Willis, a freedman from South Carolina, appeared in Louisiana as early as 1798. He was the son of an Englishman and a Cherokee slave. His first church mission failed, but he redoubled his efforts and was rewarded with a successful congregation in Opelousas, the seat of St. Landry Parish.
In 1810, Willis sent a petition to the Mississippi Baptist Association and requested ordination. He was ordained in 1812 by two Baptist laymen known only as "Hadley" and "Scarbough". He remained in Opelousas, held in high esteem by Baptists of both races, according to the historian of the American South, Joe Gray Taylor (1920–1987) of McNeese State University in Lake Charles.
- "Joseph Willis", A Dictionary of Louisiana Biography, Vol. 2 (1988), p. 853
- Taylor, Joe Gray. Negro Slavery in Louisiana
- O'Neill, Charles Edwards, et al. Louisiana: a History
- Gayarré, Charles. History of Louisiana