Mary Magdalena Lewis Tate founded a Pentecostal denomination and became one of the first African American women to hold the title, Bishop. Born in Vanleer, Tennessee on January 5, 1871, to Belfield Street and Nancy (Hall) Street, she married her first husband, David Lewis, at age nineteen; they had two sons, Walter Curtis and Felix Early Lewis. As that marriage broke up, she began preaching close to home. She survived the scars and engulfing aftermath of American slavery and later rose to prominence through her work in the ministry.
Around the turn of the century, Mary received her “call” into the ministry and began dedicating her life to evangelizing and winning souls to Christ. Mary initially preached in the streets of such places as Tennessee, Kentucky and Illinois.
Along the way, she gathered converts into “Do Rights” bands, so named because people responded to her message by wanting to “do right.” These associations in Illinois, Missouri, Kentucky, and Tennessee purchased property to house a meeting place for their worship services of song, testimony, Bible study, and preaching. In 1903 she reorganized the group under a new name, the Church of the Living God, the Pillar and Ground of the Truth.
In 1905, Mary Lena and her second husband Elijah Estes, established a Holiness-Pentecostal church in Alabama. In 1908 Mary Estes was stricken with an unidentified illness that rendered her bedridden and unable to walk. It was on her bed of affliction that she had a profound visitation, receiving “the baptism of the Holy Ghost and fire”. She reportedly sprang from her bed, shouted with joy, and was healed. Following this experience, she added the Pentecostal concept of baptism of the Holy Ghost with the evidence of speaking in tongues to her beliefs and teachings.
As the number of churches multiplied, she held a General Assembly in 1908 in Greenville, Alabama. During the ten days, she ordained ministers, officially incorporated the denomination, and presided as bishop. The denomination grew rapidly and spread into twenty states, prompting her to appoint state Bishops to oversee churches within state boundaries. Her sons worked alongside her. To solidify further the denomination, she assembled its doctrines, rules, rituals, and governing structures into a Decree Book and distributed it to the churches.
Bishop Tate chose Nashville for her denominational headquarters, and in 1923, with her approval, the denomination purchased eleven 50 x 140 city lots for $5,000, including a large brick building with five rooms. The publishing house opened in the building after it was renovated and equipped with printing presses, paper cutters, print type and type-setting equipment. Part-time workers hired from several African American schools in the area staffed the publishing house. For two decades from this location, the New and Living Way Publishing Company printed Sunday School literature, music, and several periodicals.
Mary Estes married her third and final husband in 1914, Elder Robert Tate, and became known as Mother Tate to this day. While in Philadelphia on church business, Bishop Mary Lena Lewis Tate died in December 1930 in Philadelphia General hospital after contracting frostbite and gangrene in one of her feet. Following her death in 1930, the church divided into three branches, known as the Keith, Jewell and Lewis dominions. The steel guitar was embraced in the worship of two of these dominions, the Keith Dominion (officially known as The House of God Which Is the Church of the Living God the Pillar and Ground of the Truth Without Controversy), headquartered in Nashville, Tennessee and the Jewell Dominion (officially known as Church of the Living God, Pillar and Ground of the Truth, Which He Purchased With His Own Blood, Inc.), headquartered in Indianapolis, Indiana. It is within her church organization that the Sacred Steel music tradition was born in the 1930’s.