Pilgrims and served as governor for over 30 years. As noted before, he is credited as the first government leader to proclaim the Thanksgiving holiday.
Importantly, William Bradford’s Mayflower pedigree did not have as much influence on Joseph’s life as much as the religious movement that crossed with him on this ship.
Bradford was a committed member of what was termed a “Separatist” church. Unlike Puritans who wanted to purify the Church of England, Separatists wanted to break from it because they felt it was beyond redemption due to unbiblical doctrines and teachings. It was Bradford’s Separatist views about religious freedom that would greatly influence Joseph Willis more than a century later.
By 1790, Joseph and Rachel were living in Cheraws County (now named Marlboro County), South Carolina, just southwest of Bladen County, across the state line. The 1790 census lists him as the head of the household with two females and one male over 16. In South Carolina, two more children were born to the couple: Joseph Willis Jr., born in 1792, and Rachel’s last child, named after her, Rachel Willis, born circa 1794.
Rachel died this same year at only 32 years old, but it is not known if she died in childbirth. Joseph was industrious and prosperous. By 1794 he had moved to Greenville County (the Washington Circuit Court District), South Carolina, and bought 174 acres on the south side of the Reedy River. He purchased two adjoining tracts of 226 acres, Aug. 16, 1794, and 200 acres, May 8, 1775, on the Reedy River.
The total of 600 acres included 226 acres with rent houses and orchards, making Joseph, at this time, well-to-do.
Deeds pertaining to these properties give the name of Joseph’s second wife as “Sarah an Irish woman.”
Two children were born in South Carolina to Joseph and Sarah: Jemima Willis, circa 1796, and Sarah’s last child, named “Sarah” after her, in 1798. Sarah is called Joseph’s wife in a deed dated Aug. 8, 1799, but she died soon afterward.
Joseph had lost two wives in only six years, making him 45 years old and alone with five children.
Yet, he decided to venture west into a land full of uncertainty and danger for the sake of the Gospel.
He sold everything and spent it all for the cause of Christ, while deliberately placing himself in harm’s way to share the message of the Good News.
“Therefore, come out from them and be separate, says the Lord” (2 Corinthians 6:17). In Greenville County, South Carolina, Joseph joined the Main Saluda Church. He also attended the Bethel Association, the most influential Baptist Association in the “Carolina Back Country,” serving as a messenger from 1794 to 1796.
Main Saluda was declared extinct by 1797, and Joseph became a member of the Head of Enoree Baptist Church. Both of these churches were rooted in the Separate Baptists, which sprang from the First Great Awakening, another driving force that would significantly influence Joseph to carry the Gospel of Jesus Christ where no preacher of the Gospel had gone before. Head of Enoree (known as Reedy River since 1841) was also a member of the Bethel Association.
Joseph was listed in the Head of Enoree chronicles, along with William Thurston, as an “outstanding member.”
It was this same William Thurston who would buy Joseph’s 600 acres for $1,200 on Aug. 8, 1799 — after Joseph returned from a trip to Mississippi in 1798 with Richard Curtis, Jr. It was also here at Head of Enoree that Joseph was first licensed to preach.
An interesting side note about Head of Enoree is that just a few years before Joseph became a member, the pastor, Thomas Musick, was excommunicated in 1793 for immorality.
This same man later organized Fee Fee Baptist Church in Missouri in 1807 (according to the church’s history) located just across the Mississippi River near St. Louis. Fee Fee Baptist Church is the oldest Baptist church west of the Mississippi River because Calvary Baptist Church at Bayou Chicot was not established until 1812.
Nevertheless, Musick did not preach west of the Mississippi River until at least seven years after Joseph Willis did.
After a 1798 trip to Mississippi with Richard Curtis, Jr., Joseph returned to South Carolina to move his family to the Louisiana Territory and sell his South Carolina property. Never one to squander time, he helped incorporate the “Head of Enoree Baptist Society” in 1799 before leaving. It seems that he tarried until the spring of 1800 to depart on his second trip west, thereby avoiding the winter weather.
