As to the general history of Negro Baptists of Louisiana, according to Dr. W. E. Paxton, author of the history of white Louisiana Baptists, we must go back to 1804 and come forward. When more than half of our state was a wilderness, and there were only a few French settlements in the southern part on the Mississippi River, Bayou Teche, the prairies of the Opelousas, and the fertile bayou that threads the valleys of the Lower Red River, "there came into the state a Negro Baptist preacher, Bishop Joseph Willis, of Mississippi, but probably a native of South Carolina. This was in 1804, the next year after the Louisiana Purchase. Louisiana was in her infancy and not a single Protestant or Baptist Church within its bounds. The first Baptist doctrine in Louisiana was preached by this pioneer in November, 1804, at Vermillion, about 40 miles southwest of Baton Rouge in a day meeting. At night he preached at Plaquemine Brule. This preaching was done at the peril of his life, since he was both a Negro and a Baptist. At this time he was on a visit, and had not permanently settled. His labors, however, were successful, turning many from the error of their way. These converts were the first in Louisiana to begin marching under the flag bearing the triple declaration--"One Lord, one Faith and one Baptism."
Not being ordained he was unable to baptize his converts and organize the First Baptist Church of Louisiana at this time. After urging them, perhaps, to be strong and steadfast in the faith, he returned to Mississippi for ordination, and for other brethren to help him organize the First Baptist Church of the state. But to his surprise on reaching the church of his membership he found it pastorless, and the church, therefore, felt that it could not arrange and grant his request, although they desired to do so. They advised him to take his letter and unite with a church that had a pastor. This he did, but the church refused to ordain him, claiming that the Church of Christ might suffer reproach owing to the humble social condition of this Negro preacher. This was a heavy blow to the "Apostle of the Opelousas," as he was called, but he did not give up on account of unwavering faith in God, and the large amount of iron in his blood. How could he give up when he was under marching orders and had been told to go into all the world and preach the Gospel? Some prudent white friend advised Brother Willis to get a recommendation from the people among whom he had labored, and present it to the next meeting of the Mississippi Association. This he did in 1811, and the Association appointed two ministers, Bishops Thomas Mercer and David Cooper, to visit Brother Willis and his work in Louisiana. These two brethren were providentially hindered and failed to go. This Pioneer Preacher still stood undaunted, like Job, waiting for his change to come. His petition came before the Association the next year (1812), and two other white brethren were appointed to go and examine the colored brother's work, Elders Moses Hadly and Laurence Scarborough. Meanwhile Brother Willis had returned to his field of labor only to find those who had come to Christ through his preaching deceived and led off by a Methodist preacher, who had entered the field of Brother Willis and formed the converts into a society of methods at Plaquemine. Yet this Baptist hero was not discouraged, because he had preached the first New Testament doctrine, and made the first disciples in the state of Louisiana. By the time Elders Hadly and Scarborough arrived he had indoctrinated others, planted the Baptist flag, and was standing ready for ordination and organization. When they reached Bayou Chicot, in St. Landry Parish, one of the places where Brother Willis preached, there were five brothers and one sister whom they formed into a church, called Calvary, November 13th, 1812, thus organizing the first church in the state. These elders were also requested to ordain Brother Willis for their pastor.
The request was granted and the Lord blessed their labors by adding nine to the membership the following year. The work of these elders was approved at the next session (1813) of the Mississippi Association. Dr. W. E. Paxton, author of Louisiana Baptist History (white), and to whom we are indebted for above information, says concerning this pioneer: "The zeal of Father Willis, as he was 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. He extended his labors to Cheyneyville on Bayou Boeuff in the Parish of Rapides, some fifty or sixty miles higher up the country where many of his Mississippi acquaintances had settled, and among whom were some of the Bayou Chicot members. The history of Louisiana Baptists could not be written without mention of this brother (Joseph Willis), whose name occurs so often in connection with the oldest churches in the Louisiana Association." He was born in 1762 and died at Ten Mile Creek in Rapides Parish, September 14, 1854.
Another pioneer Baptist preacher of these times was Bishop D. H. Willis, grandson of Elder Joseph Willis. He was born on Bayou Boeuff in Rapides Parish, December 28th, 1817. At the age of 11 he was carried by his father to their new home on Calcasieu River in St. Landry Parish, a wilderness country, eight miles from the nearest white settlement. He stayed here nine years, attended school five months, and when 17 years old went to an Academy twenty miles from home, remaining only one month. Being blessed with his grandfather's push and pluck, he studied at every opportunity by the flickering light of pine knots and in this way prepared himself for the task of continuing the pioneer work so nobly begun by his grandfather in 1804. He married March 15, 1838, and in 1840 was converted and baptized into the membership of Occupy Baptist Church, which was then a member of the Louisiana Association. In 1847 he preached his first sermon, and in 1849, on Spring Creek Rapides Parish at the home of Elder Willis he was ordained to the gospel ministry by Bishops Joseph Willis, B. C. Roberts and John O'Quin. This young Baptist elder continued to grow in grace, and in the knowledge of God until he became a beacon light in those dark times. Notwithstanding he afterwards lost his sight, yet, Moses like, he pressed forward along the rugged road of those perilous times, crying aloud, "Repent, believe and be baptized."
This period of our General History extends from 1804 to the Civil War. Elder Willis and his grandson were the only Negro Baptist preachers of prominence during the first part of this period. During the latter part the Baptist work was carried on by white preachers who generally preached a sermon in the forenoon to white people and in the afternoon to the colored people. However, a Negro Baptist ministers would rise up occasionally among the slaves, and preach to them despite high water and patroles. And, too, there were a few free-born Negro Baptist clergymen in some parts of the state, especially in the towns and cities, who were sometimes permitted by the slave master to preach to the slaves.
Bishop Henry Adams was the most noted of this class of preachers. He labored as far back as 1837 with marked success. He was a man of education and ability. After leaving Louisiana he continued his labors as pastor of the First Colored Baptist Church, Louisville, Ky., where after accomplishing much for the Master, during twenty-five years of pioneer life, he fell asleep in Jesus. Further mention of the early work of Negro Baptists is not necessary here, since their work before and after the war, especially in New Orleans, will be taken up in the following chapter.
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