Fisher Humphreys, Prof. of Theology (ret.) Birmingham, AL
Who is a Baptist? What is a theological contribution? Twenty years ago James Wm. McClendon began the first volume of his Systematic Theology with an essay that seems to me to represent a high water mark in commentary on baptist theology. His essay is about what he called small-b baptists, a group that comprises not only persons who refer to themselves as Baptists but also most of the heirs of the Radical Reformation of the sixteenth century, together with all persons in the Barton-Stone-Campbell tradition of the Churches of Christ and the Christian Church–Disciples of Christ, most evangelicals, most Fundamentalists, and most Pentecostals and charismatics.
McClendon thought that there is very little baptist theology, so little that it can be mastered without much effort. He described baptist theology as almost entirely derivative of the work of others. He said that baptists’ poor theological performance is a result of their lack of trust in their particular vision. He wrote that “The baptists in all their variety and disunity failed to see in their own heritage, their own way of using Scripture, their own communal practices, their own guiding vision, a resource for theology unlike the prevailing tendencies round about them.”
He defined the guiding vision of baptists as
“shared awareness of the present Christian community as the primitive community and the eschatological community
He wrote that the key to understanding the present church as the primitive church is a recognition of the importance of narrative for the life of communities. It is because the story of the Christians of the New Testament era is our story that those Christians are, as is said here in the south, our people.
I want to offer two comments on this important essay by this creative baptist theologian.
The first is that it is perfectly plausible to link self-designated Baptists with the Radical Reformation and the other groups, and there is value in doing so.
But, of course, there is value in linking Baptists with other groups such as, for examples, Roman Catholics because both Catholics and Baptists embrace the great Christian tradition, or Lutherans because Baptists and Lutherans both have such a high estimate of the importance of preaching, or the Reformed and the Presbyterians because the structure of most Baptists’ theology owes more to the thought of John Calvin than to any other antecedent theology. It seems to me that McClendon’s grouping is useful but not mandatory.
Moreover, while it is true that the earliest Baptists such as John Smyth and Thomas Helwys did not refer to themselves as Baptists, it also is true that we now have about three and a half centuries of persons who have referred to themselves as Baptists, so that it is quite possible to think of Baptists as that set of persons who call themselves “Baptists” together with their immediate spiritual ancestors. Those will be my concern in this paper.
My second comment is that the plausibility of McClendon’s proposal that the impoverishment of baptist theology is a consequence of baptists’ lack of confidence in their vision, depends on one’s acceptance of McClendon’s understanding of the subject of theology. McClendon defines theology as
“the discovery, understanding or interpretation, and transformation of the convictions of a convictional community, including the discovery and critical revision of their relation to one another and to whatever else there is.”
Although in this definition the subject of theology initially is said to be convictions held by communities, McClendon does add “whatever else there is,” which presumably includes God. Even so, if the principal subject of theology is a community’s convictions about God, it probably is inevitable that a lack of confidence in one’s community’s convictions will lead to a lack of theological reflection upon those convictions.
But what if one does not concur that the principal subject of theology is a community’s convictions? What if one thinks that the principal subject of theology is God and the relationships that obtain between God and human beings and their world?
When one adopts this understanding of theology, it turns out that Baptists have written a great deal of it. And while it is true that their theology has been influenced by traditions other than the small-b baptist tradition, that is seen no longer as a liability but as an asset. It is not only permissible but desirable that Baptists should be attentive to what Paul Tillich called Catholic substance and Protestant principle, as well as to the distinctive themes that the Radical Reformation added to those.
If, having taken these steps, one asks, “What theological contributions have Baptists made?”—two seem to me to be especially important and enduring.
An Intentional Faith Community Achieved by Reserving Baptism for Believers
The first Baptist contribution embodies an irony. It is a contribution to the universal church, but it comes by way of a practice that creates a deep chasm between Baptists and most of the rest of the church. It is the practice of reserving baptism for persons who have confessed faith in Christ.
