A Historical Sketch of Thomas Helwys

Upon reading the mission statement of the Helwys Society, some readers have inquired about the origin of its name. Who is Helwys? Why is he important? Thomas Helwys (c. 1575 – c. 1616) was an English lawyer and theologian who holds an important place in American, Baptist, and Arminian history. A predominant theme that emerges from his writings is liberty. This is seen most clearly in his views on religious liberty, believer’s baptism, and general atonement. In order to fully appreciate Helwys’s impact in these areas, it is necessary to explore the historical context in which these views were couched.

In the late 1590s and early 1600s, Helwys affiliated with the Puritans and Separatists, two groups that were critical of the Church of England [1]. Having received his law degree in 1593, Helwys was affluent and consequently able to support these groups financially (in England and later in Amsterdam). In the early 1600s, he joined John Smyth’s Separatist congregation in Gainsborough, Lincolnshire [2].

However, this congregation (and other congregations like it) came under persecution when King James I assumed the throne in 1603. He believed in the divine right of kings and would not tolerate religious groups that caused discord in his kingdom. While the Puritans were causing discord within the state-sponsored Church of England, the Separatists were causing citizens to reject her altogether. Thus they began to receive heavy fines and persecution and, as a result, Smyth, Helwys, and the Gainsborough congregation fled in self-exile to Amsterdam.

While in Amsterdam, Smyth came under the influence of the Dutch Waterlander Mennonites. This created a tension between Smyth and several members of his congregation and, as a result, Helwys and about ten members of the Gainsborough congregation returned to England in 1611 [3]. By this time, Helwys had outlined a declaration that characterized the theology of the General Baptists. Evident from his writings, some of their teachings included the anointing of the sick with oil, believer’s baptism by immersion, feetwashing, general atonement, the laying on of hands, mankind’s free will, religious liberty, sola gratiasola fidessola scriptura, and the Trinity. It is from this movement that the historic Free Will Baptist faith has descended [4].

Religious Liberty

One theme that emerges from the writings of Thomas Helwys is religious liberty. His quintessential work on the subject is Mystery of Iniquity (1612), in which he argues that persons, irrespective of the governing body, should have the freedom to choose their own religion and denomination. (Such a position is to be expected from someone who was the recipient of state-sponsored persecution.) He believed that the king, “although a king, was but a mortal man and as a mortal man, though a king, had no authority whatever over the consciences of his subjects” [5]. He states in Mystery of Iniquity:

Christ is the head of his Church . . . Let it suffice the King to have all rule over his peoples, bodies, and goods; and let not our lord King give his power to be exercised over the spirits of his people . . . For men’s religion to God, is betwixt 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 power to punish them in the last measure [6].

Ultimately Helwys would pay with his life for his emphasis on the doctrine of religious liberty.  While his teachings on believer’s baptism and the atonement only questioned the religious leaders, his teachings on religious liberty questioned the political leaders. Helwys eventually died in 1616 at the Newgate Jail after King James had him arrested and imprisoned.

Some believers are concerned that America has forsaken her Christian heritage. However, it is upon the notion of religious liberty that America (not to mention the General Baptists) was founded. After all, it was the Puritans who landed on Plymouth Rock in 1620 to escape persecution for their religious beliefs. Article VI of the Constitution states that “no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States.” The First Amendment states, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion.” Justice Hugo Black summed it up nicely when he stated that “a union of government and religion tends to destroy government and to degrade religion” [7][8].

Believer’s Baptism

Just as Helwys is important in American history because of his emphasis on religious liberty, he is also important in Baptist history. A second theme that emerges from his writings is believer’s baptism, which is a deliberate act of identifying oneself with the Christian faith. This stands in contrast to infant baptism.

Unlike believer’s baptism, infant baptism does not require faith on the part of the individual (a child). Unable to find any Scriptural precedent for the doctrine, Helwys rejected it. He wrote, “Baptism, or washing with water, is the outward manifestation of dying unto sin and walking in newness of life (Romans 6:2-4); and therefore in no wise appertains to infants” [9]. Just as the historic Free Will Baptist faith has placed emphasis on the doctrine of religious liberty, it has also placed emphasis on believer’s baptism (and by immersion).

General Atonement

A third theme that emerges from Helwys’s writings is his belief in a general atonement for humanity. Writing against the Calvinist doctrine of limited atonement, he writes, “Where is now this conceived device that God should decree to leave and forsake some . . . The word of God hath not taught it” [10]. He continues:

God would have all men saved, and come to the knowledge of the truth (1 Timothy 2:4), and would have no man to perish, but would have all men come to repentance (2 Peter 3:9) . . . GOD is the author of no men’s condemnation, according to the saying of the Prophet (Hosea 13): “Thy destruction, O Israel, is of thy self, but thy help is of me” [11].

With Calvinism, God has predestined the saved and the unsaved, according to His unknowable decree [12]. With Arminian theology, however, God has predestined the saved and the unsaved, according to His foreknowledge. This distinction, while subtle, is critical. The principal difference is the role of the human agent. In contrast to the Calvinist view of limited atonement, Helwys taught that redemption is available for all persons.

