Monday, August 28, 2023

Calvary Baptist Church History Part 10

The Calvary Baptist Church in Bayou Chicot has the distinguished title as the "Oldest Baptist Church still in existence West of the Mississippi River."

In 1806, the Chicot Methodist Church was established, and it is likely it was the first non-Catholic congregation in that area.  It is still in existence as well.  The original two churches were about 300 yards apart when we moved there in 1949, but the Methodists moved to another location and built a new building that still stands and holds Sunday services.

We need to ask, with everything else that was built and established so many years ago and now gone, why are these two churches the only things that remain?

I think the answer can be found by going back to the very beginning.  To do that, I have drawn information from several sources.  Miss Mable Thompson gave a very concise history of both churches in her book, "Looking Back." I have also found information from various newspaper articles, the Baptist Message archives, and books on the history of Baptists in Louisiana.  The most comprehensive and interesting source though happens to be Randy Willis, the 5th generation grandson of the actual founder of Calvary Baptist Church, Joseph Willis.

Randy Willis has been collecting and publishing the history of his 4th great grandfather for over 40 years.  After seeing articles and references written by him, I bought one of his books.  I then contacted him regarding a newspaper article and he began sharing with me personal information regarding his relationship with Calvary Baptist Church.  He in fact, met and visited with my dad while he was in his last pastorate there.

It is mostly from Randy's compilations that I glean the following information about Joseph Willis.

His story actually begins long before Joseph was born. In the 1740's Joseph's father and his family of four boys and a daughter lived in the Chesapeake Bay area of Virginia.  If this sounds familiar, it is where the pilgrims first settled. In the early 1750's he moved his family to New Hanover, North Carolina.

It was here that Joseph's father, Agerton first bought property and became a very wealthy landowner, along with his brothers.  And it was on this plantation that Joseph was born to a half Cherokee slave girl.

In his book, "Twice a Slave", Randy tells in novel form how this might have come about. Being the romantic that I am, his version of Ahyoka being rescued and bought by Agerton Willis and taken to his plantation home where they fell in love, is exactly as I imagine this story beginning.

This meant Joseph was born into slavery.  In those days, anyone of mixed blood was called a "mulatto."  Being born to a slave Indian girl meant that Joseph was also considered a slave.  Even though he and his mother lived in the big house, he had no legal standing.

When he was a young boy, Joseph's mother, Ahyoka died, and his father when he was a teenager.  Prior to his death, Agerton wrote in his will that his son would inherit all his property and holdings, and when he became 21 would be emancipated.  However, Agerton's oldest brother, Daniel, executor of the will, refused to recognize the will and only allowed Joseph to retain a small portion of the land and the house.  However, he refused to free him and made him live in the slave cabins and work the land as a slave.

Having been forced to live with rejection by his father's family, Joseph dealt with a sense of not belonging anywhere, other than his father's home. As a young man, wanting to fight as Patriots against the British, Joseph and his friend Ezekiel left North Carolina and fought in the Revolutionary War under General Francis Marion, The Swamp Fox.  It was during this time that he became very good friends with two families living in the Pee Dee River swamp region in South Carolina, the Braveboys and the Richard Curtis family who would later play a significant role in assisting Joseph's early ministry.

There was also a young lady living in Pee Dee River region, who would later play into Joseph Willis's story (and ours) by the name of Fanny Taylor. She had a daughter, Delaney and lived with Gilbert Sweat, unmarried.

At some point after the war Joseph returned to his home and met Rachel who became his wife.  They had three children; Rachel died giving birth to the third.

Prior to Rachel's death, General John Willis, a Congressman from North Carolina and Joseph's first cousin by his Uncle Daniel, had Joseph declared a free man.

He later married Sarah and not much is known about her except she was of Irish background and gave birth to two of his children. 

His friend, Richard Curtis had moved to Natchez, Mississippi to preach the Gospel and it was he who encouraged and helped make it possible for Joseph to cross the mighty Mississippi and enter the unknown dangers of this wild, untamed Louisiana Territory in 1798.  It was under Spanish rule at that time. and no other Protestant preacher had ever dared to do what Joseph knew the Lord had called him to do.

In time, Joseph Willis found his way to Bayou Chicot.  It was on this initial visit that he met others like himself of mixed blood, Indians, Spanish, English, slaves, and Catholics. 

When Joseph entered the Louisiana territory, he fell under the dreaded Code Noir, the "Black Code."  Preaching the Gospel violated this decree's prohibitions against all religions except Catholicism. This did not stop Joseph Willis as he ventured into these regions to preach the first Gospel sermon by an Evangelical west of the Mississippi River.

I love what Randy included in his novel about a conversation Joseph and Sarah might have had after his return.