As is well known, it was the act of John Smyth, 400 years ago, of baptizing himself and then his congregation of about forty persons in Amsterdam, that marks the beginning of the Baptist movement. Smyth and his congregation denied that the practice of initiating infants into the church by a rite involving water, a rite which they themselves had previously undergone, was baptism in the biblical sense. Across the intervening four centuries Baptists have continued to engage in the practice of baptizing only believers. Most other churches accept each other’s baptisms, provided they were performed in the Threefold Name, but most Baptist churches refuse to accept any of those rites as biblical baptism unless the person being baptized was a confessing Christian.
Because believers baptism creates a chasm between Baptists and other Christians, Baptists who take seriously Jesus’ prayer that his followers “may all be one” feel compelled to try to justify their exclusive practice. What warrant can they offer for departing from the 1600-year-old tradition of almost all churches regarding baptism and thereby dividing the followers of Christ?
They offer two warrants.
The first is that, by reserving baptism for believers, they are restoring the faith and practice of the earliest Christian churches. The restoration of biblical practices was important to the first Baptists, and it remains important to Baptists today. James Wm. McClendon was right about that.
However, the appeal to restorationism creates two problems for modern Baptists. The first concerns what the New Testament actually says. It seems to me not to be absolutely certain that in the New Testament era baptism was reserved for believers. Entire families, including small children, may have been baptized together by the first churches. After all, the first Christians were Jews who were accustomed to a rite of initiation for infant boys into their Jewish religion and who therefore cannot be assumed to have been averse to a rite of initiation for infants into their Christian religion. Moreover, while it is not certain that no infants were baptized by the earliest churches, it is certain that Baptists cannot claim the authority of the New Testament for their rejection of infant baptism, since no such rejection appears in its pages; and it also is certain that Baptists were acting contrary to Jesus’ prayer for the unity of his followers when they rejected as biblical the baptism of infants and so created a chasm between themselves and other Christians.
The second problem with the appeal to restorationism concerns the entire program of restorationism. In my judgment, there always are limits to restorationism. No Baptists have called for Christians today to dress in robes, as the first Christians presumably did, nor has any Baptist proposed that it is a betrayal of apostolic practice to use printed copies of the New Testament, which Baptists have almost always done even though the earliest churches did not. If Baptists are not committed enough to restorationism to wear robes, and if they engage in the non-biblical practice of using printed copies of the New Testament in their services, neither of which contributes to the disunity of the church, they can hardly expect that an appeal to restorationism will justify reserving baptism for believers, given that it contributes so much to the disunity of the church. It seems to me that, if there is a justification for believers baptism, it must lie elsewhere than in restorationism.
One must look, I think, to another outcome of reserving baptism for believers if one is to find that justification. That outcome is the creation of a church which is an intentional faith community.
In my judgment, this achievement is of such a magnitude that it does in fact justify believers baptism. With a bit of historical imagination, one can appreciate that magnitude.
In Christendom, where infants were baptized, the church was not an intentional faith community because its members included persons who, when they reached the age of discretion, might or might not follow through on what had been affirmed on their behalf in their infancy. Monasteries and convents were intentional faith communities, but, after the dissolution of the monasteries, Protestants had no place to go if they wanted to belong to a fellowship of persons who had publicly committed themselves to follow the way of Jesus. Many of them longed to have such a place.
Baptists created such communities by reserving baptism for believers. For most of their history, most Baptist churches have not received into their membership persons who have not been baptized as believers. Moreover, even the churches which have done so, have received only practicing believers, so that these Baptist churches as well as the others have remained intentional faith communities.
It is difficult to exaggerate the value of an intentional faith community. This is one of the things that Christians most need in their effort to live the challenging life to which their Lord calls them. It is particularly well suited to be a means of grace to the people of God.
Although a believers church is an important asset of Baptist life, it is not Baptists alone who have benefitted from it. For example, the Pentecostal and charismatic denominations have themselves adopted believers baptism; according to David Barrett, there are now about 605 million Pentecostal and charismatic Christians worldwide, many of them in believers churches.
Moreover, some of the churches which continue to practice infant baptism have been influenced by the Baptist vision of a believers church.
