Four hundred years ago and decades before the Enlightenment, a largely-unsung hero of humanity died alone in a dark prison cell in the city of London.
From a prominent family and a man of education in a world absent freedom of conscience, Thomas Helwys forsook his privileged life in a quest to set free all human minds.
Helwy’s 1616 martyrdom in the hell-hole known as Newgate Prison is a little-known but important moment in world history. Bolder and more provocative than the earlier Protestant Reformers or his contemporaries, he wrote and published a book demanding freedom of human conscience. Declaring that kings had no right to force religion upon the people, Helwys sent a copy of his book to King James I. A hand-written inscription inside the book informed the king that he had no authority over the human soul, the seat of conscience. For denying kingly dominion over human minds, James had Helwys arrested and subsequently imprisoned. Upon his death, James hoped the clamor for human rights had been put to rest.
The revolution, however, had only begun. Helwys and other early Baptists were dangerous subversives, the envisioners and spear-tips of a new world of freedom long resisted, often with violence, by kings and clerics.
Early Baptists preached an anti-authoritarian gospel of Christ who, although Lord of all, never imposed faith upon anyone. Coerced religion was inauthentic, voluntary faith the only route to religious truth. Freedom of conscience enabled voluntary faith, equal religious liberty for all protected freedom of conscience, and church state separation assured equal religious liberty for all.
With each link of their freedom chain heretical and treasonous, Baptists’ future looked bleak. For nearly two centuries persecuted by Christian authorities clinging to an Old Testament culture of theocracy, they found allies in Enlightenment thinkers who embraced Baptist freedom principles not from the perspective of religious faith, but from that of human reason. From the juncture of Baptist convictions and Enlightenment reasoning emerged a maturing and world-changing human rights movement.
In the ensuing centuries challenges of slavery, gender, economics and sexuality stretched and pulled the dimensions and scope of an ever-unfolding human rights narrative, leading to no shortage of religious, social and cultural controversies through the present day. Enticed by social status, cultural privilege and political power, Baptists have far too often forsaken the uncoercive Jesus of their faith heritage and abandoned the path of human rights.
Faithful and informed Baptists, however, will not forget Thomas Helwys and the revolutionary beginnings of their faith. Nor will they shrink from the hard, subversive, often-unpopular and always others-centered commitment of championing human freedom as modeled by Jesus.