By Randy Willis, Special to the Message
Editor’s Note: Excerpted from his book “Joseph Willis: The Apostle to the Opelousas”
Joseph settled at Bayou Chicot between 1800 and 1805. In 1806, the Mississippi Baptist Association was organized. Though a licensed minister, a church had never ordained him. It was his belief that he should be ordained.
He also knew well the importance of banding together with other believers.
Therefore, in 1810 Joseph left for Mississippi to seek ordination [where] once again the race card would be played. Joseph took his letter to a local [Mississippi] church stating that he had been a member in good standing while in South Carolina. Such was the custom then as now among Baptists to transfer church membership by a letter.
The church to which he gave his letter 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. [As is said,] “The test of a man’s character is what it takes to discourage him.”
Once again we see a very important personality trait of Joseph’s that is recorded over and over again. He was long-suffering and willing to pay whatever price necessary to proclaim the Gospel.
After being betrayed by his father’s family, losing two wives and now being rejected by his own denomination he never became embittered. In Joseph’s mind and heart, no price is too high for the cause of Christ.
His focus is not on the fiery furnace but on the Fourth Man in the fire, He knew the safest place in life to be is in the fiery furnace because that is where the Fourth Man is; his Savior and Lord Jesus.
Paxton wrote of him: “… 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 while witnessing to him until he surrendered to Christ. Today, many generations later, his influence can still be seen.
One grandchild said he 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 the rejection in Mississippi, he was advised by a friendly minister to obtain a recommendation from the people he worked among. This he did and presented it to the Mississippi Association. The association accepted the recommendation, ordained Joseph, and constituted a church called Calvary Baptist Church at Bayou Chicot, La., on Nov. 13, 1812, with but five members. Calvary Baptist Church is still active today [with a Ville Platte address] and is on the threshold of its 200th anniversary in 2012.
Louisiana had been a state barely seven months when Calvary Baptist was founded and was in a state of turmoil, with about 80,000 residents. Great Britain did not consider the Louisiana Purchase legally valid, and Congress had declared war on Great Britain the previous June; it was the War of 1812.
Just a month and a day earlier on the Boque Chitto River, in what is now Washington Parish, Half Moon Bluff Baptist Church was organized. Located approximately eight miles from the Mississippi border, Half Moon Bluff was the first Baptist Church organized in what is now Louisiana but was east of the Mississippi River. Some 15 to 20 miles southwest of Half Moon Bluff Church, Mount Nebo Baptist Church was organized on Jan. 31, 1813. Half Moon Bluff is extinct, but Mount Nebo is still active. [Neither church was organized by Willis.]
The Methodists established a church even before these dates near Branch, La., but the first non-Catholic church in Louisiana was Christ Church in New Orleans. Its first service was Nov. 17, 1805, in the Cabildo, and it was predominantly Episcopal.
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. There were several other men staying there too. One of these men was sick and Joseph read the Bible to him, prayed with him, and witnessed to him about Christ.
The next morning all the men were gone very early except 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 be warned other times too just in time to avoid harm’s way.
Paxton said those who loved him called Joseph Willis the “Apostle to the Opelousas” and “Father Willis.” According to family tradition, strong determination 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. He would sometimes return home from a mission tour as late as one o’clock in the morning and awaken his wife to prepare clothes that he might leave again a few hours later.
By 1818, when Joseph and others founded the Louisiana Baptist Association at Cheneyville, he had been instrumental in founding all five charter member churches. They were Calvary, 1812; Beulah, 1816; Vermillion, 1817; Aimwell, 1817 (also called Debourn); and Plaquemine, 1817.
Aimwell was about five miles southeast of Oberlin, Beulah at Cheneyville, Calvary at Bayou Chicot, Vermillion at Lafayette, and Plaquemine near Branch. In 1824, he helped establish Zion Hill Church at Beaver Dam along with William Wilbourn and Isham Nettles.
He went “far and wide” – establishing a church Oct. 21, 1827, just 17 miles from Orange, Texas, and the Texas state line near Edgerly, La., named Antioch Primitive Baptist Church.
After moving to Spring Creek, east of Calcasieu River near Glenmora, La., around 1828/1829, Joseph began to establish churches in that area as well. The first established was Amiable Baptist Church on Sept. 6, 1828, near Glenmora. He next established Occupy Baptist Church in 1833 near Pitkin, and then he established Spring Hill Baptist Church in 1841, near Forest Hill.
Joseph was about 83 when Spring Hill was established. The Baptist churches of that day did not necessarily meet weekly. Preachers would have to travel long distances. Those who met weekly might have a preacher only once a month or every other month.
Discipline was stern with members being excluded (fellowship being withdrawn by the church) for gossiping, drinking too much, quarreling, dancing, using bad language and in one case at Amiable, for “having abused her mother.”
But the churches were also forgiving, if you admitted you were wrong and promised not to do it again. Repentance along with salvation was emphasized.
In 1833, Joseph became pastor of Occupy Baptist Church near Pitkin, La. The church is presently located next to Ten Mile Creek. He served as pastor there for about 16 years.
Joseph Willis died Sept. 14, 1854, in Blanche, La., about three miles south of Glenmora. He is buried in the Occupy Baptist Church cemetery.
Twenty years after he began his ministry in Louisiana in 1800 there were only ten preachers and eight Baptist churches with a membership of 150 in the entire state.
On January 18, 1955, just over 100 years after his death, 250 people along with 16 ministers gathered in freezing weather to unveil a monument in his memory at his grave.
Contact the author at Randy Willis, 12319 Blue Water Dr., Austin TX 78758; 512.565.0161; or randywillis @austin.rr.com. Contact the Joseph Willis Institute for Great Awakening Studies at Louisiana College, Rod Masteller, director, at www.lacollege.edu/jwi.