Beginning in 1978 I participated for a decade in a conversation between Southern Baptist and Roman Catholic academics. There were about fifteen members on each team, and we met for two weekends a year for a total of 18 meetings. We became friends, and we wrote three books together. One Sunday morning, while we were meeting in Washington, we were traveling on a bus to attend a worship service in a church, and I happened to be seated next to the leader of the Catholic group, James Niedergeses, the bishop of Nashville, a truly wonderful Christian leader. I took the opportunity to ask him about how he conducted confirmations.
He told me that he got a list of all of the confirmands in the diocese and sent each one an individual letter. In the letter he asked them to write him back and tell him two things. First, they were to tell him what Jesus Christ means to them. Second, they were to describe for him what it means to follow Jesus in the community of the church. He told them to write the letters themselves, without any help from their priests and, in the case of children, without any help from their parents.
He told me that he personally read all of the letters. If the writers were clear that Jesus is Savior and Lord, and if they indicated that they understood that by undergoing confirmation they were making an intentional commitment to be followers of Jesus and to do that in the fellowship of the church, then he wrote them back to say that he looked forward to confirming them.
Occasionally, however, he got a letter which made it clear that the writer either did not understand that Jesus is Savior and Lord, or else did not understand that by undergoing confirmation he or she was making an intentional commitment to follow Jesus in the community of the church. When he got those letters, the bishop said, he wrote gentle replies thanking the letter-writers and saying that he would not be confirming them this year, and encouraging them to continue to attend confirmation classes with a view to being confirmed the following year.
There is no reason to assume that what Bishop Niedergeses was doing was directly influenced by the Baptist vision of a believers church, although the fact that his diocese was located in Nashville does seem a little suspicious. But I think that the same grace of God that led the Baptists to baptize only believers led this great bishop to conduct confirmations in a way that would insure that the confirmed members of his church constituted believers church.
A believers church brought about by the practice of believers baptism is a great contribution that Baptists have made to the wider church, and it is a contribution of such magnitude that it provides at least a partial justification for the fact that it creates a chasm between Baptists and other Christians.
Two additional things should be said about this chasm. In my judgment, Baptists bear a special responsibility to find ways to build bridges over the chasm because they created it. One form of bridge-building is to cultivate an appreciation for the understanding of confirmation which Bishop Niedergeses expressed and which is found in many other churches as well. Baptists in England have created a splendid document which does this, entitled Believing and Being Baptized, and it would be well if similar efforts were made here in the United States.
Also, as great as Baptist gratitude for the creation of an intentional faith community is, Baptists need to appreciate that this is not the most important thing about the church. Here are some examples of more important things. God created the church. The Father redeems persons through Jesus Christ and the Spirit binds them together in a community. The church worships the Triune God. The church is the people of God, the body of Christ, and a holy priesthood. The church remembers and preaches the gospel. The church pursues a mission that God has given to it. Baptists inherited these and other important truths about the church from the churches who came before them. The Baptist contribution did not overturn that rich legacy but added to it the idea of a believers church achieved by the practice of believers baptism.
Religious Liberty Achieved by Separation of Church and State
I turn now to a second theological contribution of the Baptists, one they have made to the world at large. It is the contribution of religious liberty. While others have championed religious liberty, the Baptist contribution came early, was vocal, cost Baptists dearly, and has been politically fruitful. The story of that contribution has been told often, so I want to attend to just one of its most luminous moments, the work of Thomas Helwys.
Before the English men and women who were to become the first Baptists had left England for the Netherlands, they already were political dissenters because they resisted the authority of the bishops whom King James had appointed to oversee the spiritual life of England. They immigrated to Amsterdam in order to be safe from political reprisals.
Sometime around 1611–which was the last year in which persons in England were executed for religious reasons and also the year of the first publication of the King James Version of the Bible–about a dozen of these first Baptists returned to London under the leadership of the layman Thomas Helwys. Helwys had written a book entitled A Short Declaration of the Mystery of Iniquity
, and he began to distribute it in London. He was arrested and imprisoned, and within five years he had died. Joe Early, Jr., noted, “Helwys paid for his convictions with his life. When he perished in Newgate Prison, he became a martyr not only for Baptists but for all people who believe in freedom of conscience and the freedom to practice their religion without the fear of persecution.
