The Importance of Thomas Helwys
by David Oliver
The names William Bradford and William Brewster are familiar to Americans who know the story of the Mayflower pilgrims. These men led a daring group of British separatists across the Atlantic Ocean to settle an untamed wilderness in search of religious liberty. They were not seeking expansive estates or material prosperity. They wanted to live their lives free from the tyranny of a government that demanded the faith of all its subjects be in compliance with a single state church.
An often-overlooked detail in the story of the Mayflower pilgrims is the fact that they did not sail for the New World from England, but rather from the Netherlands. Several leaders of this separatist group from north central England had been imprisoned over matters of religious conviction. After their release, the local magistrate ordered them to leave the area. Knowing that the same persecution awaited them in any British municipality, they determined to flee to Holland. It was from there that this group later ventured forth to what is now America.
Among the separatists sailing from Britain to Holland was Thomas Helwys. Helwys was a wealthy barrister whose law practice coupled with an inheritance he had received enabled him to act as an early benefactor for the Mayflower pilgrims. His financial aid allowed these people to afford an otherwise impossible journey.
However, Helwys did not accompany the pilgrims onto the New World. He held a growing conviction that the practice of infant baptism was unbiblical. This created a disagreement between himself and the rest of the pilgrims. As well, he did not believe that venturing far off from Europe was the proper course of action. He decided instead to return to England and attempt to be persuasive for the cause of religious liberty. Thomas Helwys eventually founded what many historians believe to be the first Baptist church in England.
Before Helwys departed for Holland, he had written what became an influential book entitled, A Short Declaration of the Mystery of Iniquity. This curious title comes from the New Testament book of II Thessalonians chapter two in which the apostle Paul writes of the activity of the devil in the world. Helwys identified the government’s coercing of men’s consciences in the area of religion to be part of the devil’s work. This book was one of the earliest arguments for religious liberty in the English language. Because his writings were considered treasonous, Helwys’s property was confiscated by the government, and he was eventually confined to the Newgate Prison. He died in 1616, still incarcerated, due to the hardships of prison life.
In the conclusion of his brilliant survey of the Christian influence in the development of religious liberty, Liberty in the things of God, historian Robert Wilken observed, “Of the many persons who make an appearance in this book, as I looked back, one who stands out is Thomas Helwys.” (p. 180) The reason Helwys stands out is that in a time and place where liberty of conscience was almost unknown, he wrote that “men’s religion is between God and themselves. The king shall not answer for it. Neither may the king judge between God and man.” Helwys even advocated for the freedom of those with whom he disagreed. “Let them be heretics, Turks [Muslims], Jews, or whatsoever. It appears not to earthly powers to punish them in the least measure.”
The Bible’s teaching about individual accountability before God is the fountain from which springs the principle of religious liberty. Helwys simply applied biblical truth in a way that now seems obvious. In his day, it was anything but obvious. Though he died with few followers, Helwys’s writings had a revolutionary impact on the Baptist understanding of the role of government in religion. Due in large part to the influence of later Baptists, these principles eventually found their way into the Bill of Rights in the United States Constitution. We live in a nation in which the establishment of a state church is prohibited, along with any government infringement on the free exercise of religion. Thanks for this is due in large part to a man whose name you probably had never before heard – Thomas Helwys.