By Diana Chandler, Baptist Press
PINEVILLE, La. (BP) -- In the same year the Southern Baptist Convention has elected its first African American president, historians are hailing the work of a former slave who established the first Baptist church west of the Mississippi River.
The church planter was Joseph Willis, born a mulatto slave in 1758 Bladen County, N.C., to Agerton Willis, a wealthy white English plantation owner. Joseph's mother was his father's own slave, reportedly Cherokee.
When Willis first applied for Baptist ordination, he was denied because of his mixed heritage, "lest the cause of Christ should suffer reproach from the humble social position of his servant," William Paxton recorded in his 1888 book, "A History of the Baptists of Louisiana."