Helwys sent a copy of his book to King James with a handwritten inscription on the flyleaf; that copy is now in the Bodleian Library at Oxford. Leon McBeth has written that this inscription “is an admirable summary of the entire book.”
I find it touching to see these words in Helwys’s own handwriting and to reflect on what it cost him to write this note and this book:
Hear O King, and diligently note the counsel of your poor, and let their complaints come before thee. The king is a mortal man, and not God, therefore hath no power over the immortal souls of his subjects, to make laws and ordinances for them, and to set spiritual Lords over them. If the king have authority to make spiritual Lords and laws, then he is an immortal God and not a mortal man. O king, be not seduced by deceivers to sin so against God whom thou oughtest to obey, nor against thy poor subjects who ought and will obey thee in all things with body life and goods, or else let their lives be taken from the earth. God save the king. Spittlefield near London. Tho: Helwys.
I want now to make eight observations about the inscription and the book.
First, neither here nor in the book does Helwys argue that the king’s reign is illegitimate; instead, he emphasizes the legitimacy of that reign and the obligations of British citizens “who ought and will obey thee in all things with body life and goods, or else let their lives be taken from the earth.” Before leaving Amsterdam Helwys had written in a confession that “It is a fearful sin to . . . despise government.”
He did not commit that sin.
Second, in addressing King James Helwys does not call for more citizen participation in government, let alone for the establishment of a democratic republic. He does not argue that the king’s authority is derived from the consent of his citizens. His concern about freedom is a political concern, but it is not about political freedom. It is about religious freedom from political oppression.
Third, it is Helwys’s theology that gives rise to his argument for religious liberty.
Specifically, Helwys believed that it is God who gives kings and other political leaders their authority. In support of this he repeatedly quotes passages such as Paul’s statement in Romans 13 that “there is no authority except from God, and those authorities that exist have been instituted by God” (Rom 13:1).
Fourth, Helwys believed that God, who gives political leaders their authority, also sets limits to that authority. Kings are authorized to do some things but not others. They can exceed their authority by certain kinds of behavior.
Fifth, Helwys believed that human beings live in two realms, the earthly realm in which kings have authority, and the spiritual realm in which God alone has authority. In support of this two kingdom idea Helwys quoted Jesus’ saying about giving to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God.
Of course, Jesus’ subject was neither religious liberty nor the separation of church and state, but rather the appropriateness of paying taxes even when they are unpopular and are used to support an oppressive government. Nevertheless, Jesus’ words served for Helwys as a suitable slogan for his differentiation of the spiritual and earthly kingdoms.
My sixth observation concerns the fulcrum upon which Helwys’s argument turns, which is that God has not authorized kings to oversee the religious life of their subjects. Helwys wrote of the spiritual kingdom: “With this kingdom our lord the king has nothing to do.”
When kings attempt to govern in the spiritual kingdom, they are claiming an authority they do not possess. In the handwritten inscription Helwys wrote that “The king . . . hath no power over the immortal souls of his subjects, to make laws and ordinances for them, and to set spiritual Lords over them.” In the book Helwys asked: “And will our lord the king not withstanding all that Christ has done for him in giving him such [an earthly] kingdom, with such great dignity and power therein, will the king not withstanding enter upon Christ’s kingdom and appoint . . . laws, lords, lawmakers over or in this kingdom of Christ?”
Seventh, when a king enforces religion upon his people, he is effectively committing the sin of idolatry. In the inscription Helwys puts it this way: “If the king have authority to make spiritual Lords and laws, then he is an immortal God and not a mortal man.” Helwys called King James to resist the temptation to do this. “O King, be not seduced by deceivers to sin so against God.”