In conclusion, Thomas Helwys advocated the doctrines of religious liberty, believer’s baptism, and general atonement. Contained in these three doctrines is the overarching theme of free will. First, citizens should have the free will to choose their religious persuasion. It is not the prerogative of the governing body to make this decision for its subjects. Secondly, persons should only be baptized when they profess belief in the Gospel of Christ and are able to cognitively comprehend what this means. Finally humans are responsible free agents who have the capacity (by the enablement of the Holy Spirit) to accept the Gospel or not. It is in these doctrines that Americans, Baptists, and Arminians find a piece of their history; and it is in these doctrines that Free Will Baptists find their historic faith.

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[1] The Church of England’s founding has an interesting history. Married to Catherine of Aragon, Henry VIII desired that she give birth to a son. However, she was unable to bear a son. Henry believed she was at fault and thus wanted the Roman Catholic Church to grant him a divorce (or at least an annulment). When he failed to secure the divorce due to Pope Clement’s refusal, Henry VIII issued an Act of Supremacy (1534), thereby establishing the Church of England in order to get his divorce. In one of the great ironies of history, modern genetics has revealed that it is the male (Y chromosome) and not the female that determines the sex of the offspring.

[2] John Smyth (1570-1612) was reared in the Church of England. However, as his theology developed, he evolved from an Anglican Priest, to a Puritan, to a Separatist, to a Baptist. Smyth began preaching at the Separatist Church in Gainsborough, Lincolnshire in late 1607/early 1608.

[3] On a historiographical note, several opinions have been proffered regarding Helwys’s reason of return to England. First, some have conjectured that Helwys returned to England simply because of the growing tension between members in the congregation. Others contend that they increasingly felt guilty for fleeing persecution. Third, some argue that they felt guilty for not fighting for the cause of the religious liberty in England. By this time, Helwys had received word that Christians in England were burning at the hand of King James. Whatever their actual reasons for returning to England, Helwys did so in 1611.

[4] The general history of the Free Will Baptist movement, particularly in early America, is a very controversial matter. For the purposes of this essay—whether Free Will Baptists were descended from Benjamin Randall of the North, Paul Palmer of the South, or a little of both—the American roots of the Free Will Baptist faith will not be addressed. Rather this essay concerns only the Free Will Baptist heritage in the English General Baptist movement of the early 1600s.

[5] William R. Estep, Jr., “Thomas Helwys:  Bold Architect of Baptist Policy on Church-State Relations,” Baptist History and Heritage, Vol. XX, No. 3 (July 1985): 31.

[6] Thomas Helwys, A SHORT DECLARATION of the Mystery of Iniquity (1612).

[7]Engel v. Vitale, 370 U.S. 421, 431 (1962). Notwithstanding the fact that this was an unpopular case with a controversial holding, Justice Black followed in the tradition set forth by the Reformers and Helwys, viz., the government should not coerce or compel one particular religion or denomination over another.

[8] This section should not be read as suggesting that America was not influenced by Christian principles at her inception. A survey of early American history reveals just the opposite. Beginning in the 1970s, Donald Lutz and Charles Hyneman, who were curious about these different notions, analyzed approximately 15,000 political commentaries and writings from the Founding Era, which they defined from 1760 to 1805. Lutz published their findings in a 1984 paper entitled, “The Relative Influence of European Writers on Late Eighteenth-Century American Political Thought,” in which he stated that the Bible (even more than John Locke, Montesquieu, and Sir William Blackstone) was the most cited source during the Founding Era. By their calculations, 34% of all citations during the Founding Era came from the Bible. See The American Political Science Review, Vol. 78, No. 1 (Mar., 1984), p. 192. The evidence thus shows that Christianity helped shape many of the values, ethos, and laws in early America. However, it was these Christian principles that helped lead to the American value of religious liberty, which protects the right of any and all persons to practice what religion they deem fit.

[9] Thomas Helwys, A DECLARATION OF FAITH of ENGLISH PEOPLE Remaining at Amsterdam in Holland, Article 14 (1611).

[10] Ibid., A SHORT AND PLAINE Proof by the Word and Works of God that God’s Decree is Not the Cause of Any Man’s Sin of Condemnation. AND That all Men are Redeemed by Christ. As also, That no Infants are Condemned (1611)

[11] Ibid., A DECLARATION OF FAITH of ENGLISH PEOPLE Remaining at Amsterdam in Holland (1611).

[12] This statement deserves a small caveat. There are two types of Calvinism: supralapsarian Calvinism and infralapsarian Calvinism. Whereas the former teaches that God predestines the saved and the unsaved, the latter teaches that God predestines the saved, but not the unsaved. With either form, it is nonetheless “according to unknowable decree,” which is the main point for purposes of this essay.

For Further Reading on Free Will Baptist History:

Davidson, William F.  The Free Will Baptists in History.  Nashville:  Randall House Publications, 2001.

Pelt, Michael R. A History of Original Free Will Baptists. Mount Olive, NC: Mount Olive College Press, 1996.

Pinson, J. Matthew.  A Free Will Baptist Handbook.  Nashville:  Randall House Publications, 1998.

Author: Matthew Steven Bracey

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2 Comments

  1. A very interesting and informative read. I’m researching Ana Baptist and Baptist history and found just what I needed.

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  2. This was very well written. I was going back and doing some research on Helwys. This is a good summary.

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