Thomas Helwys: His Life and Legacy

By Matt Honeycutt

Thomas Helwys, (c.1575-1616), was an English lawyer, theologian, lay leader, and Reformed Arminian. He is also the founder of the first known Baptist church, and one of the primary joint progenitors of Baptist ecclesiology and the modern Baptist movement.[1] Although he did not distinguish himself as a General Baptist in name, Helwys became the father of the first General Baptists that eventually gave birth to the General-Free Will Baptist denomination. Next to this, Helwys played an important “role in the emerging struggle for religious freedom in England.”[2] Morgan notes, “Thomas Helwys, holds the distinction of being the first person to write a defense of universal religious freedom in the English language.”[3]  

The Life of Thomas Helwys

Thomas Helwys, the eldest son of Edmund and Margaret Helwys of England,[4] was born into wealth and raised on a Nottinghamshire estate called Broxtowe Hall.[5] After his father had died in 1590, Helwys began to study law in 1593 at Gray’s Inn in London, “an Inn of Court which was established to provide a general education as well as legal training for the sons of the landed gentry.”[6] Young Helwys attended Gray’s Inn so that he could eventually manage his family’s estate. He was a committed Anglican during this time, but he soon became acquainted with the Puritans and the Separatists.[7] After completing his law degree in 1595, Helwys moved back home and married Joan Ashmore.[8] Not long after moving back home to Broxtowe Hall, Helwys became sympathetic to the Puritan cause allowing one small congregation a congenial gathering place on his estate to conduct worship services.[9] It was at these services that Helwys met John Smyth (c.1570-1612), a moderate Puritan Calvinist, paedobaptist,[10] and former Anglican priest who with Helwys later embraced Separatism believing the Church of England was beyond reform.[11]

Smyth soon joined a Separatist Church in Gainesborough, Lincolnshire, in which he quickly became pastor. Helwys and his wife followed suit and became disciples of Smyth and joined the Gainesborough Separatist Church.[12] Throughout this time, the Crown was convicting and sentencing Separatist dissenters under Queen Elizabeth’s ‘Religion Act’ of 1592. After Queen Elizabeth died and King James I[13] ascended the throne, church life became increasingly difficult for Separatists. In 1608, King James I started to persecute Separatists most likely enforcing the ‘Conventicle Act’,[14] which must have eventually driven Smyth and Thomas Helwys to a sanctuary of religious freedom in Holland. Thomas’ wife, Joan, evidently did not join her husband in the Netherlands, because in 1607/08 she and others of Smyth’s Separatist Church were arrested and imprisoned in York Castle.[15] It is conjectured that Thomas Helwys was not arrested due to being away making plans for the migration to the Netherlands.[16]

With his wealth, it appears that Helwys may have financed the Holland trip accommodating Smyth and the Gainesborough congregation.[17] Upon arrival to Amsterdam, Smyth and Helwys settled in the bakehouse of a Jan Munter and established their Separatist Church within the confines of the adjoining buildings.[18] Smyth and Helwys’s church was the first Baptist Church to take form anywhere.[19] 

It was in Holland that possibly Helwys became familiar with Arminius’s Reformed theology. Pinson muses, “While in Holland, Smyth and Helwys apparently came into contact with the thinking of Jacobus Arminius, the father of Arminianism.”[20] It was during this time that Smyth rejected infant baptism and saw only believers’ baptism to be valid. Smyth started to question his own baptism thinking it was invalid and ended up re-baptizing himself, Helwys, and the majority of his congregation by pouring instead of submersion.[21]  

Not long after, Smyth again questioned his own ‘se-baptism’[22] all the while becoming acquainted with a local Mennonite Church convincing himself that the Dutch Waterlander Mennonites administered true ordinances.[23] Smyth and thirty-two of his congregation eventually petitioned the Waterlander Mennonites for membership into their church.[24] This is when Helwys and Smyth parted ways, which was over doctrinal issues than personal disagreements. Estep notes one reason for the schism when he states, “Helwys accused Smyth of holding to a Hofmanite [sic] Christology which was characteristic of most of the Dutch Mennonites…”

