A Declaration of Freedom

Sunday Worship on BBC Radio 4, 8.10am Sunday 30 October

Live from The Well, Retford, Notts, marking the work of Thomas Helwys, one of the earliest campaigners for freedom of religious conscience and, on this All Saints Day, exploring the work of those who advocate for freedom of religion or belief across the world today and highlighting the role of the All-Party Parliamentary Group for International Freedom of Religion or Belief.

Leaders: Baroness Berridge of the Vale of Catmose, the Revd John Brewster.

Preacher, The Revd Anthony Peck, General Secretary of the European Baptist Federation.

Listen to the programme


Last Thursday was International Religious Freedom Day and this coming Tuesday is All Saints when, amongst others, we remember those who have been killed because of their Christian faith. And so today is a very appropriate Sunday for us to thank God for our religious freedom.

The area around the town of Retford could claim to be the birthplace of religious freedom. The seventeenth century local hero Thomas Helwys was the first person to write in the English Language effectively what we now know as Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights: the freedom to choose your own religion, or to not have any religion at all, and to live out that decision publicly. Helwys was put in prison and died there for claiming religious freedom for all. The freedom we enjoy today to worship is indeed part of Helwys’ legacy.

Who was Thomas Helwys?

Thomas Helwys (?1570 – ?1616), a wealthy English gentleman, was one of the pioneers of the Baptist denomination worldwide, founding the first English Baptist Church in London in 1612. That same year he published a book, addressed to King James, in which he made what is widely regarded by historians as being the first plea in the English language for religious freedom for all.

This was a truly revolutionary idea in its time and it would be thirty years, during the time of the Commonwealth, before this would gain a wider acceptance, and then only among non-conformists,

Helwys was clear in his absolute loyalty to the King in all ‘earthly’ matters, but in a time when the English King also determined the faith of his subjects or else put them outside the law, Helwys declared:

For our Lord the King is but an earthly king, and he has no authority as a king but in earthly causes. And if the king’s people be obedient and true subjects, obeying all human laws, our lord the king can require no more. 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.

Due to his belief that all individuals ought to be entitled to have and practice their own faith freely, Helwys fled to Holland, but returned to England to speak out against religious persecution. But when he sent a copy of his book A Short Declaration to King James accompanied by a demand for universal religious toleration, the King deemed Helwys to have committed treason and despite appeals, imprisoned Helwys in Newgate prison, where he died about four years later.

In the lead up to the 500th anniversary of the start of the Reformation in 2017, which generated such great religious divisions and persecution, including in the UK, it is crucial that we remember figures such as Helwys and support those advancing freedom of religion or belief where we can.

“The witness of Thomas Helwys brings together the two themes of our worship today; remembering the saints that have gone before us; and bringing before God our responsibility to defend freedom of religion or belief in the world today.” (Rev John Brewster)

Benedict Rogers on Alexander Aan

Four years ago, I visited Alexander Aan, an Indonesian atheist jailed for his beliefs. I am a Christian, and I was taken to the remote jail in Sijunjung, a four hour journey along rough, winding mountain roads from Padang, West Sumatra, by two young Muslims.
Alex is a soft-spoken, intelligent young civil servant with a passion for science.

Arrested in January 2012, Alex spent two years in jail, charged with blasphemy.

It all started when radical Muslims read his views on Facebook. He himself was raised in a Muslim family. They came looking for him, and when they extracted a confession from him that he is an atheist, they beat him up before calling the police.

So why was I, a Christian, travelling thousands of miles to visit an atheist? I believe passionately in freedom of religion or belief, as outlined in Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Freedom of religion or belief must include the freedom not to believe.

I visited Alex because I believe in his cause – his right to express his views peacefully, without being jailed, attacked or harassed. I was also there because it is in all our interests to protect people like Alex.

The freedom to choose and express your beliefs is the most important human right. When I met Alex, we had a fascinating discussion. I talked to him about Christopher Hitchens, whom he had not read; he talked to me about Jesus Christ, whom he had.

The freedom to exchange ideas is a freedom I cherish and one he was denied. I have different beliefs from Alex Aan, but I will give everything I have to defend his right to hold and express his.


Read about the case of Mohamed Cheikh Ould Mkheitir in Mauretania – his final appeal was due to be heard on 15 November

Baroness Brinton on Shia Muslims in Pakistan

I am deeply concerned about the plight of all those around the world who are targeted for their religious beliefs, and in many cases find their places of worship routinely and indiscriminately attacked either by the State or by violent extremists, and that is why, as a Christian Parliamentarian, I am part of the All Party Parliamentary Group for International Freedom of Religion or Belief, to stand with fellow parliamentarians of all faiths and none for everyone who is persecuted.

We aim to give a voice to those places where religious oppression – of whatever form and whatever faith – is little known about. For example, the Shiʿa Hazara community in the southwestern town of Quetta in Pakistan. Since the year 2000, over 2000 Shiʿa Hazaras including many women and children have been murdered or injured as a result of sectarian attacks by religious extremists.

As Christians part of our biblical responsibility to love our neighbour is displayed when we speak out on behalf of those who are persecuted, not just for fellow Christians, but for anyone who is being harmed for choosing whether to believe or not to believe in God.

The rich young ruler walked away from Jesus and I believe that Jesus would have stopped anyone from physically attacking him for rejecting the offer of eternal life that Jesus had just given him. God created us in a way that means we can choose him or reject him. I and Parliamentarians who are part of Freedom Declared want to defend the dignity given to each human being to make their own decision of conscience on eternal matters. I believe that Helwys was correct: such a decision is between God and Man.

Read more about the persecution of Shia Muslims in Pakistan and Sri Lanka.

Andy Flannagan ‘Seven Storeys’

Cairo: unexpected dinner party chat reveals that our hosts’ young neighbour was thrown to her death from the balcony of her flat after she changed her religion…

Seven storeys
Fall to glory
High minds stoop so low

Fear is the fist with which you strike me
But you can’t reach to my dreams

Never will I regret this journey
For His love has conquered fear

I can
Not be
So you silence me

No space
For my
New faith
So I die

Words: Andy Flannagan, Music: Andy Flannagan, Alan Branch, Dave Cooke
©2011 Downwardly Mobile Music

Listen to excerpt          iTunes link          Audio-visual

Full script of the programme


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