Baptist History, Part II

Thomas Helwys


Baptist Controversy Brewing

Have you heard the old proverb that says, for every three Baptists you have 5 opinions? Well, there is some truth to that old saw and it probably began in 1606 with the birth of the Baptist movement on English soil. Surprisingly, during the course of my studies in Baptist history I learned that while baptism by immersion is how most people have identified Baptists, it was not considered the chief doctrine of many early Baptists. Some Baptists still used sprinkling as their mode of baptism. Other Baptists believed that the church and the government should remain separate; that individual congregations decided for themselves matters of faith. Others did not think it harmful for government to intrude into church affairs. Thomas Helwys, however, began to have different ideas.

After breaking with John Smyth over the doctrine of infant baptism and state/government relations and after returning to England, Thomas Helwys wrote a groundbreaking treatise entitled A Short Declaration of the Mystery of Iniquity that became a second turning point in Baptist history. Because of the increasing pressure from the government and the Church of England, Helwys wrote the first document in English history to call for complete freedom of conscience in religious matters, what Baptists would later call “soul liberty.” This little tract challenged not only the right of believers to defy religious authorities in matters of faith and conscience, but encouraged them to defy secular authorities as well. While defending Roman Catholics who were resisting their state governments, Helwys wrote,

“For we do freely profess that our lord the king has no more power over their consciences [Roman Catholics] than over ours, and that is none at all. 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 made by the king, our lord the king can require no more. For men’s religion to God is between God and themselves.”

Helwys paid a heavy price for this helpful bit of dissension, for when he and his wife refused to take an oath to the Church of England over taxes, they were both imprisoned and he later died there in 1616.

Other early Baptists decided that opposing the established Church/government hegemony was too dangerous on English soil and emigrated to the New World to find religious freedom. Once they arrived in America, the Baptists began refining their doctrine and began facing numerous challenges that come with a new land and a new church. They wanted to put their principles to the test, without government interference. Next time, we will see the result of their attempts at implementing their newfound freedoms in America.

For the mystery of iniquity doth already work:

only he who now letteth will let, until he be taken out of the way.

1 Thess. 2:7 (KJV)

This essay is by no means exhaustive of Baptist History. You may go to the Center For Baptist Studies at Mercer University for more information. Or you may access the numerous Baptist History sites listed here. For a very informative article on a woman’s view of Baptist History and what that means for us, go here.

2 thoughts on “Baptist History, Part II

  1. Interesting, I know from your article lot of baptists oppose givernament but do they want to influence government thru their voters? ( i mean who believe in baptism)

  2. Suresh, Actually, Baptists are divided about how much Christians should be involved in government. Southern Baptists are fundamentalists and would love to see a theocracy. They believe in influencing the believer from the pulpit about how to vote and if you don’t vote you are allowing culture to dictate values to you and your family. Also the Fundamental Baptists and General Baptist Conferences believe this as well. No government but the Christian God’s government should be their motto. When people talk about the Religious Right, Southern Baptists and Charismatics of all varieties are included in this grouping. The American Baptists believe in total separation of church and state as far as governance and they leave it to individual conscience on how to vote. Some vote, some do not. It’s up to the believer. American Baptists do not consider themselves part of the Religious Right. Of course since every Baptist church is autonomous there are many extremely conservative American Baptists and many very liberal Southern Baptists, so making generalizations never seem to apply. I hope this answers your question.

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