In 1612, the proto-Baptist Thomas Helwys published a book entitled A Short Declaration of the Mystery of Iniquity. In an original edition of the work preserved in the Bodleian Library at Oxford University, there is a handwritten note on the flyleaf of the work addressed to King James I from Thomas Helwys. This volume was apparently a dedication copy to be presented to the King of England. Helwys, who had just returned to England from the Netherlands with a band of baptized believers,* intended to make a statement to the King regarding religious liberty. Apparently, the King received the message as Helwys was unsurprisingly arrested shortly thereafter and languished in the infamous Newgate Prison until he died four years later in 1616. Helwys’ courageous address to the King of England deserves to be read and remembered as we consider the Baptist contribution to religious liberty. Baptists have a rich heritage of speaking truth to power, often at great risk.
Below is a transcription of the text of Helwys handwritten note to King James I and below that is a photocopy of the original.
Heare, O King, and dispise not ye counsell of ye poore and let their complaints come before thee.
The King is a mortall man and not God, therefore hath no power over ye immortall soules of his subiects, to make lawes & ordinances for them, and to set spirituall Lords over them.
If the King have authority to make spirituall Lords & lawes, then he is an immortall God and not a mortall man.
O King be not seduced by deceivers to sine so against God whome thou oughtest to obey, nor against thy poore subiects who ought and will obey thee in all thinges with body life and goods or els let their lives be taken from ye earth.
God save ye Kinge
*Helwys and his followers had been baptized by affusion, i.e., pouring as believers.
Baptists have historically defended the principle of religious liberty. Since Baptists have always believed in churches made up only of professing, baptized believers, they have always rejected the idea of a state church union which results in a church composed of all citizens. In the sixteenth century, the European Anabaptists opposed the use of the sword to mandate matters of the conscience. Seventeenth-century proto-Baptists such as Thomas Helwys (in England) and Roger Williams (in Colonial America) spoke directly to the governing authorities appealing for religious liberty. Baptists have always stood on the side of religious liberty for all. In fact, it was a group of Baptists in Danbury, CT, concerned about the infringement of the newly formed federal government upon the consciences of American citizens, to whom Thomas Jefferson responded in a letter with the famous expression of “separation of church and state” that has become such an important part of the American discussion concerning religious liberty. This expression was a summary of the rights guaranteed in the 1st amendment that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”
We have the first amendment, in large part, due to the efforts of American Baptists such as Isaac Backus and John Leland. Leland, prominent Baptist preacher at the turn of the 19th century, had petitioned his Virginia legislator, James Madison, directly regarding his concern that more needed to be done to ensure religious liberty in the new country than the “Religious Test” clause of Article VI, paragraph 3 of the Constitution. Since Baptists represented a significant portion of the vote in Madison’s district, Leland’s threat to run for Madison’s seat in the House of Representatives resulted in a visit by Madison to his home. Coming out of that meeting was a compromise that included Leland agreeing not to run for Madison’s seat and Madison agreeing to champion Leland’s and his fellow Baptists’ concern for religious liberty. Madison kept his word and pushed for the Bill of Rights. Without Baptist involvement in the political process, it is at least possible that the protection of religious liberty from Congress would not exist.
Today, more than at any point since the turn of the 19th century, religious freedom in America is in jeopardy. Once again, Baptists need to lead the way in guaranteeing that our commitment to freedom of conscience in religious matters is preserved. The Governor of the Commonwealth of Kentucky today vetoed a bill (HB 279) which included important protections of religious liberty on the state level. This bill passed both houses of the Kentucky legislature with overwhelming bipartisan support. The Kentucky Baptist Convention, in historic Baptist manner, championed this bill and called for its passage. Now, we stand in need for the Baptists of Kentucky to speak up and ask their representatives to overturn the governor’s veto. For information on how you can help, please see this post on the website of the Kentucky Baptist Convention’s Committee on Public Affairs.