The Life and Writings of Thomas Helwys (ed. Joseph Early)
Through history, Christians have followed and taught God’s Word faithfully in their various contexts. While some are more familiar than others, countless stories remain yet untold. One such example is the sixteenth-seventeenth century, General Baptist, Thomas Helwys.
Many Baptists know very little, if anything, about Helwys, despite his significant contributions to their heritage. Among his contributions are religious liberty, general atonment, and believer’s baptism. To illuminate this heritage, Mercer University Press has released a much-needed volume about Helwys and his teachings, entitled The Life and Writings of Thomas Helwys. In this essay, we will offer an overview of the text.
Thomas Helwys: His Life
Written by volume editor Joseph Early, Jr., section one offers a history of Helwys. This account begins with the English Reformation and establishment of the Church of England. Although Anglicanism represented a clean break from Roman Catholicism, still some Protestants did not believe that the church had reformed itself enough. This group, known as Puritans, hoped to “purify” the church by introducing further reform. Within this group developed yet another group, known as the Separatists; they believed that the church was beyond reform, and concluded it necessary to “separate” permanently from the church. It is within this context that Helwys lived and ministered.
The son of Edmund and Margaret Helwys, Thomas Helwys (c. 1575-1616) was born into wealth family in England. When his father died, Helwys inherited the family estate, Broxtowe Hall. To learn to manage the estate, he began studying law at Gray’s Inn in London (1593). Though a faithful Anglican, it was during this period that he was introduced to Puritanism and Separatism. Upon concluding his studies, Helwys returned home to manage Broxtowe Hall; and by this time sympathetic toward the Puritans, he allowed them to hold worship services there. Through these gatherings, Helwys met John Smyth (c. 1570-1612) and embraced Puritanism.
After several years, Helwys and Smyth embraced Separatism, believing the Church of England beyond repair. Smyth began pastoring a church in Gainesborough, Nottinghamshire; Helwys was a member. However, the congregation fled to Amsterdam, Holland fearing persecution when King James I assumed the throne (1603). While in Amsterdam, Helwys and Smyth adopted the doctrine of believer’s baptism. However, Smyth eventually adopted the doctrines of the Dutch Waterlander Mennonites also, resulting in Helwys (and approximately a dozen congregants) separating from Smyth and returning to England. In 1612, they established the first Baptist church in Spitalfields, London, England.
Thomas Helwys: His Writings
After offering a brief historical overview of the times and man, section two of The Life and Writings of Thomas Helwys includes Helwys’ actual writings, which contains several books, treatises, and letters.
a. A Short Declaration of the Mystery of Iniquity (1612)
A Short Declaration of the Mystery of Iniquity is a four-volume work in which Helwys addresses issues like including church government, religious liberty, and believer’s baptism. In Book One, Helwys criticizes the unbiblical practices of Roman Catholic and Anglican Churches. For example, they made certain prayers necessary for repentance, and they accepted fees for people to avoid excommunication. Helwys also disagrees with their hierarchical church government. Helwys bids them to come and examine the biblical texts for themselves.
In Book Two, Helwys sets forth his doctrine of religious liberty. In so doing, he criticizes the king for usurping power which belongs otherwise to Christ, the individual, or the church. Helwys develops his argument from the proposition that there are two kingdoms, one physical and one spiritual. While the physical kingdom falls under the king’s jurisdiction, the spiritual kingdom falls under Christ’s. Characteristic of the spiritual kingdom, Christ does not compel obedience to Him, but leaves the choice to the individual. However, the king had assumed control of Christ’s kingdom by compelling his subjects’ obedience in matters religious. Against this Helwys suggests that the king extend religious liberty to his subjects. “Christ alone is the King,” writes Helwys . Eventually, the king would imprison Helwys in Newgate Prison for such rhetoric, where he would die in 1616.
In Book Three, Helwys criticizes the unbiblical practices of the Puritans. For example, they acquired their pastoral and teaching posts by ungodly means, such as bribery and vain flattery. In addition, they submitted to Anglican polity, which Helwys describes as “rebellious” and “ungodly.” Formerly a Puritan himself, Helwys criticizes these Puritans for not separating from the Anglican Church .
In Book Four, Helwys presents believer’s baptism. Written against the Separatists and Brownists, he bids them (a) to separate fully from the Church of England and (b) to abandon the practice of infant baptism. Though they had separated from the Church of England, these Separatists maintained that their baptisms were still intact. And though they believed the church a false one (as opposed to no church) they still believed it a church and hence their baptisms valid. Helwys rejects this false distinction and recommends they either embrace or else reject Anglicanism fully, but to not make a false distinction: “If a false God is no God, then a false church is no church of God, and a false baptism is no baptism of Christ” .
