Thank the Baptists for Freedom of Religion

The Preparation of Thomas Helwys

Thomas Helwys was born in England around 1550. His father was a country gentleman, his uncle, Geoffrey Helwys, was a merchant who had served as an alderman and sheriff of London, and his cousin, Gervase Helwys was knighted by King James in 1603 and later became lieutenant of the tower of London. Thomas was educated at Gray’s Inn in London, a prestigious school of law and a place of general education for the sons of gentlemen and nobles.

Helwys completed his study at Gray’s Inn in 1593 and returned to Broxtowe Hall near Nottingham to live the life of a gentleman. In 1595, he married Joan Ashmore and they had seven children over the next twelve years. The family was actively involved in the Puritan community of the day and their house became a place where visitors often came to discuss questions of religion. Over time, Helwys became close friends with John Smyth and soon Thomas and Joan became members of Smyth’s congregation in Gainsborough.

In 1607, the High Court of Ecclesiastical Commission took action against the independent churches in Gainsborough and Scrooby. Thomas Helwys seems to have escaped and made his way to Holland. He left his wife and children in England, probably assuming that they would be safe. However, Joan was under arrest early in 1608. When brought to the court, she would not yield to take the oath demanded by the court and was returned to the prison. No records have been found of her leaving prison, but the standard judgment of the time would have been banishment after three months of imprisonment.

Thomas Helwys settled in Amsterdam as part of the congregation led by John Smyth. During these years in Holland, John Smyth became convinced that scriptural baptism was for believers and not for infants. That is, he became a Baptist. Helwys and the small congregation there agreed and went along with Smyth. However, when Smyth began to move toward full Mennonite doctrine, Helwys and about ten others refused to go along. In 1611, Thomas Helwys wrote the earliest of the modern Baptist confessions of faith made up of 27 articles and called it A Declaration of Faith of English people remaining at Amsterdam in Holland .

Helwys continued to write. In June of 1611, he wrote a 24 page pamphlet entitled, A short and plain proof, by the word and works of God, that God’s decree is not the cause of any man’s sin or condemnation: and that all men are redeemed by Christ; as also that no infants are condemned . A third book was written to address the differences between himself and the Mennonites. The fourth and final book written by Helwys was completed late in 1611 or early in 1612. It was called A Short Declaration on the Mystery of Iniquity.  

About this time, Helwys became convinced that he was wrong to run from the persecution awaiting him in England. He sailed across the North Sea with his manuscript on the Mystery of Iniquity in hand. He returned to England not long after Edward Wightman, a Baptist, became the last person in England to be burned at the stake for heresy (executed April 11, 1611). Early in 1612, he found a publisher for his book and dedicated a copy of it to King James in his own hand. This presentation copy is still preserved in the Bodleian Library. It is one of four surviving copies. It seems that King James’ response to his copy of the book was to imprison Thomas Helwys and forget about him. Although nothing much is known of Helwys beyond this imprisonment, records show that he was deceased by 1616.

The Mystery of Iniquity

So, what was this Mystery of Iniquity that likely cost Thomas Helwys his life? The title is taken from 2Thessalonians 2:7, which states, “For the mystery of iniquity doth already work: only he who now letteth will let, until he be taken out of the way.” In this book, Helwys dealt with various prophetic passages. He identified the first beast of Revelation, chapter 13, with the Roman Catholic Church. The “hierarchy of Rome expounds the scriptures, makes laws, canons, and decrees, and binds all men’s consciences to obey, forcing them thereunto by excommunication, imprisonment, banishment, death, and none may examine the power, authority or warrant thereof by the scriptures, but all must be received for holy and good, because the hierarchy of Rome say in words they cannot err.”

He then identified the second beast of Revelation with the Church of England because it attempted to compel the people to worship the image of the first beast. The ceremonies, the vestments, the surplice, the cross, the ecclesiastical courts, the titles, and many other things were simply a return back to the idolatry of the Roman church.

Freedom of Religion

Helwys then turned to the subject of the freedom of conscience. He recognized the proper place of the state and its authority in an exposition of Romans, chapter 13. But this power has its limits. The king does not have “power to command men’s consciences in the greatest things to be submitted to.” The king may rule over “the people’s bodies and goods,” but he has no right to “give his power to be exercised over the spirits of his people.” The people of God are a “heavenly or spiritual people, not of this world; and the King Jesus Christ, a heavenly spiritual king, requiring spiritual obedience.” The king cannot have “any power over this…people of God in respect of the religion to God, because our lord the king’s kingdom is an earthly kingdom.”

The king should therefore not use his sword to force conformity in religion. The people “should choose for themselves their religion, seeing they only must stand themselves before the judgment seat of God to answer for themselves, when it shall be no excuse for them to say, We were commanded or compelled to be of this religion by the king or by them that had authority over them.” When the king holds the sword against those who live for God according to conscience, he smites “the faithful, true, and loyal subjects of the king.”

But the freedom of religion proposed by Helwys went further. Of the Roman Catholics, he stated, “For we do freely profess that our lord the king has no more power over their consciences than over ours, and that is none at all.” This was a truly radical concept in a time when the Catholics were especially hated and feared. But Helwys did not quit here. He added, “For men’s religion to God is between God and themselves. The king shall not answer for it. Let them be heretics, Turks, Jews, or whatsoever, it appertains not to the earthly power to punish them in the least measure.”

Conclusion

Thomas Helwys completed his book with a plea to true believers to endure suffering and persecution rather than flee from it. He strongly urged them to faithful endurance even unto death. He encouraged those who had fled to “come and lay down their lives in their own country for Christ and his truth.” Whatever we believe of the wisdom of this course, we must certainly admire his courage and note that Thomas Helwys faithfully practiced what he preached.

The Mystery of Iniquity was the first exposition in the English language to fully express the concept of liberty of conscience. In it, Thomas Helwys did not plead for partial liberty, but liberty for all. Mystery of Iniquity became the first English treatise to declare the doctrine of universal religious liberty. Yet, Helwys was not just any man. He was a Baptist. Though these facts are heavily documented and are accepted by scholars as true, they are practically unknown today. Even Baptists do not know the significance of Thomas Helwys and the Mystery of Iniquity . If we do not return to our history and proclaim its significance, we will soon return to its trials and suffering. If we do not learn from history, we will live in its shadows once again.

References: 

  • A Short Declaration of the Mystery of Iniquity by Thomas Helwys, edited by Richard Groves, published by Mercer University Press (1998)
  • Smyth: The Se-Baptist and the Pilgrim Fathers by Walter H. Burgess, published by James Clarke & Co. in London (1911)
  • A History of the Baptists by Robert G. Torbet, published by Judson Press (1950)
  • A History of Anti-Pedobaptism by Albert Henry Newman, published by American Baptist Publication Society (1897)
  • A History of the English Baptists by A. C. Underwood, published by The Carey Kingsgate Press Limited (1947)
  • The History of the English Baptists by Thomas Crosby, published in London (1738), republished by Church History Research & Archives (1979)
David Reagan

Daily Proverb

Proverbs 21:5

The thoughts of the diligent tend only to plenteousness; but of every one that is hasty only to want.