We might even hear them saying, “Now that’s what I’m talking about!”



4 Responses to “The Relative We Don’t Talk About”

  1. 1 Mary Lee Downey June 25, 2013 at 5:58 PM

    My maiden name is Lee too. I’m in the UMC ordination process. Must just be in my genes!


  2. 3 betsypc June 26, 2013 at 4:10 PM

    What you don’t mention in regards to Jesse Lee was his relationship to God. Your description of who Jesse is describes a man rooted in God.

    “God laments in the book of Hosea, “My people are destroyed for a lack of knowledge” (4:6). The more things change, the more they stay the same. In places where Christianity once thrived many people, even those who attend church, do not know the basic content of the Christian faith.” William J. Abraham, David F. Watson, “Key United Methodist Beliefs” I have come to the conclusion that much of the UMC falls in this category.

    The beliefs discussed in the book are basic ones: Who is God the Father; Who is God the Son; Who is God the Holy Spirit; What is Sin, and so on. I grew up in the Methodist Church with clergy in the family, I spent my adult life involved with a United Methodist Church and I never understood such things and most importantly, I never understood “How can God’s plan of salvation include me?” I turned 60 earlier this month, and I can now finally say without a doubt that God’s plan of salvation includes me. Gaining knowledge of the above topics through the Heidelberg Catechism was the beginning of my redemption. The catechism is written is such a way that certain crucial question and answers leave absolutely no wiggle room that this is most definitely about “me, also”. The knowledge of “this is about me, also” is what the Moravians taught John Wesley and his acceptance of that knowledge is what ultimately led to his experience at Aldersgate and the rest is history.

    I recently had a conversation with another life long Methodist from a another UMC in another city and she understood my story because it was very similar to her own; doing church, sensing there was “more” but not quite grasping it. Before we can be “Jesse Lee’s”, we have to understand who God is, who we are in relation to him, and what he has done for our salvation as individuals; that basic piece of information is sadly lacking. And like was stated in the introduction to “Key Beliefs”, without that, anything we do is done out of context. For many people in the pew, the part of Methodism that involves “let’s do things” has survived, but the reason behind what we are doing is being inadequately communicated and people as individuals are not being led into a relationship with God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit. From your description of him, Jesse Lee had a strong relationship with the triune God.


    • 4 soulmanlv June 27, 2013 at 8:14 AM

      Don’t think Jesse Lee and other early circuit riders could have done what they did without a very strong relationship with God. You’re absolutely right about the turning point. The story becomes My Story. That changes everything. What tools do we have to help that happen? Walk to Emmaus? Covenant groups? Other small groups? 1 to 1 dischipleship and mentoring? Few folks are as tenacious as you have been in your quest. Keep it up!


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