The first people we could truly call “Baptists” developed under the leadership of two men: John Smyth, the Pastor of the congregation (whom we discussed last month) and his associate, Thomas Helwys. Helwys wasn’t a pastor at the time; he was a well-to-do layman. He came from a land-owning family and was educated at a prestigious law school in London. It’s likely he paid much of the cost for the English church to emigrate to Holland in search of religious liberty. His leadership gifts were an excellent mesh with Smyth’s. It was said that “If Smyth brought oares, Helwys brought sayles.” [archaic spelling] The intended meaning was that Helwys knew how to get things done. It appears that Smyth was more the “big idea” man, but prone to flights of fancy. Helwys was the clear-thinking, practical one.
Helwys developed Baptist beliefs along with Smyth: that only true Christians composed the true church (regenerate church membership), demonstrated via believer’s baptism. They believed that infant/child baptism was not attested to in Holy Scripture. Helwys also agreed that his prior baptism was invalid, because it had been performed when he was an infant. That’s why Smyth and Helwys were rebaptized. But when Smyth came to believe his baptism was invalid, because it should have come from a church with historic succession, Helwys parted company with him. He and 10 others maintained that baptism was a testimony of the individual’s faith, and there was no mystical power in receiving it from a church with historic succession.
In 1611, Helwys led his small group back to England, where they planted a church in London’s Spitalfield area. This could truly be said to be the first Baptist church in England. It might seem a courageous step for this tiny group of Baptists to return to the country they had fled because of persecution. Remember that King James had vowed the expulsion of anyone refusing to conform to Anglican teachings. For those who remained, there was the real threat of being burned at the stake for heresy. That’s what happened in 1612 to two men, Bartholomew Legate and Edward Wightman. Regardless, Helwys had come to believe that they were wrong to flee their homeland. He reasoned that if believers with the truth all fled the country, there would be no true teaching left in their own country. It was admirable for his little group to follow him.
Helwys took on himself to try and reach the heart of the King, that he would repent of his sins. He published a book called A Short Declaration of the Mistery of Iniquity [archaic spelling]. In this book he attacked the corruption of the Church of England—especially its bid to coerce the consciences of the English subjects to worship according to its dictates. He pled for true religious liberty as a divinely-given right. His reasoning was compelling: every person will give personal account before the Judgment Seat for his beliefs and life, and it won’t avail to tell God that we were ordered to forsake the true path by some earthly authority. It is unjust, then, for any government to threaten dungeon or death against a person for spiritual beliefs. He called for all people to have the “blessed liberty, to understand the Scriptures with their own spirits.”
Helwys penned a handwritten note on the flyleaf of the book and sent it to King James. To put it mildly, the King was not amused. He threw Helwys into Newgate Prison, where he died in the year 1616. His forceful response is understandable when you read even a short passage of Helwys’ challenging words:
Heare O King, and dispise not ye counsel of ye poore, and let their complaints come before thee. The King is a mortall man, and not God, therefore [he] hath no power over ye immortall soules of his subjects, to make lawes and ordinances for them, and to set spirituall Lords over them. If the King have authority to make spirituall Lords and laws, then he is an immortal God and not mortall man. O King, be not seduced by deceivers to sin so against God Whom thou oughtest to obey, nor against thy poore subjects who ought and will obey thee in all things with body life and goods, or let their lives be taken from ye earth. God save ye King. [archaic spelling]
Never fear that Helwys’ death spelled the end of the Baptist movement. The mantle of leadership was passed onto others. This little band of Baptists didn’t dwindle—they grew! By 1626, there were at least 150 Baptist believers distributed among 5 churches. By 1644 there were 47! It is surely by God’s hand that Baptists continued to thrive, even under the severe persecution they experienced under Kings James and Charles I.
As we review Helwys’ life, we can see that though it was cut short too soon, he had a great impact on Baptist identity that continues to our day. Along with Smyth he developed the doctrines of regenerate church membership and believer’s baptism. But his powerful writing and preaching demonstrate that his biggest contributions were in the area of religious liberty. He was a champion of separation of Church and State, a belief that makes up a vital part of who we are. His book also indicates why soul freedom is such an important part of our belief as well. If we are indeed to give account before God for our own belief and behavior, it is essential that we are able to follow the leading of God’s Word, the Holy Spirit, and our consciences without constraint. Some people may indeed fall into error, and that grieves us! We should pray for them and reason with them from Scriptures, gently and respectfully. But it is true that no person can compel the conscience of another.
When we return next month, we’ll cover the growth of the Baptist movement with its division into two main groups, the General Baptists and the Particular Baptists. What do these terms mean, and what do they mean for us? Tune in next month to find out!