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Face to faith

By Alec Gilmore - posted Wednesday, 7 June 2006

With civil liberties, anti-terrorism, racial incitement, freedom, toleration and liberty now high on the public agenda, this may be the moment to give an airing to Thomas Helwys. He was one of the 17th century founders of the Baptist denomination, but his relevance today stems from what he wrote in The Mystery of Iniquity, a small work published in 1612 and claimed by Baptists as the first full plea for religious liberty in England and Wales.

In the aftermath of the Reformation, when Dissenters, Catholics and Jews found all kinds of doors closed to them and were frequently persecuted for their faith, the central issue for Helwys was neither rights nor toleration, but liberty. Religious liberty, of course, but what he had to say provided a sound foundation for other kinds of liberty as well. Pleas for toleration too often came only from the persecuted seeking toleration for themselves, and usually with scant toleration for the views of others once they got into ascendancy.

For Helwys, religious liberty was a right for everyone - heretics, Turks and Jews, whoever they were, whatever they did; even for Roman Catholics, when the memory of the Gunpowder Plot was still acute. Anything less was a loss to the community, as well as to the individual. No parliament could legislate against it. No monarch could overrule it. He reminded James I that he too was a mortal, "dust and ashes" like the rest of us, with no power over the immortal souls of his subjects. James responded by putting him in prison, where he remained until his death.


Baptists may not always have lived up to his ideals, but with the exception of the ultra-conservative wing of the Southern Baptists in the US, they still bridle at the slightest threat to religious liberty. In 1939, two years before Roosevelt declared his four freedoms, the Baptist World Conference in Atlanta affirmed its conviction with a plea for "the full maintenance of absolute religious liberty for every man of every faith or no faith at all".

During the Cold War, Baptists were incessant in their defence of religious liberty in eastern Europe and a few days before Christmas last year, they publicly welcomed the government's decision not to let police shut down mosques where radical Islam was preached.

But never mind the Baptist rhetoric. What made Helwys so vehemently defensive of those with whom he often found himself in fundamental disagreement predated the thinking of John Stuart Mill, Lord Acton and Roosevelt's four freedoms, and came entirely from his view of religion and God. Religion was between God and an individual. Before it related to religions, faiths, churches or institutions, it related to people. Every individual must be free to determine his own attitude to God and, however mistaken, must never be victimised.

Where did he get it from? Not from human reason alone, as did the Greeks, whose respect for reason and free discussion didn't stop them denying it to women, slaves and barbarians.

For Helwys it was a fundamental Christian doctrine, based on his reading of scripture, especially the New Testament, where he saw all human beings as God's creatures, epitomised in Jesus and the way he treated people. Persuasion rather than compulsion. The right of the one to proclaim, balanced by the right of the other to reject. The freedom of people to choose their destiny. The need to break down barriers to deliver people from the tyranny of a religion found in Pharisaism; to claim freedom from state control as Paul claimed freedom from the tyranny of Judaism and the law; to release people from ecclesiastical and theological slavery as from all other forms of slavery, and all because we need it not only for ourselves today, but in order for society to preserve it for humanity.

None of this is to make a claim for Christianity as better than any other faith or no faith at all, and certainly not for Baptists, but simply to affirm that more important than religious liberty (or any other kind of liberty) is knowing why it matters.

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First published in The Guardian on May 20, 2006.

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About the Author

Alec Gilmore is a Baptist minister, writer and lecturer.

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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