A useful way to summarize the political conclusion which Helwys draws from these theological convictions is to employ anachronistic language. Negatively, Helwys is not arguing that Christians should withdraw from the public square. Brian Haymes has written: “Helwys recognized Christians had some responsibility for the common life of the State. He held, against the Mennonites and John Smyth, that a Christian could act as a magistrate. Here was the decision to be engaged in the larger society.”
Positively, Helwys is calling for the disestablishment of the Church of England. He is telling the king to “make no laws respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” I think that Jason K. Lee is right that Helwys embraced “the complete separation of church and state.”
But, as extraordinary as this is, we still have not come to the component of Helwys’s political program which was destined to be most fruitful.
Helwys describes his political goal as “that blessed liberty.”
But liberty for whom?
My eighth observation is that Helwys’s answer to this question displays how radical his vision was. In the first part of his book, Helwys devotes a great deal of ingenuity to the cause of demonstrating exegetically that biblical references to the mystery of iniquity, the man of sin, the abomination of desolation, and the seven-headed, ten-horned beast are all about the Roman Catholic Church.
He argues this with so much energy and enthusiasm that it is difficult to imagine anyone being more opposed to the Catholic Church than Thomas Helwys. Moreover, he cheerfully acknowledges that if British Catholics commit political treason, the king is entitled to deal with them severely, for God has given him political authority over all of his subjects. Despite all this, when later in the book Helwys turns to the religious commitments of those same British Catholics, he sounds an entirely different note: “We do freely profess that our lord the king has no more authority over their consciences 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 then Helwys wrote the most stunning words in his book: “For men’s religion to God is between God and themselves. The king shall not answer for it. Neither may the king be 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.”
Two things are apparent in this justly famous passage. First, Helwys’s claim was a radical break with tradition. The traditional view was that a Christian king has not only the authority but the responsibility to require that his subjects accept and practice the Christian religion. This view, known by the Latin phrase cuius regio, eius religio, was held by Protestant and Catholic princes alike: “In a prince’s realm, a prince’s religion.” The traditional view also included the conviction that at the final judgment God would hold a king such as James I responsible for whether or not he imposed the Christian religion upon his subjects.
Helwys wants to pluck up this entire tradition, root and branch. He tells King James that the traditional view is a seduction by evil men. He assures the king that “the king shall not answer” to God for the religious lives of his subjects; they alone shall “stand themselves before the judgment seat of God to answer for themselves.”
Helwys wrote: “Then let our lord the king in all happiness and prosperity sit in his own princely throne of that mighty kingdom of Great Britain, which God has given to the king. . . . And Let our Lord Jesus Christ in power and majesty sit upon David’s throne . . . which his Father has given unto him. . . . king [James] must needs grant that as he is an earthly king he can have no power to rule in this spiritual kingdom of Christ.”
Presumably Helwys realized that if the king followed this counsel, Jews and Muslims and Christians of all kinds, and presumably anyone else, would be left free to relate to God in the ways that seem right to them. The Mystery of Iniquity is not a call for freedom just for Helwys’s religion but for the religion or irreligion of all citizens.
This brings us to a second point. We have seen that Helwys’s principal theological argument for religious liberty is that God has not authorized kings to govern their subjects’ spiritual lives. But when Helwys writes that “men’s religion to God is between themselves and God,” we hear intimations of another argument, namely, that kings should not interfere in religion because religion is a personal matter between human beings and God. Helwys had hinted at this earlier in the book when he wrote: “Oh, let the king judge, is it not most [fair] that men should choose their religion themselves, seeing they only must stand themselves before the judgement seat of God to answer for themselves?”
When men “choose their religion themselves,” it is personal.
To say that it is personal is not, however, to say that it is private; in fact, in both these passages Helwys describes religion in social terms. He uses plural language. He does not write that one’s religion is between God and oneself, but rather that “men’s religion to God is between God and themselves.” He does not write that one should choose one’s religion oneself, but that “men should choose their religion themselves.” This is consonant with Helwys’ own life as an influential participant and later on as the leader of a community of Baptists who together were engaged in what Doug Weaver has described so perfectly as “a search for the New Testament church.”
