Commemoration of a pioneer for freedom of religion or belief

A special event was held last week in Nottinghamshire to commemorate the 400th Anniversary of the death of Thomas Helwys. Helwys was the founder of the Baptist denomination and has become known as a pioneer of religious liberty for all.

The event was organised by the Bassetlaw Christian Heritage Group and was hosted by The Well in Retford – the nearest Baptist church to Helwys’s most likely place of birth and part of his denomination since at least 1691, when Baptist churches first became legal.

There were two keynote speakers: Baroness Berridge of the Vale of Catmose, Co-Chair of the All Party Group on International Freedom of Religion and Belief, and The Revd Tony Peck, General Secretary of the European Baptist Federation (EBF) and an ordained Baptist minister. He has spoken widely on religious freedom and wrote a well-received report on the history of religious freedom in central Europe.

Tony Peck said “Thomas Helwys is rightly regarded as the pioneer Baptist leader. Today the global community of Baptists numbers around 100 million found in every continent and almost every country in the world. A community that in the 20th century produced evangelist Billy Graham and also that passionate advocate of civil rights and freedom for the oppressed, Martin Luther King. And one core value of Baptist identity all over the world has remained as a Baptist contribution to building a peaceful and tolerant society. That is a commitment to religious freedom for all, not just for ourselves. We owe that to the legacy of Thomas Helwys, even if we have not always lived up to the full extent of his vision.”

“In 1612 Helwys started the first Baptist church in England in Spitalfields in London. He had completed his book, “A Short Declaration of the Mistery of Iniquity’. [It] calls out a pure church to be ready for the final apocalypse. It may seem strange to us today that he does this by attacking every other church in England… To be honest this is not a book that appeals to our modern sensibilities for its literary grace or its ecumenical sensitivity. In that sense Thomas Helwys does not come across as a very tolerant man.

“But in the middle of all this polemic is a pure diamond. Helwys, in the most famous passage in the book, maintained that there should be religious freedom, freedom of conscience, freedom of worship for all of them. And more than that, there should be freedom for those of other faiths to worship and practise in freedom, and even toleration of those he terms ‘heretics’. This is what he wrote

For our Lord the King is but an earthly king, and he has no authority as a king 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, Jews or whatsoever, it appertains not to the earthly power to punish them in the least measure.

Read the speech in full