What modern Baptists can learn from Thomas Helwys

Religious liberty, theological conviction, and perseverance

August 5, 2021

Baptists have been committed to religious liberty since their earliest days. This was both a pragmatic and theological position. As Dissenters from the Church of England and its state religion, they faced persecution and imprisonment. At the same time, because of their commitments to believer’s baptism (rather than infant baptism) and congregational autonomy, they were theologically opposed to a link between the state and the church. This was especially true for Thomas Helwys (c.1575 – c.1616), who was one of the early General Baptists (those who accepted a belief in general redemption rather than the Reformed doctrine of particular redemption) in England. 

Helwys would eventually die in prison for his writings arguing that King James I was limited in his authority over the religious affairs of individuals. Helwys holds the distinction of being the first person to call for universal liberty in English, writing that “If the Kings people be obedient and true subjects, obeying all humane lawes made by the King, our Lord the King can require no more . . . Let them be heretics, Turks, Jews or whatsoever, it appertains not to the earthly power to punish them in the least measure.” For modern Baptists, Helwys is an exemplar of the tradition’s commitment to religious liberty for all, not just Baptists, as well as the importance of calling the state to account when it transgresses its authority. 

Thomas Helwys’ context

The period of Helwys’ birth and early life was one of transition for England. With the death of Elizabeth in his teen years, and the assumption of James VI of Scotland to the throne of England (becoming King James I), the country was faced with a question of how it would deal with the religious divisions within the kingdom. James was not in favor of returning the country to Catholicism (as Queen Mary had done prior to Queen Elizabeth), but he also was not in favor of allowing Dissenters to worship freely, believing that the church and state should support one another (summarized in his statement that “No bishop, no king.”). As such, many groups were forced to meet and worship in secret, Separatists and Congregationalists — the forerunners of Baptists who were committed to congregational autonomy but practiced infant baptism — among them. 

However, Helwys was committed to his faith and was one of the most economically well-off members of the early movement. He helped finance the move from England to Denmark of the congregation led by John Smythe who were fleeing persecution. When they arrived, he and Smythe were convinced of the doctrine of believer’s baptism and after Smythe baptized himself, Helwys became the first person to be baptized in the congregation. Helwys would eventually separate from Smythe when the latter joined the Mennonite tradition. 

Instead, Helwys, believing that it was wrong for the group to escape persecution, returned to England with a small contingent and founded the first General Baptist church in the country. He would also publish his work A Short Declaration of the Mystery of Iniquity that led to his eventual imprisonment in Newgate Prison for treason. He died in prison in 1616, still fervently defending the principles of religious liberty and suffering the consequences of his radical beliefs. 

Thomas Helwys’ A Short Declaration of the Mystery of Iniquity

Thomas Helwys’s most famous work, A Short Declaration of the Mystery of Iniquity, is a defense of the nascent Baptist movement’s separation and difference from the Anglican church and the other Separatist movements of the period. The book uses apocalyptic language and parallels the papacy with the first beast of John’s Revelation, the Anglican church with the second, and then ends with condemnations of the Puritans for their clinging to the second beast as well as other Separatist groups for their practice of infant baptism. 

The work’s importance is derived not from its use of apocalyptic imagery, but rather its willingness to extend religious liberty to all individuals, a controversial concept at the time. The Short Declaration is the writing of an individual convinced that the eschaton is imminent because of the moral decay which he sees around him. As such, it is an attempt to call both the people of England and the leaders specifically, to distance themselves from these institutions which were antithetical to Helwys’ interpretation of Christianity.

While the extent to which Helwys reasonably expected a positive response to this work is not clear, it is no surprise that it was not received favorably. The section addressed to the king in which Helwys’s most memorable line calling for total religious liberty is found is a strict reminder to King James I of England that he can only justly wield the power of the temporal sword. Any exercise of the spiritual — which as head of the Anglican Church he also wielded — is an overreach of authority. Further, Helwys’ writing is not at any time hesitant to name the faults that he perceives in the hierarchy of either the papacy or that of the archbishops and bishops of the Anglican Church. Further, its condemnation of the Puritans for their refusal to reject this second beast would have negated any hope of reforming the Anglican Church. Helwys argues not for reform, but rather radical separation. 

The tension between these two positions of upholding the ability of an individual to exercise their freedom of conscience while simultaneously denying that any good can come from participation in the Anglican Church illustrates the tensions that were present in this non-creedal movement. With only appeals to Scripture and a belief in the ability of the individual to understand Scripture without an ecclesiastical hierarchy for interpretation, Helwys also feels compelled to denounce those who would remain within that same structure because of a belief that it might be reformed.

Implications for modern Baptists

For those looking back to Thomas Helwys, there are two ways that we can find models for our own lives and practices. The first is in his fervent commitment to universal religious liberty. As Josh Wester has written, Baptists were committed to the doctrine because of theological conviction and practical necessity. Helwys was no different. His writings continue to emphasize that the state (and in particular the king) is limited in its authority over religious affairs. However, it is not mere toleration that he seeks, but actual liberty. And not only for his small congregation, but for all peoples, whether “heretics [atheists], Turks, Jews or whatsoever . . .” 

