Global Baptists paid homage in Santiago, Chile, to an Englishman, who wrote a book 400 years ago to King James of England, appealing for religious freedom at a time when kings believed that they had the divine right to determine the faith of their subjects.
In a special session at the annual gathering of the BaptistWorldAlliance (BWA), Tony Peck, general secretary of the EuropeanBaptistFederation (EBF), presented a paper on Thomas Helwys, author of “A Short Declaration of the The Mistery of Iniquity.”

Some 260 Baptists from 40 nations are attending this week’s gathering of the BWA, the largest networking body of global Baptists.

Writing to King James in 1612, Helwys penned, “For men’s religion to God is between God and themselves. The king shall not answer for it. Neither may the King judge between God and men. Let them be heretics, Turks, Jews or whatsoever, it appertains not to the earthly power to punish them in the least measure.”

Peck wrote, “We do not know whether King James read it, though we could probably imagine his reaction if he did, but as a result Helwys was put in prison and probably died there around 1615/16.”

While Peck said he wanted to celebrate the contribution of Helwys to religious freedom, he added that Helwys was “an unlikely advocate” for freedom for all.

“Helwys’ plea for religious freedom is truly remarkable because nobody was really discussing it at that time in England,” wrote Peck. “It is important to see that someone putting this forward in that context would not only be guilty of spreading dangerous religious ideas, but would be seen as threatening the security of the state, which was seen to depend on religious uniformity.”

As a lawyer, Helwys may have been influenced by Italian Protestant Alberico Gentili, identified as the “father of religious toleration under law.”

Gentili taught at Oxford University and affiliated with “the legal fraternity of Grays Inn where Helwys had studied just a few years earlier,” wrote Peck.

Other influences on Helwys were the New Testament and the Mennonites in Amsterdam.

However, Peck pointed out that Helwys distanced himself from Anabaptists, including their advocacy of pacifism and separation from the world. Unlike the Anabaptists, Helwys favored “full participation and engagement with English society.”

He “was a patriotic Englishman and a member of the English gentry and he wanted to show that in the matters that God has entrusted to him, the King deserved the unswerving loyalty of his subjects. The state was worthy of godly and patriotic support,” wrote Peck in his manuscript.

He identified three points where Helwys’ legacy 400 years later challenges 21st-century Baptists.

First, “Helwys reminds us that we can speak up for the rights of religious people everywhere to live and worship in freedom without necessarily agreeing with their ideas and beliefs or compromising our own faith,” wrote Peck.

He said that Swiss Baptists had done this in their defense of the rights of Muslims to construct “mosques with minarets.”

Second, Peck said, “Religious freedom can never be seen in isolation from other freedoms. Whether he fully appreciated it or not, Helwys’ radical stance of religious freedom had implications for the wider question of rights and responsibilities in society.”

EBF’s general secretary lamented that “there have been some tragic examples of Baptists being granted their freedom to worship unhindered, and then their gratitude for this preventing them being prophetic concerning the other injustices and evils around them in society.”

Third, “Helwys encourages us to have a positive view of the state as the civil society guaranteeing religious freedom for all. Not only that, but he encourages us to actively engage with it for the common good,” wrote Peck.

RobertParham is executive editor of and executive director of its parent organization, the Baptist Center for Ethics. Follow him on Twitter at RobertParham1 and friendhim on Facebook.

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