Joseph Willis 1758-1854
His father was English and his mother of Cherokee Native American ancestry.
This work is Dedicated To
My three sons, Aaron Joseph Willis, Joshua Randall Willis, and Adam Lee Willis, and my three grandchildren Baylee Coatney Willis,Corbin Randall Willis, and Presley Rose Willis. May they never forget their heritage. "Yet the Lord set his affection on your ancestors and loved them, and he chose you, their descendants..." Deuteronomy 10:15 (NIV) and Exodus 9:16
Lillie Hanks Willis – My grandmother who poured Jesus into my heart as a young boy and a love for the history of Joseph Willis. She would often say to me, "Ran, the only Bible most people ever read is our lives."
Dr. Greene Wallace Strother – My cousin, great-grandson of Joseph Willis, and Southern Baptist missionary emeritus to China and Malaysia who encouraged me and passed on to me the baton of the history of Joseph Willis.
Randy Willis, 4th Great-grandson of Joseph Willis
• Joseph Willis' life is a story of triumph over tragedy and victory over adversity!
• He was born into slavery. His mother was Cherokee and his father a wealthy English plantation owner.
• His family took him to court to deprive him of his inheritance (which would have made him the wealthiest plantation owner in all of Bladen County, North Carolina in 1776).
• He fought as a Patriot in the Revolutionary War under the most colorful of all the American generals, Francis Marion, The Swamp Fox.
• His first wife died in childbirth, and his second wife died only six years later, leaving him with five small children.
• He crossed the mighty Mississippi River at Natchez at the peril of his own life, carried by a mule!
• He entered hostile Spanish-controlled Louisiana Territory, when the dreaded Code Noir (Black Code) was in effect. It forbade any Protestant ministers who came into the territory from preaching.
• His life was threatened because of the message he brought to Spanish-controlled Louisiana!
• His own denomination refused to ordain him because of his race.
• Joseph Willis preached the first Gospel sermon by an Evangelical west of the Mississippi River.
• After overcoming insurmountable obstacles, he blazed a trail for others for another half-century that changed Louisiana history.
• His accomplishments are still felt today.
4th great-grandson of Joseph Willis
"According to his testimony, his father was English and his mother of Cherokee Native American ancestry; he was born in 1758 in Bladen County, North Carolina, and was a 'Marion' man." (John Pinckney Durham and John S. Ramond, Baptist Builders in Louisiana, Shreveport, Louisiana, Durham-Ramond Publishers, 1934) p15.
A contemporary of Joseph Willis and the greatest Baptist historian of his generation, David Benedict wrote, in 1813, 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 [Louisiana] belonged to the Spanish government." That date would place Joseph Willis in Louisiana, west of the Mississippi River, before October 1, 1800, the date Napoleon secured Louisiana from Spain.
Benedict's statement also establishes Joseph Willis as preaching the first Gospel sermon by an evangelical west of the Mississippi River. (David Benedict, A General History of the Baptist Denomination in America and Other Parts of the World, Boston: Printed by Lincoln and Edmonds,1813)
Joseph Willis had become accustomed to great obstacles. Decades before his first venture west, in 1798, his family (which included 5 of the 20 wealthiest plantation owners, in North Carolina) took him to court, in 1777, to deprive him of his vast inheritance - a battle that involved the first governor of the newly formed state of North Carolina.
Joseph Willis, never daunted, fought in the Revolutionary War, as a Patriot, under the most colorful of all the American generals, Francis Marion, "The Swamp Fox."
After the Revolutionary War, Joseph Willis, along with Richard Curtis and William Thompson, constituted a church, called 'The Baptist Church on Buffaloe' [sic] near Woodville, Mississippi, in October of 1798. (W.E. Paxton,A History of the Baptist of Louisiana, from the Earliest Times to the Present, 1888) p 33.
Joseph Willis was greatly affected by First Great Awakening preacher's George Whitefield and Shubal Stearns and crossed the Mississippi River at the very beginning of the Second Great Awakening, between 1798 and 1800, thus becoming the first evangelical foreign missionary to preach the Gospel of Jesus Christ west of the Mississippi River.
According to his son, Joseph Willis Jr., Joseph Willis crossed the mighty Mississippi River at Natchez, to preach the Gospel, riding only a mule and at the peril of his own life.
Joseph Willis entered this most hostile land, the Spanish claimed Louisiana Territory, before October 1, 1800, and was there too from October 1, 1800, to April 30, 1803, while it was the French claimed Louisiana Territory. The dreaded Code Noir, the "Black Code," was in effect during this time, which forbade the coming of any ministers into the territory except Roman Catholics. Joseph Willis defied this most terrifying rule of law by traveling into the heart of the Black Code, as far south as Lafayette, Louisiana, preaching the Gospel, at the risk of his own life.
The message that Joseph Willis brought with him would cause them to try to kill him! He would live for another 58 years, establishing churches, prea
ching Jesus, and over coming obstacle after obstacle.
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