SPIRITUAL ROOTS AND THE FIRST GREAT AWAKENING
“Will you not revive us again, that your people may rejoice in you?” (Psalm 85:6).
From the time Joseph heard and accepted the call to preach the Gospel of Jesus Christ his sermons were filled with the echoes of First Great Awakening preachers like Jonathan Edwards, George Whitefield, and Shubal Stearns.
This spiritual movement, from 1734 – 1750, ignited a fire for revival in the hearts of many men like Joseph.
Edwards and Whitefield, leaders of the Great Awakening, had little interest in merely engaging parishioners’ minds; they wanted to see evidence of true repentance and spiritual conversion. They stirred passion among their congregations by animatedly proclaiming the joy of salvation and the need to share the love of Christ through action.
This led other pastors to change from just reading their theologically deep sermons, as was the norm in the late colonial period, to making emotional calls for repentance unto salvation by grace through faith in Christ.
Joseph Tracy, the minister and historian who gave this revival its name in his 1842 book “The Great Awakening,” even saw the First Great Awakening as a precursor to the American Revolution.
The Great Awakening’s influence on Joseph came through Shubal Stearns.
In 1745, Stearns heard Whitefield’s cry for repentance; left the Congregationalist church; and adopted the Great Awakening’s zeal for evangelism and belief in heartfelt conversion.
The next year, Stearns moved from Virginia to Sandy Creek, Guilford County, North Carolina, at the urging of the Holy Spirit, he said. Three years after Stearns’s arrival and less than seventy miles from Sandy Creek, Joseph Willis made his entrance into the world.
Eighteenth-century historian Morgan Edwards wrote of Stearns, “Stearns’s message was always the simple Gospel,” which was “easily understood even by rude frontiersmen” particularly when the preacher himself felt overwhelmed with the importance of his subject.
Most of the frontier people of North Carolina had never heard such doctrine or observed such earnest preaching. The Separatists’ great missionary zeal caused the spiritual movement to spread at a rapid pace to the other colonies.
Stearns and his followers ministered mainly to the English settlers, and seventeen years after Stearns’s arrival, forty-two churches were established in and around Sandy Creek.
Baptist historian David Benedict wrote in 1813, “As soon as the Separtists [sic] arrived, they built them a little meetinghouse, and these 16 persons formed themselves into a church, and chose Shu-bal Stearns for their pastor….” Stearns remained pastor there until his death, and from this “meetinghouse” the South felt the flames of revival, the fan of which was carried west by the unlikely missionary Joseph.
In 1772 Morgan Edwards wrote that Stearns’s Sandy Creek church had “spread its branches westward as far as the great river Mississippi.”
After courageously fighting in the American Revolution with Francis Marion, “the Swamp Fox,” Joseph Willis was the first missionary and church planter to preach the Gospel of Jesus Christ West of the Mississippi River.
As mentioned before, Joseph was a member of Head of Enoree in 1797.
Late that year or early the next, he made his first trip to Mississippi with Richard Curtis, Jr. This trip was made without his family, as it was the custom of the time to venture west, find a safe place, and then return for the family.
- E. Paxton recorded the results of this first trip:
They sought not in vain, for soon after their return they were visited by William Thompson, who preached unto them the Gospel of our God: and on the first Saturday in October, 1798, came William Thompson, Richard Curtis, and Joseph Willis, who constituted them into a church, subject to the government of the Cole’s Creek church, calling the newly constituted arm of Cole’s Creek, ‘The Baptist Church on Buffaloe.
This church was located near Woodville, Mississippi, near the Mississippi River and due east of Bayou Chicot, Louisiana, where Joseph would organize his first church west of the Mississippi River, Calvary Baptist.
Paxton’s research shows that the country between Mississippi and South Carolina was “then infested by hostile Indians” — a fact not likely lost on Curtis, who had experienced a Cherokee attack in 1780 during a trip to the area (family and friends on one of three long boats perished).
Because Joseph probably knew at least part of the Cherokee language, since he was half-Cherokee, Curtis doubtless valued him on this 1798 trip for what Joseph brought to the table in case of another attack as much as he respected Joseph for his passion for the Gospel.
