Religious Liberty (Part 1)

Religious Liberty (Part 1)

I love Baptist history. I have learned so much about my Baptist convictions through studying Baptist history. One such conviction is the principle of religious liberty or the idea that every man has the right to worship his God as he sees fit. This conviction is at the bedrock of the earliest Baptist movement. In this series of articles, I seek to introduce religious liberty as a Baptist conviction. I do not intend to provide an exhaustive treatment of the issue, but I do hope this short series of articles provides some context for Baptist ecclesial and political engagement. 

Thomas Helwys (born c.1550 - died c.1616)

Thomas Helwys is credited for founding the first Baptist church in England. Helwys left his home in England with John Smyth after deciding with Smyth that the Church of England was beyond reform. Smyth's congregation of Gainesborough arrived in Amsterdam, with Helwys, in 1607. The significance of Amsterdam is to be understood in the fact that Holland had no state religion. The separatist congregation was able to worship according to their convictions without the oppressive regulations of the state church in England, so long as they were not considered to be disruptive.

While in Holland, Smyth and Helwys arrived at the Baptistic conviction of believer's baptism, and in 1609, Smyth established the first Baptist church in existence by re-baptizing himself prior to baptizing Helwys. Shortly after the first Baptist church was established, Smyth and Helwys had a disagreement over whether the new fellowship should join with the Waterlander Mennonites. Helwys and ten followers refused to join Smyth and the rest of the Gainesborough congregation as they joined the Mennonites, and over the next several years, Smyth and Helwys would exchange blows over their differing theology.

Eventually, in 1612, convicted that he should have never fled persecution, Helwys and his followers returned to England. It was at this time the first Baptist church was established in England, just outside the walls of London in Spitalfields. Just before returning to England, Helwys wrote his most influential publication, A Short Declaration of the Mystery of Iniquity. Early notes, "W.T. Whitley believes that in this book, Helwys made the first appeal in the English language for complete religious liberty."

Early shares that Helwys had the desire to speak with the one man in all of England who could help his cause, King James I. Out of this desire, Helwys sent the king an autographed copy of A Short Declaration, with a handwritten note that said:

Hear, O King, and do not despise the council of the poor and let their complaints come before you.
The king is a mortal man and not God, therefore he has no power over the immortal souls of his subjects, to make laws and ordinances for them and to set spiritual lords over them.

If the king has authority to make spiritual lords and laws, then he is an immortal God and not a mortal man.

While space will not allow a detailed treatment of A Short Declaration, it is essential to note that in this treatise, Helwys delivers several pointed critiques of his opponents. Helwys's work takes on an apocryphal tone throughout much of the writing. Within his writing, he even condemns the Puritans for their false professions, associating them with false prophets. However, in Book II, Helwys argues for complete religious liberty. Perhaps the most influential statement made on the matter in Helwys' writings is this: 

For we do freely profess that our lord the king has no more power over their consciences than over ours, and that is none at all. For our lord the king is but an earthly king, and he has no authority as a king but in earthly causes. If the king's people are obedient and true subjects, obeying all human laws made by the king, our lord the king can require no more.
For men's religion to God is between God and themselves. The king will not 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.

 Helwys understood a man's religion is between that man and God himself. What is interesting to note is that Helwys did not simply advocate for religious liberty for his new Baptist congregation in a country with a state-established church. Instead, he made his appeal to the king on behalf of unbelievers, Muslims (Turks), and Jews. Helwys' genius was in knowing that liberty withheld from any religion can threaten liberty to all religions.
Part two of this series will consider the significant contribution Roger Williams made to the Baptist distinctive of religious liberty. Again, the goal of this article is to introduce the reader to the Baptist conviction of religious liberty. In the end, we will consider some implications of this conviction for the church today. 


“Congressional Record (Bound Edition), Volume 157 (2011), Part 7 - REMEMBERING ROGER WILLIAMS.” Accessed January 16, 2024.

“Founders Online: To Thomas Jefferson from the Danbury Baptist Association, [Aft ….” University of Virginia Press. Accessed January 15, 2024.

Hamburger, Philip. Separation of Church and State, Revised edition. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2004.

“Jefferson’s Letter to the Danbury Baptists (June 1998) - Library of Congress Information Bulletin.” Accessed January 15, 2024.

Jr. Early, Joe, ed. The Life and Writings of Thomas Helwys. Macon, Ga: Mercer Univ Pr, 2009.

Kidd, Thomas S. God of Liberty: A Religious History of the American Revolution, 1st edition. Basic Books, 2010.

Kidd, Thomas S., and Barry G. Hankins. Baptists in America: A History. Oxford ; New York: Oxford University Press, 2015.

Kidd, Thomas S., Paul D. Miller, and Andrew T. Walker, eds. Baptist Political Theology. B&H Academic, 2023.

Strickland, Arthur B. Roger Williams, Prophet and Pioneer of Soul-Liberty, 1st Edition. The Judson Press, 1919.

Warren, James A. God, War, and Providence: The Epic Struggle of Roger Williams and the Narragansett Indians against the Puritans of New England, First Edition. New York: Scribner, 2018.

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