Religious Toleration

Author Melinda Penner Published on 06/19/2014

Thomas Helwys was one of the early Puritans in 17th century England. He and his fellow Protestant believers met in secret to avoid punishment for dissenting with the state religion. Helwys’ wife was imprisoned and banished after her sentence.

Helwys wrote the first defense of religious liberty in English, challenging the religious authority of King James I.

Helwys was entirely orthodox in his views on the Trinity and the atonement, but he defended the practice of adult baptism and therefore stood at odds with the state church. (At that time, infant baptism was linked with citizenship.) Helwys’s belief in the lordship of Christ over conscience led him to question the authority of both kings and churches. His treatise A Short Declaration of the Mystery of Iniquity (1612) was the first defense of religious liberty in the English language. Here he boldly stated, “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.” Christ himself is sole Lord in his Church and sole Lord over the consciences of people, and this means that no human being can exercise authority over another’s conscience. “For men’s religion 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, Jews, or whatsoever, it appertains not to the earthly power to punish them in the least measure.”

Helwys believed in religious toleration for everyone, including Muslims and Jews.

He was arrested and imprisoned, where he died about 1616 at the age of 40.

Helwys was one of the many voices speaking for religious liberty in the early 17th century, and the Puritans who came to North America established that principal firmly in American values and law.