Curtis also knew well Joseph’s courage under fire, since both were Marion men together in the Revolutionary War.
After the trip with Curtis to Mississippi in 1798, Joseph returned to South Carolina for his family and to sell his property. As mentioned before, he sold all of his land to William Thurston in August 1799, indicating his preparations to leave.
THE FIRST GOSPEL SERMON EVER PREACHED BY AN EVANGELICAL WEST OF THE MISSISSIPPI RIVER
“Call to Me, and I will answer you, and show you great and mighty things, which you do not know” (Jeremiah 33:3).
The exact date that Joseph preached in the Louisiana Territory west of the Mississippi River is not known, but what is known is it was almost three years before April 30, 1803, the date of the Louisiana Purchase, and in fact even before Oct. 1, 1800, the date Napoleon secured Louisiana from Spain.
There are three facts that confirm the above statements.
First, Joseph sold all his property in South Carolina in 1799 and is not found there in the 1800 census.
Second, in 1813, historian David Benedict, a contemporary of Joseph, wrote in his book “A General History of the Baptist Denomination in America and Other Parts of the World,” that “Joseph Willis… has done much for the cause, and spent a large fortune while engaged in the ministry, often at the hazard of his life, while the State belonged to the Spanish government.”
That places Joseph Willis in Louisiana before Oct. 1, 1800.
Third, in 1854, the Louisiana Baptist Associational Committee wrote in Joseph Willis’s obituary, “The Gospel was proclaimed by him in these regions before the American flag was hoisted here.” So that had to have been before April 30, 1803.
What is known with more exactness is that Joseph preached the Gospel at great risk to his own life.
When he crossed the Mississippi River into the Louisiana Territory, the Code Noir, or the “Black Code,” was the law of the land.
This decree from King Louis XIV regulated, among other things, the condition of slavery and the activities of free people of color. It also restricted the practice of religion to Roman Catholicism.
The Black Code stayed in effect until the Louisiana Purchase on April 30, 1803. But, in reality, it was a hindrance to the preaching of the Gospel for many decades after the Louisiana Purchase.
Joseph was hated because of his defiance of it, especially because it specifically forbade any ministers coming into the territory except Roman Catholics.
He seemed to revel in his rebellion, heading into the heartland of the Black Code, going as far south as Lafayette, Louisiana, while preaching the Gospel, immediately after he had crossed the mighty Mississippi
THE FIERY FURNACE
Joseph settled at Bayou Chicot, Louisiana, between 1800 and 1805, just a year before the Mississippi Baptist Association was organized.
Though he was a licensed minister, he had not yet been ordained.
He respected the authority of the church and knew being ordained would be important if he was to be effective in banding together with other believers.
Therefore, in 1810, Joseph left for Mississippi to seek ordination.
His son, Joseph, Jr., later spoke regularly of his father’s crossing the Mississippi River at Natchez and how dangerous it was. Joseph, Jr., said that his father swam the mighty river riding a mule to take a shortcut and save time to preach Jesus.
After reaching Mississippi, the race card was played against him again.
Joseph had taken his letter to a local church stating that he was a member in good standing while in South Carolina.
The custom then, as now, among Baptists was to transfer church membership by a letter. But this Mississippi congregation objected to his ordination “lest the cause of Christ should suffer reproach from the humble social position of his servant.”
Paxton wrote, “Such obstacles would have daunted the zeal of any man engaged in a less holy cause.”
The “humble social position” of Joseph was certainly not his wealth but the fact that his skin was swarthy.
But once more Joseph’s longsuffering and willingness to pay whatever price to proclaim the Gospel came into play.
It’s evident his focus was not on the fiery furnace but on the “Fourth Man” in the fire: He knew the safest place in life is with the “Fourth Man”—his Savior and Lord Jesus.
Paxton wrote, “he was a simple-hearted Christian, glowing with the love of Jesus and an effective speaker.”
His youngest son Aimuewell Willis said before his own death in 1937, “the secret of my father’s success was personal work.” He said that as a boy he saw his father go to a man in the field, hold his hand, and witness to him until he surrendered to Christ.
