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."

"Both his color and his being a Baptist exposed him to violent prejudices, and he was often threatened with violence," Paxton wrote, referring to Willis' efforts to spread the Gospel where, until 1804, Louisiana's Black Code forbade any religion other than Catholicism.

One of Willis' descendants, genealogist and historian Randy Willis of Austin, Texas, has documented the church planter's life in "Joseph Willis: The Apostle to the Opelousas." The book is based on limited historical documents and rich oral history told by descendants of Willis, who married four times and fathered children into his late 70s.

"His life reads as a history book and a dramatic play performed on the stage of what was at the time a hostile and mostly unexplored foreign land. He first crossed the Mississippi River into the Louisiana Territory before October 1, 1800, the date Napoleon secured the Louisiana Territory from Spain," Randy Willis wrote. "He lost three wives and several children in the wilderness, but he never wavered in his faith in Christ, nor that which he had been called to preach, the Gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ."

While the complete nature of the relationship between Joseph Willis' parents is not known, his parents would have been unable to marry one another because the law forbade interracial marriages. Indeed, his father never married. The name of his mother and her heritage are not recorded in historical documents; neither is the evangelist's birth certificate. Rather, 1850 U.S. Census records in Alexandria, La., show that Willis told authorities his mother was Cherokee, Randy Willis wrote.

"We don't have her name. There's no record, other than his personal testimony," Randy Willis told Baptist Press in an interview.

"So many records are lost" because of the treatment of Native Americans under the Andrew Jackson administration and through the Civil War, Willis said. "So a lot of records have been lost. The only thing I can go upon is his personal testimony. There's absolutely no records that say that she was Native American or say anything about her. He said that his mother was Cherokee Indian."

Years after Willis' 1854 death, he was shunned because many thought his mulatto designation indicated a mixture of the black and white races, after Paxton described Willis as mulatto, Randy Willis said. In early 19th-century North Carolina, the term mulatto referred to a person of Indian or African blood to the fourth degree. Today, the term designates a first-generation mixture of white and African American ancestry.

"His story, his life, is stranger than fiction," said Randy Willis, a fourth-great-grandson of the church planter. "He was really shunned for over 100 years because of one statement in one book. Now suddenly he's become en vogue, on the 200th anniversary of Calvary Baptist Church and the 200th anniversary of the state of Louisiana."

Joseph Willis is being celebrated as the first man to preach a Baptist sermon west of the Mississippi River, perhaps as early as 1798, and the planter of dozens of churches in Louisiana as early as 1812, many of which still exist.

"Almost every Baptist church from central Louisiana to north Louisiana came eventually out of him," Randy Willis said. "You can almost draw a line at Bayou Chicot north to the northern border of Louisiana, and it's primarily Baptist. And from south, where they ran him out of, it's primarily Catholic."

Louisiana College established this year the Joseph Willis Institute for Great Awakening Studies, aimed at encouraging spiritual revival. The institute and the Louisiana Baptist Convention are archiving the history of Willis, much of which was compiled by the late Greene Strother, a Willis descendant who was a Louisiana College alumnus and Southern Baptist missionary to China and Malaysia.

The institute was the brainchild of international evangelist, Louisiana College alumnus and Louisiana native Sammy Tippit, now of San Antonio, Texas. Tippit recently learned his ancestors, a mixture of Anglo and Nansemond Indian, donated the land on which the original Calvary Baptist was built, about a mile from the present location.

"I thought I was this totally Caucasian white person," Tippit said. "Because of the mixed race, our family was very closed "

One of Tippit's fourth-great-grandmothers, Frances "Fannie" Sweat and her husband Gilbert Sweat, are recorded as having donated one acre of land to Willis for the church building.

"I feel like she was led to the Lord by Willis," Tippit said of Frances Sweat, whose ancestors migrated to Louisiana from the Pee Dee River area of South Carolina. "Baptist work was started not by white Anglos, but people of color. I would dare to say that 99 percent of Southern Baptists in America don't have a clue about that."

Tippit has documentation verifying his heritage and his family's contributions to Baptist history. Their names are listed in the 1810 U.S. Census, Tippit said, as free persons of color.

"I've had this burden for a center for spiritual awakening to really bring the vision for spiritual ... revival to this generation of young people, because I think we've lost a lot of our history and a lot of our ... understanding of where we come from as a people in this country," Tippit said. "And along with that I realized... most people have never heard of Joseph Willis -- a man of mixed race who came here, was born of a Cherokee slave.

"The first arrow shot across the Mississippi River to bring the Gospel was a man of color, a person born as a slave, and it was people of color who joined to start these churches," Tippit said. "Southern Baptists have a rich, rich heritage that most of us are not even aware of."

Tippit would like to see the United States transformed by a great awakening reminiscent of the late 18th- and mid-19th centuries.

"One of the characteristics of the Second Great Awakening is that it was very egalitarian. In the Second Great Awakening ... the brotherhood in Christ was stronger than how much wealth you had," Tippit said. "You look in the minutes of those early churches Joseph Willis started, you have people of all races.

"And then you find that as the Second Awakening began to wind down, they lost that and there was segregation in the churches. That spoke to me to say, 'We've lost our sense of history. We've lost our sense of who we are,'" Tippit said. "A lot of the problems we face today, in our culture and in our world, are just because we've lost the sense of who we are."

Institute director Rod Masteller said Louisiana College is developing a repository for online study, will sponsor symposiums and is partnering with several likeminded groups to strategically encourage revival. The school hopes to equip about 10 core pastors to teach others to pray for spiritual awakening.

"My conviction is that I don't think America can survive the moral collapse that we've experienced and that the only hope for turning it around is in our prayer life, in our purity and through a spiritual awakening," Masteller said, "and we believe that could very well come through pastors.

"I believe it's the nation's only hope. I am totally convinced that the biggest problem we have in America is a spiritual problem. That we've been so spoiled economically, blessed as we would call it financially," he said, "that we have neglected real surrender to our Lord through the Holy Spirit, and instead of being able to stand strongly, we've become weak and we've allowed our nation to fall into the hands of those who would not agree with our biblical worldview. And I am convinced the only hope, the only hope for America, if we are going to escape the judgment of God, is to return to Him and to His work, and that's what this institute's about."

The institute is archetypical Willis, said Randy Willis, who believes his ancestor's life of trial and fortitude will encourage pastors in evangelism today.

"It really dawned on me that this story could be used to inspire missionaries, to encourage people that are discouraged," Randy Willis said. "It's not to lift up Joseph Willis. I think the one driving force is the name of Jesus be lifted up. And if the name of Jesus can be lifted up through this story, then I'm all for this story getting out there.

"The life of Joseph Willis will draw people to Christ."

Diana Chandler is Baptist Press' staff writer. Get Baptist Press headlines and breaking news on Twitter (@BaptistPress), Facebook (Facebook.com/BaptistPress ) and in your email ( baptistpress.com/SubscribeBP.asp).

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