Helwys’ demand for religious freedom for all troubles some
Who was the first Baptist? Some think it was John the Baptist.
My nominee for the first Baptist who pretty much matches the present breed with that label is Thomas Helwys (ca.1550–ca. 1616).
We are profoundly indebted to Mercer Press, 1998, for bringing within reach of ordinary mortals A Short Declaration of the Mystery of Iniquity by Thomas Helwys, edited by Richard Groves.
Helwys, along with John Smyth, identified first with Puritans. Later he joined Separatists and then Anabaptists but after that established the first Baptist church. In the Mystery of iniquity, he sets out, for the first time in English, the notion of liberty of conscience as a stack pole theological concept, church-state separation as a basic belief.
Helwys, like Baptists today, used a modern English translation of scripture, gave power to all church members, saw civil government as ordained by God, allowed civil servants to be members of the church, practiced believer’s baptism and eliminated infant baptism. Thomas could probably join the Baptist church in your town.
He founded in 1612 the first Baptist church on English soil. It was the little book, however, that got him in trouble.
Mere toleration was the liberal idea regarding religious freedom, as it is yet in much of the world.
Helwys called for “universal religious liberty—freedom of conscience for all.” “Let them be heretics, Turks, Jews or whatsoever, it appertains not to the earthly power to punish them in the least measure.”
Helwys’ Baptist qualifications include his bundle of beliefs that are seen as a distinctly Baptist configuration:
His demand for religious freedom for all humankind—made in God’s image — troubled some Christians then and troubles some now.
His understanding of the church and of sin, his high view of scripture, his estimate of humankind, his theology in the strictest sense of the word make him a candidate for Baptist No. 1.
In the context of his time, he crafted a confession of faith that collected key concepts still Baptist. His emphasis upon a religion that was distinct from the state, his juxtapositions with tangible alternatives gave shape to being Baptist. Other expressions of Christianity had multiple authorities. With Helwys scripture rules. Some had external religiosity. Helwys held high inner devotion. There were those who could accept some measure of coercion in religion. For Helwys, faith had to be voluntary to be vital.
This little book may well be the defining Baptist document. In fact, one key phrase fixed Helwys’ fate. He wrote, “The king is a mortal man and not God, therefore, hath no power over ye immortal souls of his subjects, to make laws and ordinances for them and to set spiritual Lords over them…”
That king, the same King James whose name is in the front of your Bible, had that first Baptist jailed and killed. Church-state separation dearly bought.
December 1998/January 1999