Today, many generations later, his influence can still be seen.
One grandchild said Joseph would be reading the Bible and talking to them as a few of them would slip away, and he would say, “Children, you can slip away from me, but not from God.”
After Joseph’s rejection in Mississippi, a friendly minister advised him to obtain a recommendation from the people he worked among. This he did, and he presented it to the Mississippi Baptist Association.
The association accepted the recommendation, and a church subsequently ordained Joseph.
Right away he constituted Calvary Baptist Church, with just six members, in Bayou Chicot, Louisiana.
It is an active congregation to this day and celebrated its 200th anniversary in November 2012.
Paxton wrote, “The zeal of Father Willis, as he came to be called by the affectionate people among whom he labored, could not be bounded by the narrow limits of his own home, but he traveled far and wide.”
Once when he was traveling and preaching, he stayed at an Inn. Several other men were staying there and one of them men was sick. Joseph read the Bible to him, prayed with him, and witnessed to him about Christ.
The next morning all of the men were gone very early, except for the man who was sick. He told Joseph that the night before he had overheard the men talking about Joseph and that they had gone ahead to ambush him.
He told him about another road to take, and Joseph’s life was spared.
Joseph would receive warnings other times, too, just in time to avoid harm’s way.
Paxton said those who loved Joseph called him the “Apostle to the Opelousas” and “Father Willis.”
According to family tradition, strong determi-nation and profound faith were his shields.
He would often walk great distances to visit and preach to small groups.
He rode logs in order to cross streams or travel downstream.
Sometimes he would return home from a mission tour as late as one o’clock in the morning and awaken his wife to prepare clothes so that he might leave again a few hours later.
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Barely seven months before Calvary Baptist was founded, Louisiana became a state – in turmoil. Great Britain considered the Louisiana Purchase illegitimate, and Congress had declared war on this then-protagonist country—The War of 1812—two months after making Louisiana a state.
Just a month and a day before Calvary Baptist Church was constituted, the Half Moon Bluff Baptist Church was organized on the Boque Chitto River, in what is now Washington Parish. So it was the first Baptist church organized in what is now Louisiana but it was east of the Mississippi River.
So Calvary Baptist Church is the first Baptist Church started In Louisiana, west of the Mississippi.
Some fifteen to twenty miles southwest of Half Moon Bluff Church, Mount Nebo Baptist Church was organized, Jan. 31, 1813.
Half Moon Bluff is extinct, but Mount Nebo remains active.
The Methodists had preceded the Baptists, establishing a church before these dates near Branch, Louisiana. But the first non-Catholic church in Louisiana was Christ Church, an Episcopal congregation, in New Orleans, holding its first service on Nov. 17, 1805, in the Cabildo.
* * *
By 1818, when Joseph and others founded the Louisiana Baptist Association at Cheneyville, he had been instrumental in founding all five of its charter members. They were Calvary, Bayou Chicot, 1812; Beulah, Cheneyville, 1816; Vermillion, Lafayette, 1817; Aimwell (southeast of Oberlin), 1817 (also called Debourn); and Plaquemine (near Branch), 1817.
In 1824, with William Wilbourn and Isham Nettles, Joseph established Zion Hill Church at Beaver Dam.
He went far and wide, establishing Antioch Primitive Baptist Church on Oct. 21, 1827, just seventeen miles from the Texas State line near Edgerly, Louisiana.
Joseph kept a diary and William Prince Ford arranged these notes in 1841.
Paxton copied them in 1858 and used them and Louisiana Baptist Association meeting minutes al-most exclusively as the basis for his research about Central Louisiana Baptists.
Ford also made remarks in his duplicate notes, and one of his observations, made in 1834, is very revealing about Joseph:
It was truly affecting to hear him speak of them as his children and with all the affection of a father allude to some schisms and divisions that had arisen in the past and to warn them against the occurrence of anything of the kind in the future. But when he spoke of the fact that two or three of them had already become extinct, his voice failed and he was compelled to give utterance to his feelings by his tears; and surely the heart must have been hard that could not be melted by the manifestation of so much affection, for he wept not alone.
