During this year, people from diverse religious backgrounds may wish to mark the 400th anniversary of the appearance of a literary work that was the product of acute prophetic imagination. That essay provides us with a telling reminder of the cost we may have to pay for bearing faithful witness to the truth of the gospel in an unfavourable environment.
In 1612, Thomas Helwys produced A Short Declaration on the Mystery of Iniquity. What a vital contribution this early Baptist leader made through his essay dealing with the legitimacy of the State and the role of its agents.
At a time when it was risky to challenge those in power, this Baptist leader was willing to address a controversial book to a feared king, questioning the ruler’s position of unrivalled authority.
Affirming that the king “has no more power” over the consciences of those over whom he reigned, Helwys declared: “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.”
He continued: “The King is a mortal man, and not God, therefore he has no power over the mortal soul of his subjects to make laws and ordinances for them and to set spiritual lords over them.”
Helwys could have claimed for Christians alone the right to freedom of conscience. Yet, he looked beyond narrow partisanship and affirmed an understanding of human nature that needs to be affirmed anew today.
Helwys stated that: “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 man. Let them be heretics, Turks [Muslims], Jews, or whatsoever, it appertains not to the earthly power to punish them in the least measure. This is made evident to our lord the king by the scriptures.”
Contrary to what some authors have said, Helwys was not the first person to issue a call for freedom of conscience to be respected by all. Therefore, we need not make exaggerated claims in order to show our appreciation of Helwys’ outstanding contribution in the cause of religious liberty.
What we may need to do, instead, is to ask ourselves if we have always maintained respect for the principle of religious liberty that Helwys promoted.
In this 400th year of the publication of A Declaration on the Mystery of Iniquity, we may wish to remember that, when the Church and its members hear and respond to the promptings of the Spirit of God, we are able to affirm the value God places on human beings. This will lead us to affirm certain fundamental rights that fall due to each person, irrespective of ethnicity or religion, and keep the heritage of Helwys alive.
– Neville Callam, General Secretary, Baptist World Alliance