What Helwys was talking about is not religion that is private but religion that is sincere. When a king prescribes religious practices for his subjects, he is making it more difficult for them to respond in sincerity to God. In the inscription Helwys wrote not only that the king should not sin against God but also that the king should not sin against his poor subjects. One reason that it is a sin against citizens for a king to appoint bishops over them and to make spiritual laws for them is that this tempts citizens to submit to the laws and the bishops for political convenience rather than as a genuine response to God.
Helwys was a devout Christian leader whose principal concern was that people come to trust and worship God in sincerity. He treasured religious liberty because as a means to the end of a more authentic Christian faith.
Helwys’ arguments for religious liberty remain as compelling today as they were when he made them. But there is another argument for religious liberty which also is compelling that, so far as I have been able to tell, does not appear in The Mystery of Iniquity. To use anachronistic language once more, it is the argument that human beings “are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights.” In modern politics, it is understood that only those nations which promote human rights are treating their citizens with respect; to deny citizens their human rights is to abuse them.
Helwys could have offered ample biblical and theological warrants for the idea that human beings are worthy of respect. After all, did not a psalmist famously write of human beings that God had “made them a little lower than God”? But Helwys does not seem to have made use of this powerful argument, nor does he employ the language of “rights.”
Part of what makes the concept of human rights so useful today is that, although it may have originated in a particular theological vision, it can be appreciated and embraced by people who do not share that vision. For example, many of the nations which beginning in 1948 became signatories to “The Universal Declaration of Human Rights” of the United Nations, would have been indifferent to the Jewish and Christian theological vision of human dignity which had contributed so much to the concept of human rights.
Even though Thomas Helwys planted seeds of religious liberty, he might be surprised to see how much fruit those seeds have borne and how good the fruit is. The United States was the first national laboratory in which a lively experiment in religious liberty was conducted, and the experiment continues to be wildly successful here. Both the nation and the church are flourishing. America remains reasonably united without the cement of an official religion to bind it together. As for the church, the American people have not all become secularists; in fact, in terms of membership, beliefs, and practices, America is the most religious of the industrially developed nations, followed at some distance by Ireland and Italy.
My proposal has been that the Baptists’ contribution to religious liberty, like their contribution to a believers church, derived from their theological convictions. Their thinking about God led Baptists to the conviction that in a religiously pluralistic society the way to secure maximal religious liberty for all citizens is to effect a separation of church and state, just as it was their thinking about God that led them to the conviction that, as long as baptism is understood as a rite of initiation, the way to effect a believers church is to reserve baptism for believers. The fact that we today think of both of these things as so obvious as to be self-evident, gives the measure of the success of the Baptist theological vision.
Today many individuals and groups contribute to the vitality of a believers church. Along with them all, Baptists hold an honored place. The Baptist witness concerning a believers church was early, vocal, and fruitful, and some Baptists paid dearly for it. The church universal today is a better place because of their sacrifice.
This article was originally published in Baptist History and Heritage Journal (Winter 2010)
and is used with permission of the Baptist History and Heritage Society, 3001 Mercer University Drive, Atlanta, GA 30341, www.baptisthistory.org
James Wm. McClendon, Systematic Theology
, revised edition (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2002 ), 17-44.
Ibid., 26, 30, his italics.
Ibid., 23, his bold font.
Four books which give some idea of the scope of Baptist theology are William H. Brackney, A Genetic History of Baptist Thought
(Macon: Mercer University Press, 2004); James Leo Garrett, Baptist Theology: A Four-Century Study
(Macon: Mercer University Press, 2009); Timothy George and David S. Dockery, eds., Baptist Theologians
(Nashville: Broadman Press, 1990); (see also the editors’ Theologians of the Baptist Tradition
(Nashville: Broadman and Holman Publishers, 2001)); and James E. Tull, Shapers of Baptist Thought
(Valley Forge: Judson Press, 1972).
Paul Tillich, Systematic Theology
III (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1967), 45.
Some Baptists offer others. For example, H. Wheeler Robinson said that, in addition to the two described here, a third warrant was that believers baptism expresses more clearly than infant baptism the importance of conversion. H. Wheeler Robinson, Baptist Principles
ed. (London: The Carey Kingsgate Press, 1960 ), 16-27.