Remarkably, no church ever split while Joseph was its pastor.
Baptist historian John T. Christian comments in his book “A History of Baptists of Louisiana” (1923), about other difficulties that Baptists faced:
It must steadily be borne in mind that in no other state of the Union have Baptists been compelled to face such overwhelming odds; and such long and sustained opposition… The wonder is not that at first the Baptists made slow progress, but that they made any at all.
THIRD AND FOURTH WIVES ADD TO WILLIS GENERATIONS
Between 1799 and 1802, Joseph’s second wife Sarah died, and it was at Bayou Chicot that most of Joseph’s children were born to his third wife.
Joseph married a woman born in South Carolina, but whom he met in Mississippi or Louisiana. Her last name was Johnson.
They welcomed a son into this world on Jan. 6, 1804, and named him William. He is buried at Humble Cemetery (formerly, Willis Flats) next to the Bethel Baptist Church in Elizabeth, Louisiana.
Other children born to this union were Lemuel, 1812; John, 1814; Martha, 9, 1825.
There also was a Sally Willis listed in the 1850 Rapides Parish census as 48 years old and living near William Willis.
The last two known children of Joseph were born to his fourth wife, Elvy Sweat.
They were Samuel, 1836; and, Aimuewell May 1, 1837 (died Sept. 9, 1937, at age 100).
Joseph would have been about 79 years old when Aimuewell was born.
The 1850 Rapides Parish Census also records an additional four males in Joseph’s household and ages which allow calculating the birth year for each: James, 1841; William, 1845; Timothy, 1847; and, Bernard, 1848.
It would be unlikely that Joseph would have a second son named William.
Moreover, Aimuewell Willis always said he was Joseph Willis’s youngest son. So, these last four males most likely are Joseph’s grandchildren.
Historian Ivan Wise wrote in “Footsteps of the Flock: or Origins of Louisiana Baptists” (1910) that two sons of Joseph died, “poisoned on honey and were buried a half mile from the present town of Oakdale, Louisiana.”
Joseph’s third wife died and is buried in an unmarked grave yet to be discovered, but prob-ably is located at the site of the original Calvary Baptist Church, in Vandenburg Cemetery.
One historian wrote that Joseph Willis had 19 children.
Joseph’s children who were still living would follow him when he would later move to Rapides Parish. Many were neighbors with him as late as 1850, as the census reveals, as well as several grandchildren who were grown by then.
— Joseph’s eldest child Agerton married Sophie Story, an Irish orphan brought from Tennessee by a Mr. Park, who then lived near Holmesville below Bunkie, Louisiana. His son, Daniel Hubbard Willis Sr., was the first of many descendants to follow Joseph into the ministry. Paxton described Daniel as “one of the most respected ministers in the Louisiana Association.” He established many churches himself, and was pastor of Amiable and Spring Hill Baptist Churches for many years. In his later years, he was blind and his daughter read the Scriptures for him as he preached.
— Joseph’s daughter Jemima married William Dyer, and they lived on the Calcasieu River near Master’s Creek.
— Mary married Thomas Dial (her first husband was a Johnson) from South Carolina, and they both were living in Rapides Parish in 1850.
— Joseph Willis, Jr., married Jennie Coker at Bayou Chicot and later moved to Rapides Parish and settled near Tenmile Creek.
— Lemuel married Emeline Perkins from Tenmile Creek and settled near Glenmora in Blanche, Louisiana. The late Dr. Greene Strother, Southern Baptist missionary emeritus to China and Malaysia, was his grandson. — William married Rhoda Strother on the “Darbourn” on the upper reaches of the Calca-sieu. — Aimuewell married twice and settled in Leesville. His first wife was Marguerite Leuemche, and his second wife was Lucy Foshee.
Many of the descendants of these children live in these same areas today. At least eight generations have lived in the Forest Hill area, including Joseph himself, and Oakdale, Louisiana, probably has more descendants of Joseph than any other region in the state.