John Lee, A Dedicated Preacher Despite His Illness

January 2023
Anna Louise Bates, Church Historian

As our church recovers from nearly three years of a horrific pandemic that shook our world, our church, and our community, we remember that health was a primary concern for early Methodist circuit riders. As they traveled their circuits, they were exposed to the elements and all kinds of other dangers. They also came into contact with microbes that transmitted “fevers and fluxes,” documented in multiple journals.

The story of one early preacher, John Lee, extols this young ordinand’s dedication despite debilitating illness. John’s older and better-known brother, Jesse Lee, was already an active traveling preacher when John was born in Virginia in 1770. John converted during a revival in 1787 and began accompanying Jesse on his circuits shortly thereafter. At the Baltimore Conference in 1788, John received his first formal appointment to the Baltimore circuit. The following year, he was appointed to the Flanders Circuit, which included the upper part of New Jersey and part of New York, including New Paltz. The young preacher performed admirably, according to Jesse’s journal: “his trials were great, being among a strange people, and between 400 and 500 miles from home.” In 1789, Jesse came to Newburgh to hear his young brother preach. He noted in his journal that John had “a rising on the side of his neck, which became very painful, and it was the opinion of many that it was the king’s evil.”

John probably had cancer, which troubled him for the remainder of his short but fruitful life. He complained of a cough and pains in his chest for the next ten years. In 1798, he wrote to his brother: “I have little hope of recovering my health. I had rather be in the circuit, seeking the good of others, than to have all the wealth of the world.” Though sick, he kept traveling. Jesse Lee noted in his journal in 1801 that his brother died on October 6 of that year.  This young preacher’s perseverance took him through eleven painful years on four challenging circuits. He preached in New Paltz and nearby Newburgh while riding the Flanders Circuit with his brother, Jesse, in 1788-89.

John Lee’s story is an inspiring one that reminds us that all our pastors and preachers share our health challenges. We thank them all for their service during COVID, and for their support and dedication during all of our pains and sicknesses.   (All quotations are from Jesse Lee’s journal)