As I wrote Twice a Slave, I was forced to consume numerous documents on the life of Joseph Willis. One great truth jumped off the pages of those records, grabbed my heart, and flooded my soul – the power to forgive.
One of the first goals I needed to achieve in order to understand what Joseph went through was the creation of a timeline of his life. As I pondered the order of events, I was stricken by the double injustice he experienced. Slavery is an injustice by itself, but an even greater injustice was thrust upon him after his father, Agerton, died. He wrote in his will that Joseph would be emancipated and that he would inherit the majority of his property. Agerton Willis was most likely the wealthiest man in Bladen County, North Carolina and one of the wealthiest in the entire state.
After Agerton’s death, his brother, Daniel Willis, wrote the governor stating, “May it Please Your Excellency, I have a small favr. to begg If your Excellency will be pleased to grant it Viz. as my Deceas’d Brother Agerton Willis gave the graitest Part of his Estate to his Molata boy Joseph and as he is a born slave & not set free Agreeable to Law my Brothers heirs are not satisfied that he shall have it. I am One of the Exectrs. … DAN. WILLIS, SEN.
Basically, that document said that Daniel, the Executor of the will, refused to give Joseph the property because Joseph was still a slave. Joseph remained in slavery until the end of 1787. That’s very interesting because Joseph fought in the Revolutionary War under the command of General Francis Marion, The Swamp Fox. After the war, he returned to his own property and lived as a slave for several years.
He had been given his freedom, and he fought for the freedom of the United States. Yet, he was kept in bondage, and his inheritance was stolen from him. Imagine that you were the son of one of the wealthiest people in your state. Your father gives you his property and your freedom. Yet, close relatives, not only deny your rightful inheritance, but also keep you in slavery. How would you respond?
The evidence paints a portrait of Joseph as a man who harbored no ill feelings. Once he received his inheritance and his freedom, he was forced by law to leave the state and never permitted to return. He not only rejected all bitterness, but he also gave his life to proclaiming the love of God to all who would listen. He became a pioneer among Protestants/Evangelicals/Baptists. He drew from a river of grace that flowed from the cross.
Oh, the power to forgive! Oh, the grace that heals the deepest wounds! Oh, the unmerited favor bestowed on your worst enemies! Songwriters call it “amazing grace, wonderful grace, marvelous grace.”
As I survey contemporary Christianity, we would do well to remember the life of Joseph Willis and the river of grace from which he drank. There’s a river that flows from the throne of God. As the Scripture says, “Ho, everyone who thirsts, come and drink!” There’s freedom when you drink from that river!