Joseph Willis preached the first evangelical sermon west of the Mississippi River in 1798.
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 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, Rachel Bradford Willis (a descendant of William Bradford) died in childbirth, and his second wife died only six years later, leaving him with five young children.
He crossed the mighty Mississippi River at Natchez, in 1798, at the peril of his own life, riding 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 there because of the message he brought to Spanish-controlled Louisiana!
His denomination refused to ordain him because of his race until November 13, 1812, when Joseph Willis constituted Calvary Baptist Church at Bayou Chicot, Louisiana.
He went on to plant more than twenty churches in Louisiana.
On October 31, 1818, Joseph Willis founded the Louisiana Baptist Association at Beulah Baptist in Cheneyville, Louisiana. Joseph Willis founded all five charter member churches.
After overcoming insurmountable obstacles, he blazed a trail for others for another half-century that changed American history.
He was Randy Willis’s 4th great-grandfather.