SHREVEPORT, La. (KTAL/KMSS) – They called him The Apostle to the Opelousas; however, Joseph Willis lived an intriguing life before he was ordained as the first Baptist preacher west of the Mississippi River.
Joseph Willis’s father, Agerton Willis, was wealthy and owned the plantation where Joseph and his mother were enslaved.
Joseph’s status as property did not stop him from fighting against the Tories in the Revolutionary War, where he became a member of The Swamp Fox, General Francis Marion’s “Marion Men.”
After the war, Joseph Willis illegally married an Irish woman and was set to inherit upwards of 3,000 acres from his father’s plantation upon Agerton Willis’ death. Agerton tried to emancipate his son–but died before Joseph could be freed.
North Carolina laws did not allow enslaved men to become landowners leaving Agerton’s eldest brother, Daniel, to become the legal heir of the Willis estate.
Agerton maintained his nephew’s enslaved status to maintain control of his brother’s estate, but Daniel’s son John, a member of the General Assembly of North Carolina, did not care for the way his father usurped Joseph’s rights.
He introduced a bill to the General Assembly that emancipated his cousin.
The act passed on Dec. 6, 1787.
Joseph did not receive everything owed to him per his father’s will, but he did walk away with his freedom and quickly liquidate his inherited assets. Joseph also became a Baptist minister.
Joseph could not baptize converts or establish churches because he was not allowed to be ordained.
Willis eventually arrived in Mississippi with nothing more than a horse, a saddle and a bridle.
New Spain was just a boat ride or dry-season swim across the river from the settlement of Natchez in Mississippi. Willis’ friend Richard Curtis, and several other Baptists and Revolutionary War veterans who served as Marion Men, were living around Natchez.
Willis was preaching on the Mississippi River’s west side, converting many people to Christianity. When he requested ordination by the Mississippi Association of Baptists, they said no because Willis was of mixed race.
Joseph asked again.
The Mississippi Association of Baptists ordained Willis and he became the first moderator of the Louisiana Baptist Association, whose memberships already included mixed people.
From Vermillion to Plaquemine Brule, Bayou Chicot, and Opelousas to Hickory Flat and Bayou Boeuf, Reverend Joseph Willis was unafraid of tromping through woods or swamps. He was not afraid of rivers or prisons, governments, or guns. Nor was he paralyzed by the discrimination he faced because of his beliefs, nationality, or skin color.
Willis founded Calvary Baptist Church on Bayou Chicot in Ville Platte in 1812, within months of his friend from North Carolina and fellow Marion Man, Ezekiel O’Quin, founding Half Moon Bluff Baptist Church’s organization on the Bogue Chitto River. These were the first known Baptist churches west of the Mississippi River.
One of Willis’ churches spread near Fort Miro, now called Monroe, in northeast Louisiana.
And as for Joseph Willis, he died on Sept. 14, 1854, and was buried at Occupy Baptist Church in Pitkin, Louisiana.