The Writings of Thomas Helwys

After the schism, Helwys began writing a confession to defend his position outlining six errors of Smyth’s theology. In the preface to his A Declaration of Faith of English People Remaining at Amsterdam in Holland, Helwys listed Smyth’s errors as

  • (1) Christ’s flesh did not come from the Virgin Mary.
  • (2) Men are justified partly by the righteousness of God and partly by man’s inherent righteousness.
  • (3) Adam’s sin was not imputed to any but all men are born in innocence.
  • (4) The Church and ministry must come by succession.
  • (5) An elder of one church is an elder of all churches.
  • (6) Magistrates may not be members of Christ’s church and remain in their position.[25] 

It was also during this time in Holland that Helwys penned his A Short Declaration of the Mystery of Iniquity, which “contained the first sustained plea by an English divine for universal religious toleration and a denial of the right of the State to legislate on matters which concern a man’s relation to God.”[26] In his Mystery of Iniquity, Helwys posits,

Christ is the head of his Church . . . Let it suffice the King to have all rule over his peoples, bodies, and goods; and let not our lord King give his power to be exercised over the spirits of his people . . . For men’s religion to God, is betwixt God and themselves; the king shall not answer for it, neither may the king be judged between God and man. Let them be heretics, Turks, Jews, or whatsoever it appertains not to the earthly power to punish them in the last measure.[27]

Eventually, within Helwys’s confessions emerged early General Baptist doctrines. Bracey notes, “By this time, Helwys had outlined a declaration that characterized the theology of the General Baptists. Evident from his writings, some of their teachings included the anointing of the sick with oil, believer’s baptism by immersion, feet washing, general atonement, the laying on of hands, mankind’s free will, religious liberty, sola gratiasola fidesola scriptura, and the Trinity.”[28] 

With the schism also came a flood of confessions from all sides that were Baptistic in nature.  Estep notes the significance when he says, “A flurry of confessional statements followed on the part of all parties involved—[sic] Waterlander Mennonites, Smyth, Helwys, and their respective congregations. From these confessions and the correspondence of Helwys with the Mennonites, it is possible to detect the emergence of a distinctive Baptist faith.”[29]

Helwys remained in Amsterdam for two years after the Schism until he started to be convicted over his fleeing from England to avoid persecution years earlier.[30] At the end of Mystery of Iniquity, Helwys expressed his feelings of conviction.  He stated in his own words,

Thus doth the appostle commend the Churches of Judea, and off Thessalonica, for their constant suffering of persecution in their owne Countries, not once advising or teaching them to flee out of their Countries, to avoid persecution: This is a new doctrine of devils brought in by men, that were never found in the faith.[31]

Soon after, Helwys returned to England and established the first Baptist church in London outside the city walls of Spitalfields.[32] This was the first known General Baptist church on English soil.[33] There are two basic reasons that historians have suggested why Helwys would want to return to England.  Clayton states, “(1) Puritans and Anglicans had criticized flight to avoid persecution for several years, and Helwys had been in correspondence with the Suffolk reformists who reproved flight. (2) Helwys had become convinced of the validity of his church.  Thus he felt he should return to England where truth was needed.”[34]

After the courageous move back to England, Helwys began a vigorous campaign entreating the government for freedom of religion. Helwys boldly wrote the King stating that the king, although in authority, was in no way to lord over his subject’s consciences.[35] Against the counsel of his supporters and aware of the danger, Helwys took King James I a copy of his Mystery of Iniquity that quickly landed him and some of his followers in Newgate Prison.[36] It is inferred that sometime around 1616, at the age of forty, Helwys was arrested and soon after died while in Newgate prison.[37]

Although Thomas Helwys established the first known Baptist church, he is equally if not more importantly, known for the three doctrines he advocated. Bracey highlights that Helwys, “advocated the doctrines of religious liberty, believer’s baptism, and general atonement. Contained in these three doctrines is the overarching theme of free will. … It is in these doctrines that Americans, Baptists, and Arminians find a piece of their history; and it is in these doctrines that Free Will Baptists find their historic faith.”[38]


[1] J. Matthew Pinson, Arminian and Baptist: Explorations in a Theological Tradition (Nashville: Randall House, 2015) 57.  Also, Marvin Jones, The Beginnings of Baptist Ecclesiology: The Foundational Contributions of Thomas Helwys (Eugene, OR: Pickwick, 2017). Note: John Smyth (c.1570-1612) was the other joint founder of the modern Baptist movement.