"Do you think God would use an old Indian slave to bring revival to a foreign country?  Sarah's reply was, "This isn't about us.  Louisiana isn't about us.  What we're about to experience is much bigger than being Indian or Irish.  This is about God's kingdom."

And this is why two churches still stand to this day over 200 years later.  It was never about Joseph Willis or Porter Lazenby, but all about God bringing lost people to a saving knowledge of Him and growing His kingdom.

It is believed that shortly after this trip, Joseph's wife Sarah died of an unknown cause.  Losing two wives within six years was very difficult for Joseph, but it didn't keep him from the desire to fulfill the dream God had given him years earlier and that he had shared with both wives.  That was to preach the gospel in what would later be Louisiana and specifically Bayou Chicot.

A few years later he married Hannah and they added more children to the Willis family.  Hannah also shared Joseph's calling to the people of the Louisiana Territory.  Together with all their children, they made the long, arduous and dangerous journey into the Louisiana territory and to Bayou Chicot as early as 1802 where they purchased land.  A line in his obituary reads, "The Gospel was proclaimed by him in these regions before the American flag was hoisted here," meaning before April 30, 1803.

An interesting personal side note here is that the Willis family built their first home near Bayou Cocodrie, which is where our dad later built his fishing cabin.  (See Part 5 of our Lazenby Story)  Joseph faced his own ostracism there, but so did Porter Lazenby years later.

Chicot was becoming a thriving trade community by this time and other English-speaking people had begun to settle there.  Among those who followed Joseph were his friends from the Pee Dee Region of South Carolina, Gilbert and Fanny Taylor Sweat, Fanny's daughter Delaney and her husband, John Bass, also "a free man of color".  They would play a pivotal role in establishing churches in that area.

Joseph Willis, along with his friends met as a group of believers but were unable to establish a church in Bayou Chicot because of existing prejudice by his own denomination in Natchez, Mississippi, that prevented his being ordained as a Baptist pastor.

Three messengers from the Mississippi church traveled to Chicot and officially ordained the pastor, who immediately and officially constituted the Calvary Baptist Church in Bayou Chicot on November 13, 1812 with six members including the Sweats and Basses.

The original Calvary Baptist Church building was built on land donated by Gilbert and Fanny Sweat.  Delaney and John Bass helped organize another of the churches, perhaps in the Cheneyville area.

There is an interesting line in Miss Mable's book that tells us that a Delaney Bass at some point married Greene Whittington and had seven children, one of whom is a direct ancestor of my brother-in-law, and Gingie's husband, Thomas Whittington.  This Delaney Bass Whittington is the granddaughter of Gilbert and Fanny Sweat who followed Joseph Willis from South Carolina.

Some historians recognize Joseph Willis as "the father of the Baptist religion in Louisiana" for having planted this, the first Baptist Church west of the Mississippi River. Louisiana had barely been a state seven months and was in turmoil when this church was founded.

There was more turmoil on the horizon that also affected this part of the country.  Great Britain did not consider the Louisiana Purchase legally valid, and Congress had declared war on Great Britain about five months earlier to start the War of 1812.  

Ezekiel O'Quinn, Joseph's long-time childhood friend would later follow Joseph to Louisiana as the second Baptist minister west of the Mississippi River.  He was the first pastor of one of the churches Joseph started, Beulah Baptist Church in Cheneyville.

In 1845 Thomas Keller donated one acre of land for a new building.  It is on this same plot of land that the current church stands.

On October 31, 1818, O'Quinn, Joseph Willis and others who had followed Willis to this land, created the Louisiana Association of Baptist Churches at Beulah Baptist Church in Cheneyville, made up of five churches founded by Willis.  It is believed Willis was elected as moderator.  It was out of this organization that the Louisiana Baptist Convention was later established in 1848.

When our father, Porter Lazenby, many years later was serving on this associational board, they continued to meet at Beulah Baptist Church.  Don't you just love history!

Joseph Willis pastored the Calvary Baptist Church for at least 34 years and went on to plant twenty churches in Louisiana.

Joseph Willis was not content to stay only in Bayou Chicot but knew the Lord was leading him to venture into more dangerous and unknown territory known then as "No Man's Land" along the Louisiana and Texas border.  It was known at that time as the most horrible, dangerous place and a completely lawless land.  It was not Spanish or American but a territory where outlaws lived and ruled.  It was to this land that mixed people groups made up of Blacks, Creoles, and Indians lived.  Choctaw Indians living in Bayou Chicot escaped to this land rather than be sent to Oklahoma.  The people came to be called "Redbones."

