King James I
This is the 400th anniversary of the publication of the first defense of full religious liberty in the English language. Thomas Helwys’ A Short Declaration on the Mystery of Iniquity, published in 1612, was a brave appeal for liberty of conscience for all people and a bold condemnation of the Roman Catholic papacy from which the spirit of persecution stemmed. In The Mystery of Iniquity Helwys wrote, “If the King’s people be obedient and true subjects, obeying all humane laws made by the King, our Lord the King can require no more: for men’s religion to God is betwixt God and themselves; the King shall not answer for it, neither may the King be judge between God and man.” Helwys sent King James I an autographed copy of the book and a personal appeal for religious liberty. That was a year after the publication of the renowned Bible that King James had authorized, but the king was no friend of religious liberty. In fact, he was guilty of the blood of the martyrs. Helwys, a Baptist pastor and the father of seven children, was rewarded with imprisonment in Newgate, where he died in 1616 at age 40. His wife was also imprisoned. Many, like the Pilgrims, fled to America and elsewhere because of King James’ persecution. In fact, the last person burned at the stake in England perished during this king’s reign. This was the Baptist preacher Edward Wightman, who was burned in Smithfield on April 11, 1611. The Mystery of Iniquity was a very important book, in that Helwys argued not only for full religious liberty and separation of church and state, but also for believer’s baptism, congregational church polity, and the right of the believer to read and interpret Scripture for himself. Helwys was one of the founders of the General Baptist churches in England, so called because they believed in general election as opposed to “particular” or “sovereign” election. Adam Taylor’s History of the General Baptists of England (1818) gives the early history of the non-Calvinist Baptists. (In 2001 I spent a day at Spurgeon’s library at William Jewell College in Liberty, Missouri, and scanned Taylor’s two-volume history; this rare set is available in Way of Life’s Fundamental Baptist Digital Library. Today Spurgeon’s library is owned by Southwestern Baptist Seminary in Texas.) The copy of A Short Declaration of the Mystery of Iniquity that Helwys presented to the king is preserved in the Bodleian Library at Oxford University.
(Friday Church News Notes, July 20, 2012, www.wayoflife.org,firstname.lastname@example.org, 866-295-4143)
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