From the time the French established Louisiana in 1699 until the U.S. took control in 1803, Catholicism was the colony’s official religion, and no others were allowed. To secure a land grant during the Spanish period, one even had to convert to Catholicism, although that requirement was often a mere formality.
Of all the changes that were in store for native inhabitants after the Louisiana Purchase, few were more revolutionary than having to tolerate the horde of Protestants who began flooding into the territory.
The Baptist Church was the largest of the Protestant denominations that established churches in Louisiana, and its missionaries first entered illegally during the Spanish period. An African-American named Joseph Willis led the way.
Willis was born a slave to an Indian woman and white planter in North Carolina but later acquired his freedom and fought in the Revolutionary War with Francis Marion (the role-model for Mel Gibson’s character in the movie “The Patriot”). After the war, Willis was swept up in the Baptist movement and traveled west to preach the gospel.
Usually walking barefooted, Willis arrived in Louisiana around 1800 and four years later delivered the first Protestant sermon west of the Mississippi River when he spoke to a group of people at Vermilionville (modern-day Lafayette). When local Catholics drove Willis out of the area, he fled to Bayou Chicot in Evangeline Parish.
In 1812, two Baptist churches were started in Louisiana. Half Moon Bluff Baptist Church on Bogue Chitto in Washington Parish was the first, followed by Cavalry Baptist Church, which was begun by Willis on Bayou Chicot. Cavalry is still in existence today.
The Methodists followed closely behind the Baptists, and a Methodist Church was built near Fort Miro (Monroe) in 1807. Lorenzo Dow was probably the first Methodist minister to enter Louisiana.
In 1803, Dow crossed the Mississippi River at Natchez and began preaching around Vidalia. Known as “Crazy Lorenzo,” he was a unique figure in Louisiana history. Born in 1777 in Connecticut, Dow became one of America’s most famous ministers who held church services in the U.S., West Indies, England, and Ireland.
Dow sometimes would leave his Connecticut home without warning to become an itinerant preacher. Once, he suddenly told his wife, “I shall return in a year” and walked out and remained gone for twelve months. When his wife died, Dow buried her standing up in the grave because he said it would make it easier for her to ascend to heaven.
Dow had a haggard, weather-beaten look about him and sported a six-inch red, dusty beard. Although he was known to give four-hour-long hell-fire and brimstone sermons, people always gathered to hear him speak. On one occasion, Dow stopped at a remote location, jumped on a stump, and announced that he would preach there at 2:00 p.m., six months from that day. Six months later, a large crowd gathered and Dow showed up.
On another occasion, Dow suddenly slammed his Bible shut with a bang after a long sermon and without saying another word jumped out a church window onto his waiting horse and rode away to his next service.
The Episcopal Church was established in New Orleans by 1805 and grew rapidly when Leonidas Polk was appointed Louisiana’s first bishop in 1841. Polk increased the number of churches from four to thirty-three and personally established St. John’s in Thibodaux, Christ Church in Napoleonville, the Church of the Ascension in Donaldsonville, the Church of the Holy Communion in Plaquemine, and Trinity in Natchitoches. He also helped establish the University of the South in Sewanee, Tennessee. Polk was a graduate of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point and was killed in the Civil War while serving as a Confederate general.
Early pioneers in Claiborne Parish established Louisiana’s first Presbyterian Church around 1819. North Louisiana settlers were pretty open-minded, however, when it came to church buildings. Large tracts of land were sparsely settled and it was often difficult for each denomination to maintain its own church. As a result, communities frequently pooled their resources and built one community church that the different denominations took turns using.
Dr. Terry L. Jones is professor emeritus of history at the University of Louisiana at Monroe who has received numerous awards for his books and outdoor articles.