While serving as pastor of the Calvary Baptist Church and also founding numerous churches and congregations in the south-central part of the state, Willis made frequent trips to this neutral zone to the west.  Oddly, he found people just like himself there, mixed blood, and yes outlaws like Jim Bowie, famous for his knife as well as fighting to defend the Alamo.  He was a slave trader and later a neighbor of Joseph Willis.

Again, let me quote something from Randy Willis's book that could very well express what Joseph might have felt:

"There are runaway slaves there.  I was a runaway slave.  I know how they feel.  That's when I met Jesus.  There are Indians who live there.  I'm Indian.  There are outlaws roaming about those woods, I was an outlaw when I came to Louisiana in 1798.  I preached when the Black Code forbade it.  I know these people.  I can reach them.  God's created me for this moment."

It was not a "stinking hell" as some had described this land to Joseph Willis.  Instead, it became his home.  He believed that one day, God would turn this forsaken land into His "holy ground".  It was to this area that Joseph Willis eventually moved his family and where many of his descendants still live and where he is buried.

When we lived in Pine Prairie, our family made many trips to Oakdale just west of us.  We had friends there, did shopping and enjoyed the ice cream and Drive-in movie.  One of the things we quickly learned was to recognize a "Redbone."  Yes, they were a mixed group of people and we thought were to some extent to be avoided.  They looked different, spoke differently, but I never knew about their history.  I accepted the stigma that seemed to be applied to them.  Oakdale was on the edge of what had been "No Man's Land."  We played basketball against schools that had been established in that territory.  I do remember thinking that the girls were all very pretty and I envied them their beautiful olive skin.  Yes, even after all those years, there was still prejudice and I never questioned it.

That is why it is crucial to not forget who and what came before us.  To not forget what brought us to the point that our history affects our present and our future.  Without knowing, without looking back and seeing how God has worked in our past, we cannot truly see our present.  Neither can we see how He wants to use our future.

After overcoming insurmountable obstacles, Joseph blazed a trail for others for another half-century that changed American history. Joseph Willis's life is a story of triumph over tragedy and victory over adversity! Known lovingly as the "Apostle to the Opelousas" and "Father Willis," his accomplishments are still felt today.

He went on to marry a fourth time and fathered a total of 19 children, two of whom died at an early age.  His youngest, Aimuewell, was born on May 1, 1837 when Joseph Willis was 79 years old.

Joseph Willis passed away and went home to Jesus on September 14, 1854 and is buried at Occupy Baptist Church in Rapides Parish, which he planted in the former neutral zone.  At the time of his death Joseph had 28 grandchildren and 17 great grandchildren.  He died at the age of 100.

Many of his descendants followed his example and went into the ministry, and continue to leave a legacy that Joseph Willis began when he crossed into the Louisiana Territory in 1798.  There are churches all over Louisiana; there are families strong in their faith; there is still a small church in Bayou Chicot, Louisiana with doors open for anyone who seeks the kingdom of God because of this man who was proud to be "Twice a Slave".

In 1987 the church celebrated it's 175 years of existence.  Daddy was on the program and it was interesting to see that I was supposed to sing.  Miss Mable, in writing about this milestone explained that I could not be there due to illness.  I have no recollection of that, but do know for some reason I wasn't there.  In 2012 there was again a large celebration that marked the church's 200th year.  Again, for some reason neither I nor my sisters attended; however Randy Willis and the co-author of "Twice a Slave", Sammy Tippitt (also a descendant of Fanny and Gilbert Sweat) did attend.

Today, sadly the parsonage that our parents called home for 28 years is empty and the church is showing its age.  Oh the sad affects of time.  Hopefully, as long as there are believers in Jesus Christ in Bayou Chicot, the legacy of its founder, Joseph Willis, and all the pastors who followed and served Calvary Baptist Church and her members, will continue to be shared with future generations.

This concludes my recording of our family's story and the historical background of places we called home.  However, it has not been our story at all.  It has been God's story!  I trust as you have read these 10 accounts, it has been obvious to you that God was doing His work through our parents and hopefully He was able to use the Lazenby girls along the way.

As long as there are descendants of Porter and Laura Lazenby, their story will continue and it is my prayer that those who come behind will also give honor and praise to the God of ages whose story has been told through the generations.  May God continue to bless the legacy our parents left behind, and may He find each of us as faithful to our calling as He has theirs.

Randy Willis has been doing family research for over 40 years and has written several books about his 4th great grandfather.  I so appreciate all he has contributed to this account.  If you are interested in more information, his website is

Elizabeth "Libby" Day
Elizabeth "Libby" Day

Hello, My name is Libby. I enjoy reading good books, painting, blogging, spending time with friends and whatever my "Heart" leads me to do. Welcome to Beauty Without Within.

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