David B. Barrett, Todd M. Johnson, and Peter F. Crossing, “Christian World Communions: Five Overviews of Global Christianity, AD 1800–2025,” International Bulletin of Missionary Research
33:1 (January 2009): 32.
The third book, unlike the first two, was intended for a popular audence. Recently, thanks to the efforts of my co-editor, Sister Mary Aquin O’Neill, RSM, is now available online at the website of the institution in which she ministers: http://www.mountsaintagnes.org/Resources/Publications/Index.aspx.
Some theologians in churches which baptize infants say that, while Christian initiation is begun with baptism, it is incomplete until a person is confirmed. See, for example, Alan Richardson, ed., A Dictionary of Christian Theology
(Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1969), s. v. “Initiation, Christian.”
The Baptist Union of Great Britain, Believing and Being Baptized
(Didcot: Baptist House, no date [about 1996]).
Joe Early, Jr., The Life and Writings of Thomas Helwys
(Macon: Mercer University Press, 2009), 50.
Leon McBeth, English Baptist Literature on Religious Liberty to 1689
(New York: Arno Press, 1980), 31. This estimate is confirmed by Brian Haymes, “On Religious Liberty: re-reading A Short Declaration of the Mystery of Iniquity
in London in 2005,” The Baptist Quarterly
42:3 (July 2007): 198.
Some spelling modernized.
William L. Lumpkin, Baptist Confessions of Faith
(Valley Forge: Judson Press, 1959), 122.
This is not to suggest that his theology exhausts the content of his arguments; for other arguments, see McBeth, 33ff.
Thomas Helwys, A Short Declaration of the Mystery of Iniquity
, ed. Richard Groves (Macon: Mercer University Press, 1998), 34. Another modernized version of the text is available in Early, 155-310. A photocopy of the first edition of Helwys’s book is available online at http://www.baptistlibraryonline.com/library/Helwys/mystery. The books edited by Groves and Early both contain helpful background essays and comments on The Mystery of Iniquity
. For some unknown reason, Early does not refer to the earlier edition by Groves. Helwys’s argument for religious liberty appears principally in Book II.
Helwys, A Short Declaration of the Mystery of Iniquity,
Brian Haymes, “On Religious Liberty,” 211. I delivered the present paper at a conference at Baylor University in the fall of 2009. Only afterward did I learn, from my friend Curtis Freeman, of Haymes’s article which was originally the Baptist Historical Society’s Annual Lecture for 2007. I have incorporated into this article several references to Haymes’s lecture because I found many of his conclusions identical to my own. Concerning the public square, however, it was Haymes’s article which alerted me to the fact that his welcoming of magistrates into the church amounted to an affirmation of the appropriateness of Christian witness in public life.
Jason K. Lee, The Theology of John Smyth: Puritan, Separatist, Baptist, Mennonite
(Macon: Mercer University Press, 2003), 285. Lee is making the point that on this issue Helwys is in agreement with John Smyth. There seems to be a consensus among historians that what Helwys was calling for was the separation of church and state. For example, Leon McBeth wrote: “Helwys actually was pleading for separation of church and state.” McBeth, 32; J. Glenwood Clayton wrote: “The separation of church and state is a logical result and implication of the above distinction between temporal and spiritual power.” J. Glenwood Clayton, “Thomas Helwys: A Baptist Founding Father,” Baptist History and Heritage
VIII:1 (January 1973): 9-10.
Helwys’s combining of respect for government with a call for government to grant religious liberty led William Estep to write: “I think it beyond reasonable contradiction that Thomas Helwys was, indeed, the bold architect of Baptist polity.” William R. Estep, Jr., “Thomas Helwys: Bold Architect of Baptist Policy on Church-State Relations,” Baptist History and Heritage
XX:3 (July 1985): 32. Most of this article reappears in William R. Estep, Revolution within the Revolution: The First Amendment in Historical Context, 1612-1789
(Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1990), 50-54.