Thomas Helwys, First Defender of Religious Freedom in the English Language

Thomas Helwys’ birth year is unknown, but he was born at the Helwys family estate at Broxtowe Hall in Nottingham, England. He was born to a family of means and after his father died in 1590, Thomas prepared himself to administer the estate. He studied common law at Gray’s Inn from 1592 to 1594, and then returned to Broxtowe Hall. He hosted several Puritan services at his estate, where he met John Smyth in about the year 1600. Helwys would find a friend in Smyth, and became a member of a congregation Smyth pastored in Gainesborough. In order to flee persecution from the Anglican church, Smyth, Helwys, and the congregation at Gainesborough left England and went to Holland in 1607. It was here that Smyth and Helwys formed a congregation which would adopt believer’s baptism in 1609, thus becoming the first known Baptist church.

Helwys would later split with Smyth over the issue of their sojourn in Amsterdam; Helwys believed their time in Amsterdam was temporary, while Smyth planned on staying. In the year 1611, once their split was final, Helwys authored a statement of faith and three books: Declaration of Faith of the English Church Remaining in Amsterdam, An Advertisement or Admonition unto the Congregations, Which Men Call the New Fryelers, in the Lowe Countries, A Short and Plaine Proof by the Word and Works of God that God’s Decree is not the Cause of Any Man’s Sins or Condemnation, and A Short Declaration of the Mystery of Iniquity.
In 1612, Helwys returned to England under the conviction that one is wrong to flee persecution. He established the first English speaking Baptist church in Spitalfields in the same year. Helwys was imprisoned at Newgate Prison once Mystery of Iniquity was read by James I, and died there in 1616.
Mystery of Iniquity, Book I sets the stage for Helwys’ appeal to the king to grant religious freedom to his subjects. He states that Scripture demonstrates that the first and second beasts of the Great Tribulation ought to be identified with the Roman Catholic Pope and Anglican Church hierarchy respectively. Due to their demands upon the people to believe and obey their own word or face punishment, these two dishonor Christ by assuming honor due only to Him. Book I challenges the reader who is truly spiritual to carefully consider how the Roman and Anglican authorities fit the biblical descriptions of the apocalyptic beasts, and to thus allow the Holy Spirit to guide them into the pure truth of Scripture.
Having established the sins of the Church hierarchies, and identified them as blasphemous, Helwys writes a direct appeal to James I in the name of religious liberty. In detail, he outlines the nature of kingly authority, how it is to be understood and applied as well as how it is not be understood. The king is owed total allegiance in temporal affairs, but in spiritual affairs, the king is a subject of Christ as all are. He enjoys no privilege to rule in the spiritual kingdom over which Christ rules supreme. Helwys also petitions the king to free his subjects from the oppression of the Anglican Church, which actively persecuted all who sought to relate to God according to the dictates of their consciences.
Helwys’ appeal to religious liberty is the first of its kind in the English language. It is also distinguished by the fact that Helwys calls for complete religious freedom, not only for members of dissenting Christian sects, but for every person no matter the object of their religious faith. In this, Helwys is truly revolutionary, because his particular call for religious liberty in 1616 is without precedent in the English language.
See Joe Early, Jr., The Life and Writings of Thomas Helwys, Early English Baptist Texts, ed. Rady Roldan-Figueroa and C. Douglas Weaver (Macon: Mercer University Press, 2009).

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