ASSIST News Service

Baptists the world over are being encouraged to mark the 400th anniversary of the death in London’s notorious Newgate Prison of Thomas Helwys, one of their founders.

It was an obscure and unheralded demise at the time, and almost no-one noticed it except King James. But Helwys is now considered to have put the first argument for full religious liberty in English.

Thomas Helwys

"(Helwys) is among a number of Christian heroes coming under the spotlight with the 400th anniversary of the sailing of the Mayflower fast approaching. It is part of a campaign launched by a group called Pilgrims and Prophets to revive interest in outstanding Christians from the Nottinghamshire area which has witnessed events of great historical significance like providing the founding fathers of the United States who were hounded out of England for their radical Christian views and sailed for the New World in 1620."

Although stridently denouncing all Christian movements of the era but his own, he nevertheless championed the right to personal conviction, becoming a pioneer of religious tolerance.

Such a stand required immense courage that brought him into direct conflict with King James I who, like much of Europe at the time, believed the stability of the state depended on religious uniformity. The law required attendance at their local parish church of the entire population. And the sovereign believed in the "divine right of kings" through which he controlled not only their bodies, but also their souls.

Helwys, however, held that the king was due honor only on earthly, not heavenly matters, and is among a number of Christian heroes coming under the spotlight with the 400th anniversary of the sailing of the Mayflower fast approaching.

It is part of a campaign launched by a group called Pilgrims and Prophets to revive interest in outstanding Christians from the Nottinghamshire area which has witnessed events of great historical significance like providing the founding fathers of the United States who were hounded out of England for their radical Christian views and sailed for the New World in 1620.

Tours of relevant sites are now up and running with pilgrimages also following the trail of John and Charles Wesley, Hudson Taylor and others.

As to Helwys, while reserving the right to denounce the Church of England, the Puritans and even the Separatists of which he had been a part, he championed the cause of religious freedom and tolerance which subsequently spread throughout the Western world.

As far as he was concerned, even the Roman Catholics should be allowed to freely practice their faith, which put him way ahead of his time. He pointed out that Christ refused to force himself on anyone, but taught that the wheat and weeds should be allowed to grow together until the final arbiter of souls brings in the harvest while burning the chaff with unquenchable fire.

With politics and religion closely connected, the authorities were extremely wary of groups that ‘rebelled’ against the norm and dissenters were seen as potential enemies of the state, which was understandable as the Gunpowder Plot of 1605 - when Catholics tried to blow up parliament - was still fresh in the public memory.

Born in the Nottinghamshire village of Askham, near Retford, around 1570, Helwys trained as a lawyer and became part of the Separatist movement, which sought to distance themselves from the formality of the state church in a bid to restore the centrality of the Bible. And he mixed with those who subsequently became known as the Pilgrim Fathers, joining John Smyth at Gainsborough, just across the Lincolnshire border.

As these pilgrims came under increasing persecution for their beliefs, they escaped to Holland where religious tolerance was already being practiced. It was there in Amsterdam that, together with Smyth, the earliest Baptists emerged in 1609, and Helwys subsequently returned to England where, in 1612, he founded the nation’s first Baptist church - in Spitalfields, London.

His plea for religious freedom came in a book - A Short Declaration of the Mystery of Iniquity - usually considered to be the first argument for full religious liberty in English and specifically addressed to the King. Ironically, it was a vehement denunciation of virtually everyone else’s theological position.

Nevertheless, he defended the right of people to hold views with which he strongly disagreed. He was ready to share the liberty for which he asked with all his opponents, even though he saw it as his duty to convince them of their errors – but through reason and prayer, not physical force.

It was not for the King to take the place of God in determining the way the English people worship, Thomas wrote in what was essentially an argument for the separation of church and state. But the King responded by having him arrested and he was evidently martyred for his troubles.

It took nearly 80 more years before religious liberty finally arrived in England, but the seed had been sown. And though now recognised as a basic human right championed by the United Nations, barely a quarter of the world’s population actually enjoy its benefits.

The title page of Thomas Helwy's A Short Declaration

"It was not for the King to take the place of God in determining the way the English people worship, Thomas wrote in what was essentially an argument for the separation of church and state. But the King responded by having him arrested and he was evidently martyred for his troubles."

 

One of the big issues concerning the church-state relationship 400 years ago was whether a Christian could also be a magistrate, which demonstrates how in some ways things have turned full circle for believers in Britain’s so-called ‘post-Christian era’. State intolerance of Christian views is definitely on the rise, as cases have emerged of magistrates and other civil servants being forced to compromise with their faith and conscience, or lose their jobs - especially where state sanction of homosexual practice clashes with Biblical principles. Once more Christians are being pressured to conform to the state’s agenda, though it’s unlikely Helwys ever conceived of atheists in his plural society.

Whereas Smyth believed magistrates should only handle “civil transgressions, not meddle with religion”, Helwys took the view that magistrates “could punish the criminal whilst praying for his soul” and was effectively paving the way for the sort of Christian political involvement that made such a powerful impact on society through the likes of slave trade abolitionist William Wilberforce.

There are plans to commemorate the life of Helwys this autumn in Retford, the home town in the district of his birth. For more information contact [email protected].