The work of individuals such as Helwys, and those who came after him, laid a foundation for the American principles of religious liberty enshrined in the First Amendment. This theological conviction that the state could not interfere because it would not answer for the souls of men and women was born out of a theological conviction that each individual must give their own account for their works before God at judgment.

The commitment to universal religious liberty from Helwys, and the radical political implications of his writing, led to his imprisonment and eventual death. It is in this that modern Baptists can see the second truth to be gleaned from his life: perseverance through unjust punishment for theological convictions. As the Baptists grew in number, both in America and abroad, they faced persecution for their rejection of the state church and their refusal to practice infant baptism. Helwys, along with names in America such as Clarke and Williams, set a pattern for how Baptists have responded to these unjust persecutions. They did not bend their convictions or accommodate to what their consciences knew to be false. Rather, they held fast to the convictions of conscience and in so doing called out the unjust actions of those in power with their lives, not only their words and writings. 

Modern American Baptists can take solace in the fact that we do not face persecution like our forbearers, and are unlikely to in the near future. At the same time, we are provided with models of how Baptists have responded historically in the face of injustice. 

Photo Attribution:

Richard McCarthy – PA Images / Getty Contributor

Alex Ward

Alex Ward serves as the research associate and project manager for the ERLC’s research initiatives. He manages long term research projects for the organization under the leadership of the director of research. Alex is currently pursuing a PhD in History at the University of Mississippi studying evangelical political activity in … Read More

Article 12: The Future of AI

We affirm that AI will continue to be developed in ways that we cannot currently imagine or understand, including AI that will far surpass many human abilities. God alone has the power to create life, and no future advancements in AI will usurp Him as the Creator of life. The church has a unique role in proclaiming human dignity for all and calling for the humane use of AI in all aspects of society.

We deny that AI will make us more or less human, or that AI will ever obtain a coequal level of worth, dignity, or value to image-bearers. Future advancements in AI will not ultimately fulfill our longings for a perfect world. While we are not able to comprehend or know the future, we do not fear what is to come because we know that God is omniscient and that nothing we create will be able to thwart His redemptive plan for creation or to supplant humanity as His image-bearers.

Genesis 1; Isaiah 42:8; Romans 1:20-21; 5:2; Ephesians 1:4-6; 2 Timothy 1:7-9; Revelation 5:9-10

Article 11: Public Policy

We affirm that the fundamental purposes of government are to protect human beings from harm, punish those who do evil, uphold civil liberties, and to commend those who do good. The public has a role in shaping and crafting policies concerning the use of AI in society, and these decisions should not be left to those who develop these technologies or to governments to set norms.

We deny that AI should be used by governments, corporations, or any entity to infringe upon God-given human rights. AI, even in a highly advanced state, should never be delegated the governing authority that has been granted by an all-sovereign God to human beings alone. 

Romans 13:1-7; Acts 10:35; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 10: War

We affirm that the use of AI in warfare should be governed by love of neighbor and the principles of just war. The use of AI may mitigate the loss of human life, provide greater protection of non-combatants, and inform better policymaking. Any lethal action conducted or substantially enabled by AI must employ 5 human oversight or review. All defense-related AI applications, such as underlying data and decision-making processes, must be subject to continual review by legitimate authorities. When these systems are deployed, human agents bear full moral responsibility for any actions taken by the system.

We deny that human agency or moral culpability in war can be delegated to AI. No nation or group has the right to use AI to carry out genocide, terrorism, torture, or other war crimes.

Genesis 4:10; Isaiah 1:16-17; Psalm 37:28; Matthew 5:44; 22:37-39; Romans 13:4

Article 9: Security

We affirm that AI has legitimate applications in policing, intelligence, surveillance, investigation, and other uses supporting the government’s responsibility to respect human rights, to protect and preserve human life, and to pursue justice in a flourishing society.

We deny that AI should be employed for safety and security applications in ways that seek to dehumanize, depersonalize, or harm our fellow human beings. We condemn the use of AI to suppress free expression or other basic human rights granted by God to all human beings.

Romans 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 8: Data & Privacy

We affirm that privacy and personal property are intertwined individual rights and choices that should not be violated by governments, corporations, nation-states, and other groups, even in the pursuit of the common good. While God knows all things, it is neither wise nor obligatory to have every detail of one’s life open to society.

We deny the manipulative and coercive uses of data and AI in ways that are inconsistent with the love of God and love of neighbor. Data collection practices should conform to ethical guidelines that uphold the dignity of all people. We further deny that consent, even informed consent, although requisite, is the only necessary ethical standard for the collection, manipulation, or exploitation of personal data—individually or in the aggregate. AI should not be employed in ways that distort truth through the use of generative applications. Data should not be mishandled, misused, or abused for sinful purposes to reinforce bias, strengthen the powerful, or demean the weak.

