Devotions in Church History: Thomas Helwys

The Courage to be Different

Romans 6:3-4–Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.

As the water poured down John Smyth’s face, he looked at his congregation of 36 men and women. He had done something truly radical. He had baptized himself. After pouring a basin of water on his own head, he conferred the ritual to his friend Thomas Helwys. The rest of the congregation followed. Like Smyth, they were convinced that the only form of baptism proscribed in the New Testament was for those that have expressed faith in Christ as savior. The baptism they had received as infants in the Church of England was no baptism at all.

Strangers in a strange land

It was 1609. They were exiles. They found solace in that reality. It confirmed their conviction that the true church was a persecuted minority. They were foreigners–English men and women living in Amsterdam. Alongside the “Pilgrims” that would make their way to the shores of New England on the Mayflower, Smyth’s congregation was forced out of their own country because of their refusal to accept the authority of the Church of England. They found it deplorable that a man of such worldly passions as James I was head of the Church rather than Christ himself. They found refuge in Amsterdam.

Smyth and Helwys were English Separatists. Much like their Puritan counterparts, they believed the Church of England to be far too Roman Catholic leaning, far too unreformed. Like all the various branches of the Reformation, they sought to restore the church of the New Testament. By adopting believer’s baptism, this particular group of Separatists organized the first English Baptist Congregation. 

A parting of ways

Soon this small band of exiles began to splinter. Smyth became increasingly convinced that his self-baptism was problematic and that he and his congregation should join in with the Dutch Mennonites, who had similar views on Baptism. Helwys protested.  The Mennonites believed Christians could not serve in any military or magisterial capacity. They were total pacifists and sought to remove themselves from otherwise worldly society. Helwys, in contrast, was a moderately wealthy property owner and lawyer. He believed it much more important to impact society than to be isolated. More specifically, he believed in the possibility of a Christian magistrate and dreamed of a day where true believers would occupy places on government and extend religious toleration and charity to all in their land. 

Desiring to put his beliefs into practice, Helwys led a small group of followers back to London in 1611. This event marks the founding of the first Baptist church on English soil and the beginnings of the Baptists movement. While they started as a fledgling band of outlaws, they grew over the next several decades, particularly in the decade of the English Civil War (the 1640s).

A monumental book is penned

In 1612, a year after his arrival back in England, Helwys penned A Short Declaration of the Mystery of Iniquity, a work that would prove to be one of the most important in Baptist history. Apocalyptic images found in Daniel, Revelation, and II Thessalonians inspired Helwys. He wrote with a fervor that accompanied his belief that his “are the days of greatest tribulation spoken of by Christ”. He wrote with the passion of a man willing to die for his beliefs. Four years later he did. 

In Mystery of Iniquity, Helwys linked the work of the Antichrist with religious persecution. In doing so, he took a bold stand for religious liberty. “Kings,” he said, “cannot serve the Lamb and the beast”. Whereas the beast attempted to coerce all men in his service, the Lamb invited willing worship. In an era where kings were claiming divine right, Helwys asserted that James must realize that he is “but an earthly king, and he has no authority as a king but earthy causes”. (53) Helwys concludes this line of reasoning declaring: “Men’s religion to God is between God and themselves. The king shall not answer for it. Neither may the king be judged between god and man. Let them be heretics, Turks, Jews, or whatsoever, it appertains not to the earthly powers to punish them in the least measure”. (ibid)

Signing his own death

Hoping to convince James I of these unusual views on church and state, Helwys issued the king a copy of his book. The result was the opposite of the effect desired. James was not amused by any limitations on his sovereignty. He imprisoned Helwys. He died in prison in 1616. 

Scholars remember Mystery of Iniquity as the first book in the English language to advocate complete religious liberty. Helwys even defended the right of Muslims (as well as any other kind of heretic) to worship as they see fit. This was unprecedented! In doing so, he established a core Baptist doctrine—total religious liberty. Baptist would continue to not only argue against being persecuted but even against the persecution of others with whom they disagreed. Helwys’ arguments for religious liberty would have the most impact on Roger Williams who broadcast them in print in England and brought them to the British North American colonies. 

Our theological father

This first Baptist Congregation is known as a General Baptist Church because of their more Arminian theology. In the generations that followed, the Baptist movement would settle into Particular (Calvinist) and General (Arminian) Baptists camps. Specifically, Helwys’ followers asserted the doctrine that Christ died unequivocally for all. By embracing believers Baptism and an evangelical Arminianism, Helwys and company were swimming upstream against the dominant currents of Puritanism of his day. While their beliefs were rare in their own day, they are often taken for granted in Evangelicalism today. In this way, Helwys, who died in relative obscurity as he languished in prison, became the father of much of our own understanding of the Christian faith.

In studying the life of Thomas Helwys and the early Baptist movement one encounters an amazing story of courage–courage to stand against Bishops and Kings. We see the courage to be shaped by Scripture over and against all other pressures. Scripture compelled Helwys to break away from the Church of England, to reject infant baptism in favor of believer’s baptism, to modify the dominant Calvinist theology of his day, and eventually to return to his homeland and die for his convictions. Moreover, our own religious freedom is in no small way a consequence of his courage. 

Legacy and Prayer

Spirit, give us the courage to stand for truth at the expense of our comfort and safety. Like Helwys, we know we will not always see the fruit of our sacrifice. Give us confidence that you are in control of the results.

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David Lytle

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David Lytle

Current history teacher, former missionary and youth pastor, grieving widower, father of the three cutest faces in creation, and giddy husband of a radiant bride. I also sang "I'm too sexy" for karaoke once. There was a crowd. My only comfort is that phones didn't make videos back then.

One thought on “Devotions in Church History: Thomas Helwys

  • January 16, 2020 at 2:17 pm
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    Perhaps the best of your five historical articles, though they were all good: well-written, well-researched, and compelling. Helwys is certainly a forefather to Free Will Baptists. Thanks, David.

    Reply

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