In addition, Helwys bids them reject their practice of infant baptism. “What warrant can be found for this?” asks Helwys . Distinguishing the old and new covenants, Helwys explains that the old, though sealed by circumcision, has been disannulled (Heb. 7:18). In its place, the new covenant is sealed by the Holy Spirit to regeneration and new life; and its symbol is baptism. Helwys concludes, “It is not in the power of parents to set this seal upon their infants, as it was in their power to set the sign of circumcision upon their flesh. Therefore, it is not required of them by the Lord” .
b. A Short and Plain Proof by the Word and Works of God that God’s Decree is Not the Cause of Any of Man’s Sins or Condemnation (1611)
In A Short and Plain Proof, Helwys explicates the doctrines of free will and general atonement. First, Helwys develops free will from the proposition that Adam manifested it in the Garden of Eden by eating of the forbidden fruit (Gen. 2:16-18). To conclude otherwise is to make God the author of sin: “God did not decree that Adam should sin. Therefore God was no author, actor, or moving cause in, or of the action of sin,” writes Helwys . Like Adam, all mankind has free will.
Second, since God did not decree that men should sin, Christ offers a general atonement for all of mankind. Further, if Christ’s atonement is particular, believers have no assurance of salvation, for they don’t know whether God decreed their salvation. Helwys concludes: “So a man’s soul comes to distress between fear and doubting…If you fall under such an estate and condition…where will your comfort be, in the mercies of God? Why? You do not know whether God has decreed to show mercy on you or not” .
c. An Advertisement or Admonition to the Congregations, which Men Call the New Fryelers, in the Lowe Countries, Written in Dutch and Published in English (1611)
In An Advertisement, Helwys challenges the teachings of the Dutch Waterlander Mennonites of Amsterdam and John Smyth. First, they were teaching that Christ’s flesh was celestial rather than human. Helwys defends Christ’s human flesh (and hence His full humanity) by appealing to Scripture. Second, they were teaching that government magistrates were “by their office and ministry debarred of salvation” , the implication being that an officer of the state cannot be saved. Helwys explains that this position is built on a misinterpretation of Jesus’ words (Mt. 20:25-26; Lk. 22:24-26; Mk. 10:42-43).
Third, they were abandoning corporate worship. Helwys argues that this disregards one of the Ten Commandments. Finally, they were teaching the doctrine of succession, which held that believers may only receive the ordinances from Mennonite elders. Helwys counters that this position is neither logical nor biblical. With each of these unbiblical teachings, Helwys posits that pride has led them astray. Characteristically, Helwys concludes by imploring them to earnestly search out the matter for themselves.
d. Other Letters and Documents
Several letters by Helwys are also included in this collection. Most significantly, “A Declaration of Faith of the English People Remaining at Amsterdam in Holland” (1611) is recognized as the first English Baptist confession. In this document, Helwys distinguishes his church from the church of Smyth and the Mennonites on the one hand, and the Calvinists on the other. In a letter on church order (1608), Helwys describes Separatist worship and explains why he chose to disassociate himself from them.
In another letter (1610) addressed to the Consistory of the United Mennonite Church in Amsterdam, Helwys recommends that they exclude Smyth and his followers from their community. Similarly, in “A Vindication of the Position Assumed by the English Baptists” (1610), Helwys explains his reasons for separation and disassociation with Smyth. In his “Confession of Faith of the ‘True English Church’” (1610), Helwys delineates further his church’s teachings and doctrines from those of Smyth.
Editor Joseph Early, Jr. has given a fine presentation of Thomas Helwys’ life and major works. While Helwys is still not well known among many, his contributions to Christendom are great. Indeed, Helwys has left his imprint on the theological tenor of the Baptist tradition and Evangelicalism as large.
 Joe Early, Jr., ed., The Life and Writings of Thomas Helwys (Macon, Georgia: Mercer University Press, 2009), 190.
Additional remarks from Helwys regarding religious liberty include the following:
“[T]he king’s sword cannot smite the spirits of men. If our lord the king will force and compel men to worship and eat the Lord’s Supper against their consciences, he will make his poor subjects worship and eat unworthily. In doing so, he compels them to sin against God, and increase their own judgments” (193).
And most famously:
“For men’s religion to God is between God and themselves. The king will now answer for it. Neither may the king be judge between God and man. Let them be heretics, Turks, Jews, or whatsoever, it does not appertain to the earthly power to punish them in the least measure. This is made evident to our lord the king by scriptures” (209).
 Against the Puritans’ claims that they didn’t want to break peace with the Church of England, Helwys writes, “Where you have learned to undergo sin for the sake of peace we do not know, but we are sure that you did not learn it from God” (231).
 Early, 255.
 Ibid., 274.
 Ibid., 283.
Additional remarks from Helwys regarding infant baptism include the following:
In this passage, Helwys distinguishes between the old covenant of the flesh and the new covenant of the spirit. Note has emphasis on belief: “The covenant is that men should believe and be baptized. There is not one word to commend them to baptize their infants and all their household” (278); and, “Therefore, the baptism of the New Testament must be a spiritual baptism of water and the spirit (John 3:5) of such a baptism infants cannot be baptized” (281).
In addition to appealing the new covenant, Helwys also posits that infant baptism is a profanation an otherwise sacred symbol:
“It is altogether impiety and wickedness, and a profanation of the holy ordinance of God to take in hand to administer it upon infants” (283).
 Early, 79.
 Ibid., 87.
 Ibid., 132.