Religious liberty for Muslims was a cry from the Baptist cradle in Christian England. That call came a year after King James I published the King James Version of the Bible in 1611, one of his attempts to dampen down religious dissent. Most regrettably, future generations of Baptists clung to the King James Bible and let their heritage as prophetic advocates slip away.
Any observance this year of the 400th anniversary of Baptist beginnings ought to recall this account. One finds at the very headwaters of the Baptist tradition a story about a prophetic witness to political power and a religious dissent to the predominant cultural orthodoxy. Maybe, just maybe, this story of courage will give 21st-century Baptists some courage on the interfaith front.
Of course, the story has a mostly forgotten context. Recalling that era’s global realities helps today’s Baptists better appreciate what was said.
When the Ottoman Empire was an expansionistic power, threatening Christian-dominated Europe, a little-known Baptist layman advocated religious liberty for Muslims to the king of England, who was no friend of religious diversity.
Headquartered in Constantinople, the Ottoman Empire controlled the Balkans, held sway over much of Central Europe, dominated the Middle East, ruled North Africa and muscled control over much of the Mediterranean Sea.
The religion of the Ottoman or Turkish Empire was Islam. Islam was not an obscure religion of nomads in the deserts of the Arabian Peninsula. It was the religion of a global powerhouse.
It was a religion that practiced tolerance toward “people of the book,” a term found in the Qur’an for Christians and Jews, members of the Abrahamic faith tradition who believe in one God.
One Ottoman sultan even sent his ships to Spain to rescue Muslims and Jews who were expelled in 1492 during the Roman Catholic Church’s inquisition.
More than a hundred years later, when King James of England showed his intolerance toward dissenting Christians, those who would become the first Baptists took ships from England to Holland.
A few years later, one of those dissenters, Thomas Helwys, wrote a tract to King James I. He published it and sent the king an autographed copy.
In “A Short Declaration of the Mystery of Iniquity,” published in 1612, Helwys said that there were limits to the king’s power—a bold challenge at a time when kings thought they had a divine right.
“[F]or kings are not only God’s lieutenants upon earth, and sit upon God’s throne, but even by God himself are called gods,” proclaimed King James I in 1609. “In the Scriptures kings are called gods, and so their power after a certain relation compared to the divine power.”
“Kings are justly called gods, for that they exercise a manner or resemblance of divine power upon earth: for if you will consider the attributes to God, you shall see how they agree in the person of a king. God hath power to create or destroy, make or unmake at his pleasure, to give life or send death, to judge all and to be judged nor accountable to none; to raise low things and to make high things low at his pleasure, and to God are both souls and body due. And the like power have kings: they make and unmake their subjects, they have power of raising and casting down, of life and of death, judges over all their subjects and in all causes and yet accountable to none but God only,” wrote the English king about his divine right.
Helwys did acknowledge the earthly power of kings. But that was where the king’s power ended. The king had no power over the consciences of his subjects.
“For men’s religion to God is between God and themselves,” wrote Helwys. “The king shall not answer for it.”
Having metaphorically poked the king in the chest, Helwys poked the king a second time with his next sentence: “Neither may the king be judge between God and man. Let them be heretics, Turks, Jews, or whatsoever, it appertains not to the earthly power to punish them in the least measure.”
Claiming religious liberty for heretics and Jews was surely an insulting statement to King James and his court. Yet what did the king have to fear from Jews and heretics. What power did they yield?
Advocating religious freedom for the Turks was another matter completely. Islam was the faith of a feared empire. Assigning the right of religious liberty to such foes was too much.
Helwys wasn’t through, however. He set the pattern for all future Baptists. He claimed the Bible was on his side: “This [his argument for religious freedom] is made evident to our lord the king by the scriptures.”
If the king claimed the Bible was on his side in the defense of the divine right of kings, then the Baptist layman would thump his Bible, proclaiming that the word of God was on the side of religious liberty.
The situation was anything but a stand off. Helwys went to prison, where he is thought to have died. James I remained the king.
King James I still holds sway over many Baptists through the King James Bible and his attitude of intolerance toward other religions.
Remembered mostly by historians, Helwys does challenge today’s Baptists to recover their heritage as courageous advocates for religious liberty for all people of faith, including Muslims.
Robert Parham is executive editor of EthicsDaily.com and executive director of its parent organization, the Baptist Center for Ethics.