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When did Joseph Willis First Preach in Louisiana?
Joseph Willis preached the first Gospel sermon ever preached by an Evangelical west of the Mississippi River. He was the first Evangelical and Baptist Foreign Missionary west of the Mississippi River and on April 30,
1803 (the date of Louisiana Purchase) became Louisiana's first Evangelical and Baptist Home Missionary.
When Joseph Willis crossed the mighty Mississippi River, on a mule, into the Louisiana Territory the Code Noir, the "Black Code", ruled the Louisiana Territory. This decree originally from from King Louis XIV, in 1685, regulated the condition of slavery and the activities of free people of color. The Black Code was introduced in the Louisiana Territory in 1724 and remained in effect, by law, until the Louisiana Purchase on April 30, 1803.
It also restricted religion to Roman Catholicism, forbidding the exercise of any other religion. It included a provision that all slaves must be baptized and instructed in the Roman Catholic religion and only Catholic marriages would be recognized. Jews were forbidden to even reside there. In reality the Black Code was a hindrance to the preaching of the Gospel for many decades after the Louisiana Purchase, in 1803.
In January 1797, the governing authorities issued regulations that made it mandatory for children of non-Catholic emigrant families to embrace Roman Catholicism and also forbade the coming of any ministers into the territory except Roman Catholics. Joseph Willis defied this most terrifying rule of law by traveling as far south as Vermilionville (Lafayette), Louisiana, preaching the Gospel. After being warned of an approaching angry Catholic mob, he had to flee Vermilionville so quickly he did not even have time to put on his shoes.
The exact date that Joseph preached in the Louisiana Territory west of the Mississippi River is not known, but it was before October 1, 1800; the date Napoleon secured the Louisiana Territory from Spain. The most likely year would have been 1798.
There are three facts that support the above statements:
1) In 1813, historian David Benedict wrote in his book "A General History of the Baptist Denomination in America and Other Parts of the World,"
".Joseph Willis. has done much for the cause, and spent a large fortune while engaged in the ministry, often at the hazard of his life, while the State belonged to the Spanish government." That would place Joseph Willis in Louisiana before October 1, 1800. David Benedict was a contemporary of Joseph Willis and wrote his book only a few years after Joseph Willis first preached west of the Mississippi River.
2) W. E. Paxton records the results of Joseph Willis' first trip to the Mississippi River, in 1798, in "A History of the Baptist of Louisiana, from the Earliest Times to the Present" (1888), ".They sought not in vain, for soon after their return they were visited by William Thompson, who preached unto them the Gospel of our God: and on the first Saturday in October, 1798, came William Thompson, Richard Curtis and Joseph Willis, who constituted them into a church, subject to the government of the Cole's Creek church, calling the newly constituted arm of Cole's Creek, 'The Baptist Church on Buffaloe [sic]." This church was located near Woodville, Mississippi, near the Mississippi River. Joseph returned for his family by 1799, but it would seem likely he might well have made a trip across the Mississippi River into the Louisiana Territory before this date since this is where he returned with his family. And, family tradition says he first crossed the Mississippi River in search of a Willis Perkins before returning to South Carolina for his family.
3) Joseph sold all his property in South Carolina in 1799 and is not found there in the 1800 South Carolina census.
In violation of the Code Noir, the "Black Code", and at the risk of his life Joseph Willis preached the Gospel West of the Mississippi even before Lewis and Clark began their historic journey by traveling up the Missouri River in May of 1804. He preached Jesus west of the Mississippi almost a decade before Abraham Lincoln was born.
Joseph Willis preached the Gospel of Jesus Christ west of the Mississippi River between 1798 and 1800. This would qualify as the first sermon ever preached by an evangelical minister west of the Mississippi River. He was the first Evangelical and Baptist Foreign Missionary west of the Mississippi River and on April 30, 1803 (the date of Louisiana Purchase) became Louisiana's first Evangelical and Baptist Home Missionary.
~ Randy Willis