Exodus 20:15, Psalm 147:5; Isaiah 40:13-14; Matthew 10:16 Galatians 6:2; Hebrews 4:12-13; 1 John 1:7 

Article 7: Work

We affirm that work is part of God’s plan for human beings participating in the cultivation and stewardship of creation. The divine pattern is one of labor and rest in healthy proportion to each other. Our view of work should not be confined to commercial activity; it must also include the many ways that human beings serve each other through their efforts. AI can be used in ways that aid our work or allow us to make fuller use of our gifts. The church has a Spirit-empowered responsibility to help care for those who lose jobs and to encourage individuals, communities, employers, and governments to find ways to invest in the development of human beings and continue making vocational contributions to our lives together.

We deny that human worth and dignity is reducible to an individual’s economic contributions to society alone. Humanity should not use AI and other technological innovations as a reason to move toward lives of pure leisure even if greater social wealth creates such possibilities.

Genesis 1:27; 2:5; 2:15; Isaiah 65:21-24; Romans 12:6-8; Ephesians 4:11-16

Article 6: Sexuality

We affirm the goodness of God’s design for human sexuality which prescribes the sexual union to be an exclusive relationship between a man and a woman in the lifelong covenant of marriage.

We deny that the pursuit of sexual pleasure is a justification for the development or use of AI, and we condemn the objectification of humans that results from employing AI for sexual purposes. AI should not intrude upon or substitute for the biblical expression of sexuality between a husband and wife according to God’s design for human marriage.

Genesis 1:26-29; 2:18-25; Matthew 5:27-30; 1 Thess 4:3-4

Article 5: Bias

We affirm that, as a tool created by humans, AI will be inherently subject to bias and that these biases must be accounted for, minimized, or removed through continual human oversight and discretion. AI should be designed and used in such ways that treat all human beings as having equal worth and dignity. AI should be utilized as a tool to identify and eliminate bias inherent in human decision-making.

We deny that AI should be designed or used in ways that violate the fundamental principle of human dignity for all people. Neither should AI be used in ways that reinforce or further any ideology or agenda, seeking to subjugate human autonomy under the power of the state.

Micah 6:8; John 13:34; Galatians 3:28-29; 5:13-14; Philippians 2:3-4; Romans 12:10

Article 4: Medicine

We affirm that AI-related advances in medical technologies are expressions of God’s common grace through and for people created in His image and that these advances will increase our capacity to provide enhanced medical diagnostics and therapeutic interventions as we seek to care for all people. These advances should be guided by basic principles of medical ethics, including beneficence, non-maleficence, autonomy, and justice, which are all consistent with the biblical principle of loving our neighbor.

We deny that death and disease—effects of the Fall—can ultimately be eradicated apart from Jesus Christ. Utilitarian applications regarding healthcare distribution should not override the dignity of human life. Fur- 3 thermore, we reject the materialist and consequentialist worldview that understands medical applications of AI as a means of improving, changing, or completing human beings.

Matthew 5:45; John 11:25-26; 1 Corinthians 15:55-57; Galatians 6:2; Philippians 2:4

Article 3: Relationship of AI & Humanity

We affirm the use of AI to inform and aid human reasoning and moral decision-making because it is a tool that excels at processing data and making determinations, which often mimics or exceeds human ability. While AI excels in data-based computation, technology is incapable of possessing the capacity for moral agency or responsibility.

We deny that humans can or should cede our moral accountability or responsibilities to any form of AI that will ever be created. Only humanity will be judged by God on the basis of our actions and that of the tools we create. While technology can be created with a moral use in view, it is not a moral agent. Humans alone bear the responsibility for moral decision making.

Romans 2:6-8; Galatians 5:19-21; 2 Peter 1:5-8; 1 John 2:1

Article 2: AI as Technology

We affirm that the development of AI is a demonstration of the unique creative abilities of human beings. When AI is employed in accordance with God’s moral will, it is an example of man’s obedience to the divine command to steward creation and to honor Him. We believe in innovation for the glory of God, the sake of human flourishing, and the love of neighbor. While we acknowledge the reality of the Fall and its consequences on human nature and human innovation, technology can be used in society to uphold human dignity. As a part of our God-given creative nature, human beings should develop and harness technology in ways that lead to greater flourishing and the alleviation of human suffering.

We deny that the use of AI is morally neutral. It is not worthy of man’s hope, worship, or love. Since the Lord Jesus alone can atone for sin and reconcile humanity to its Creator, technology such as AI cannot fulfill humanity’s ultimate needs. We further deny the goodness and benefit of any application of AI that devalues or degrades the dignity and worth of another human being. 

Genesis 2:25; Exodus 20:3; 31:1-11; Proverbs 16:4; Matthew 22:37-40; Romans 3:23

Article 1: Image of God

We affirm that God created each human being in His image with intrinsic and equal worth, dignity, and moral agency, distinct from all creation, and that humanity’s creativity is intended to reflect God’s creative pattern.

We deny that any part of creation, including any form of technology, should ever be used to usurp or subvert the dominion and stewardship which has been entrusted solely to humanity by God; nor should technology be assigned a level of human identity, worth, dignity, or moral agency.

Genesis 1:26-28; 5:1-2; Isaiah 43:6-7; Jeremiah 1:5; John 13:34; Colossians 1:16; 3:10; Ephesians 4:24