REFLECTIONS OF OUR FOUNDER
MAHLON MONTGOMERY LEWIS
BY: Frederica Jones
Once in a while, over the span of one’s life, there is an encounter with someone extraordinary, who leaves their stamp on every life touched. Fifty-nine years ago such a man, who through his work left an indelible legacy, founded Greater Saint Matthew Independent Church.
This man, Mahlon M. Lewis, was multi-talented, dedicated, visionary, motivated by his faith in a Supreme Being, who can make all things possible. Our congregation is blessed to be able to rejoice in fifty-nine years of accomplishment, twenty-five of those led by a “Soldier of the Cross”, who went to his reward, leaving many of his stalwart cohorts to continue their labor in his vineyard.
Young Mahlon was one of twenty children born to Charles and Mary Lewis. Spending his early childhood on his parents spacious farm in the mountains of West Virginia, Mahlon’s character was molded in the image of those mountains he loved so much… strong and imposing. Although he was not adverse to hard work, a perfectionist father made the youngster chafe at his restricted life.
At the age of thirteen, Mahlon Lewis left home, never to return on a permanent basis. Is it any wonder, then, that at the age of nineteen, M.M. Lewis was ordained a minister under the African Methodist Episcopal banner ?
To whatever assignment given him, Rev. Lewis brought untiring energy, vision and dedication. Many of his charges were in sad disrepair, requiring all his skills for restoration of physical plants and congregations to a state where the work of God could go forth.
Six times he demolished deteriorating structured and erected magnificent edifices in West Virginia and Ohio. Thus, he was able to activate congregations, communities, local heads of government, and all he contacted in his efforts to establish sanctuaries for worship.
Eastward journeying brought him to Bethel, Ardmore, where he led the rebuilding of yet another dilapidated structure. Thus, his reputation as a builder, preceded him to St. Matthew A.M.E. in Philadelphia, Mahlon M. Lewis’ next assignment.
Donning overalls and hip boots, Rev. Lewis applied his architectural skills, construction expertise and network of friends, in building supplies, to the task of completely rebuilding another church.
For this tremendous accomplishment, in 1949, Actor James Stewart presented this outstanding pastor with the “Wonderful Life” award, on behalf of the Philadelphia Inquirer.
However, in May 1949, after eight successful years at St. Matthew A.M.E., the Episcopacy of that time transferred this servant of God. Rev. Lewis’ assignment was to yet another small dilapidated church needing restoration. In spite of Rev. Lewis’ objections and opposition by the majority, the hierarchy of the connection turned a deaf ear to appeals for reconsideration.
Without fanfare, or an appeal to anyone to follow him, Rev. Lewis left the church connection to which he had given so many years of his life. He stated that he would proclaim the Word of God from street corners, if necessary. Nonetheless, when he made his move, faithful followers took up the cross without hesitation.
On the afternoon of May 29, 1949, Rev. M.M. Lewis, with five hundred faithful followers, met at Jehovah Jireh Baptist Church, located at 48th Street and Haverford Avenue. Their purpose was to establish an Independent Church, based on democratic principles, to be administered by the founding pastor and members.
The founding pastor advanced the concept of an Independent Church which would adhere to the general theories of Methodism. The open door extended to all Christians, regardless of denomination. Greater Saint Matthew Independent Church was the name chosen to differentiate this church.
Due to the hospitality, support and friendship of the Reverend Henry Philpot, Pastor of Jehovah Jireh, the church flourished. Beginning with the total assets of three hundred, fifty-five dollars, by November of the same year, more than ten thousand dollars was raised. The membership increased to over one thousand.
Meanwhile, Pastor and members looked for a suitable site for a new church home. Finally, the church property known as the Epworth Methodist Church was selected. Buildings and grounds were appraised at a value of $47,5000. Difficult negotiations ensued with the Methodist Mission Board. A price of $25,000 was the agreed upon purchase price and $5,000 was deposited to bind the transaction.