[2] J. Glenwood Clayton, “Thomas Helwys: a Baptist Founding Father,” Baptist History And Heritage 8, no. 1 (January 1973): 2, Accessed January 26, 2017, ATLA Religion Database with ATLASerials, EBSCOhost.

[3] Phillip Morgan, “Thomas Helwys: Father of Religious Freedom,” The Helwys Society Forum, accessed January 26, 2017, http://www.helwyssocietyforum.com/?p=5566.

[4] Matthew S. Bracey, “The Life and Writings of Thomas Helwys: A Review,” The Helwys Society Forum, accessed January 25, 2017, http://www.helwyssocietyforum.com/?p=1289.

[5] Clayton, Thomas Helwys, 2-3.

[6] Ibid, 3.  Also, Bracey, Life and Writings.

[7] Bracey, Life and Writings. “Puritans” were a non-violent, zealous band of sixteenth and seventeenth century English Reformed Protestants who wanted to “purify” the Church of England of its Catholic doctrinal roots. “Separatists” were another group about this time that decided the Church of England was beyond reform and ‘separated’ to form independent congregations.

[8] William R. Estep, Jr., “Thomas Helwys: Bold Architect of Baptist Policy on Church-State Relations.” Baptist History And Heritage 20, no. 3 (1985): 25.  Also, Clayton, Thomas Helwys, 3.

[9] Bracey, Life and Writings. See also Estep, Jr., Thomas Helwys, 24-34.

[10] J. Matthew Pinson, A Free Will Baptist Handbook: Heritage, Beliefs, and Ministries (Nashville: Randall House, 1998), 2. “Paedobaptists” were infant baptizers.

[11] Bracey, The Life and Writings. See also, Clayton, Thomas Helwys, 4.

[12] Ibid. Thomas and Joan were married in 1595 and had seven children, the first was born in 1596 around the time of Smyth’s introduction to the family.

[13] This is the same King James who, with the persistence of the Puritans, authorized a new translation of the Bible called the “Authorized Version” or “King James Version” published in c.1611.

[14] Estep, Thomas Helwys, 25. The Conventicle Act (Religion Act of 1592) imprisoned anyone over 16 years of age who did not attend the state church (Church of England), defied Queen Elizabeth’s authority, coaxed others not to attend the state church, or attended illegal religious meetings. This Act is possibly the same act that imprisoned the Baptist minister John Bunyan, author of The Pilgrim’s Progress, later on in 1661.

[15] Ibid, 25.

[16] Clayton, Thomas Helwys, 5.

[17] Estep, Jr., Thomas Helwys.

[18] Ibid, 25.

[19] F. L. Cross, and Elizabeth A. Livingstone, “Thomas Helwys,” In The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church (Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2005), 753–54.

[20] Pinson, Handbook, 3.

[21] Clayton, Thomas Helwys, 5.

[22] According to Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary, “Se-Baptism” is the doctrine or practice of baptizing oneself.

[23] Ibid, 5.

[24] Ibid, 6.

[25] Ibid, 6.

[26] Cross and Livingstone, Thomas Helwys, 753–4.

[27] Bracey, Historical Sketch.

[28] Ibid.

[29] Estep, Jr., Thomas Helwys, 27.

[30] Clayton, Thomas Helwys, 7.

[31] Ibid.

[32] Ibid, 8.

[33] Ibid.

[34] Ibid, 7.

[35] Bracey, Historical Sketch.

[36] Ibid, 8.

[37] Ibid.

[38] Bracey, Historical Sketch.

%d bloggers like this: