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Thomas Helwys, A Short Declaration of the Mystery of Iniquity

by Walter B. Shurden

Callaway Professor of Christianity

Executive Director, The Center for Baptist Studies

Mercer University, Macon, Georgia


Ask Baptist historians to draw up a list of ten Baptist classics and Thomas Helwys’s A Short Declaration of the Mystery of Iniquity will be on it. It may be at the top of most of those lists. It should be. Unfortunately, many Baptists have never heard of it, much less read it. And even more unfortunately, many Baptists who have heard of it have never read it or read all of it or read all of it carefully. This is understandable. For years the book has not been available in an accessible form. Moreover, while one is richly rewarded in reading Helwys, one is compelled to read slowly, with all spiritual and intellectual powers fully alert.

Richard Groves, the hard-working pastor of the Wake Forest Baptist Church in Winston-Salem, NC, has rendered us magnificent service by making this classic available in readable twentieth century English. The Mystery was the earliest Baptist document calling for complete liberty of conscience for all people. Living in the second decade of the seventeenth century, Thomas Helwys (As in Smyth & Helwys Publishers), the author, a courageous Baptist layman, most likely died in jail because of it. He had the audacity not only to write and publish it, but to send a personal, autographed copy to King James 1. It probably cost him his life! This is a blood-stained document.

The Mystery is, as Groves says in his superb introduction, significant for many reasons. First, as stated above, it was the first document in English calling for complete freedom of conscience in matters of religion. John Smyth, often dubbed the first Baptist, never reached the fullness of the religious liberty theme manifested in Helwys’s Mystery. Smyth wanted freedom of conscience for all Christians. Helwys wanted it for everybody, Christian, Jew, Muslim, and all others.

Second, The Mystery throws light on the political and religious conditions existing during the rise of Baptists in early seventeenth-century England. Helwys helps one understand the differences between the various strands of Separatists, those religious groups, Baptists among them, who pulled out of the Church of England.

Third, this Baptist classic provides a window through which one can peep and discover the workings of the mind of the founder of the first Baptist church in England. Just as more attention should be given to John Clarke rather than Roger Williams as the primary leader of Baptists in seventeenth century America, more historical focus should rest on Thomas Helwys than John Smyth as the primary leader of the first Baptists in seventeenth-century England. Neither Clarke nor Helwys has gotten his due in Baptist history.

Fourth, as Groves says accurately, in the Mystery "one finds some of the earliest expositions of doctrines which Baptists have brought together in a distinctive theological cluster: believer’s baptism, a congregational form of church polity, the right of the individual to read and interpret scripture for him/herself, and the separation of church and state" (xxx iv).

In addition to pinpointing the significance of Helwys's book, Groves, in his introduction, gives us the historical context in which the book was written. Most important, Groves provides a succinct, accurate, and helpful summary of the contents of The Mystery. But Groves would be horribly disappointed if one stopped with a reading of his fine introduction. He went to the trouble of editing Helwys's work so that we could read Helwys's classic, not Groves's introduction.

Helwys lived and wrote in partisan times. His language, sharp and acidic, reflected this fact. Helwys was not timid, for example, in identifying the two beasts in Revelation 13. The first beast is the Roman Catholic Church; the second is the Church of England. But Helwys does not stop with the Roman Catholics and Anglicans. He excoriates the Puritans for their compromises and the Separatists for their biblical inconsistencies, calling Separatist John Robinson "a malicious adversary of God's truth" (107). Despite Helwys's harshness of tone and his highly questionable interpretation of scripture in places (however, one comes away from the book amazed at how much and how well this Baptist laymen knew scripture), one can learn much from this masterpiece of soul liberty.

Rather than trying to summarize the book, let me tease you with Helwys's own words on a few significant topics.

Helwys on liberty of conscience: Speaking to King James about Roman Catholics, Helwys said that he and others of his ilk had no thoughts of provoking evil against Catholics. Then he added one of the most oft-quoted lines from The Mystery: "For we do freely profess that our lord the king has no more power 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 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. 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, 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" (53).

Helwys in utter humility asked King James "whether there be so unjust a thing and of so great cruel tyranny under the sun as to force men’s consciences in their religion to God, seeing that if they err, they must pay the price of their transgressions with the loss of their souls. Oh, let the king judge, is it not most equal (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 it shall be no excuse for them to say we were commanded or compelled to be of this religion by the king or by them that had authority from him"(37)?

Helwys made much of what he called "spiritual obedience," what many Baptist historians today would call "voluntarism." The kingdom of Christ is a spiritual kingdom and demands only "spiritual obedience" (59). Trying to persuade King James that Christ would never physically coerce obedience, Helwys said, "Christ will have no man’s life touched for his cause" (38). Then basing his argument on the life of Christ in Luke 8 and 9, Helwys said, "If the Samaritans will not receive him, he passes them by. If the Gadarenes pray him to depart, he leaves them"(38). William R. Estep, contemporary Baptist historian, has written a twentieth century Baptist classic himself. In Revolution Within The Revolution: The First Amendment in Historical Context, 1612-1789 (Eerdmans, 1990) Estep recalls Helwys’s stress on voluntarism. Says Estep of The Mystery, "Its author did not, like a whimpering child, even ask the king to grant religious toleration to a despised and suspected sect. Instead, the author warned the king not to sin against God by denying that which God had ordained for all humankind: a relationship with God that was both personal and voluntary" (Estep, 53).

Helwys on Congregational Church Polity: One of the "fundamentals" of the faith for Helwys was congregational church government. Helwys urged King James I to "freely restore at once to the church and house of God the whole glorious power of Christ" so that the church could elect its own officers according to the leadership of the Holy Spirit (52). Helwys excoriated the Puritans for a number of reasons, but a primary reason was their Presbyterian form of church government which was "no more pleasing to God than an hierarchy of archbishops and lord bishops (Episcopal church government)." Helwys derided Presbyterian church polity, because like the Episcopal church polity of Roman Catholicism and Anglicanism, it was used "to rule over men’s consciences." (74).

Helwys on access to and interpretation of scripture: One aspect of the violation of conscience under Roman Catholicism was that the Church had "altogether taken the Word of God from the people that they might not have it so much as in their own language, neither may they (the people) meddle with the spirit of knowledge and understanding of it...." (15). The people, protested Helwys, were not free to read the Bible or understand it. This Baptist layman reminded King James that one of James's predecessors, King Henry VIII, "freed" the people from the Roman Catholic Church in "two great and main particulars." First, Henry caused "the scriptures to be set over and printed for the people in their own language, that so they might hear the word with their own ears" and second, Henry decreed that worship should be in their own tongue (42). Helwys described England under the Roman Catholic Church as "the depth of all darkness, when men might not know what God speaks to them, nor know in their public worship what they speak unto God" (42).

Helwys sought to persuade the King that just as Roman Catholicism had kept the English people in bondage by not permitting them to have the scripture, the Church of England exercised a "cruel spiritual bondage"of uniformity of interpretation of scripture (43). By forcing a single interpretation upon the people the Church of England was guilty of "spiritual tyranny." Then added Helwys, "What does it profit the king’s people to have the Word of God to hear, and read it, seeing they are debarred of the Spirit of God to understand it, but according to private (one) interpretation, by the lord bishops as though they had the Spirit and could not err" (43)? Helwys urged the King to let dissenters seek the mind of Christ and the apostles (a clear reference to scripture), something the Church of England forbade. And then Helwys said, "And we may suspect justly that they (Anglicans) would have informed the king that it was very dangerous to suffer so many to go to Christ and his apostles for counsel, and that it was not fit to suffer such giddy heads to have that liberty" (55).

In this Baptist classic, Helwys moves in and out of several other themes. Among those themes are: the importance of believer’s baptism, the need for the church of Jesus Christ to live from voluntary support of its members, the absurdity of coerced uniformity in worship practices, the legitimacy of the state and the role of the magistrates, the foolishness of the half-hearted compromises of English Puritanism and Separatism, Christ as the sole "King" of the church and many more.

By the way, the strange title of Helwys's book is taken straight from scripture, from 2 Thessalonians 2:7 where Paul speaks of the mystery of lawlessness (iniquity). For Helwys the "mystery of iniquity" was "a working power of Satan," and, given his historical context, he saw this evil especially in the pomp, the power, and the polity of the Roman Catholic and Anglican Churches who conspired with governments to deny freedom of conscience. More generally, however, the "mystery of iniquity" was the spirit of domination and oppression (26). We still have some of that, don't we? We still have some people, Baptists among them, who want the government to prefer one religion over another. We still have some people, who, like the archbishops Helwys railed against, allow only one interpretation of the Bible for the people. Although nearly four hundred years old, this book is tragically relevant to our times--to our Baptist times and to our nation's times.

As you go to bed tonight, say a big word of heartfelt gratitude to God for the life and work of Thomas Helwys, asking the Lord also to forgive him his excesses as the Lord forgives ours. While giving thanks, mention Richard Groves and Mercer University Press for making this classic available to Baptists almost four hundred years after it was written. Then tomorrow, order your personal copy of The Mystery of Iniquity, and, rather than read it, study it--slowly, carefully, and gratefully.



The Center for Baptist Studies, Mercer University, 1400 Coleman Avenue, Macon, GA 31207      Phone (478) 301-5457