Helwys, Thomas (ca. 1575-ca. 1616)

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Thomas Helwys, one of the founders of the Baptist Church; born ca. 1575 near Broxtowe Hall, 40 miles (65 km) west of Gainsborough, England, son of Edmund Helwys, of an old baronial family. Edmund Helwys had Puritan convictions. He died in 1590 and left Thomas as his sole heir. Thomas attended Gray's Inn in London as a law student. He was soon known as a Puritan and Nonconformist at Broxtowe Hall and received and advised members of various confessions (see England). About 1606 he came under the influence of John Smyth, having already withdrawn from the Anglican Church, and became pastor of the Nonconformist Union at Gainsborough.

About 1607 Helwys was in complete agreement with Smyth. To escape the oppression instigated by Bancroft under James I, he immigrated to the Netherlands with the members of the Gainsborough and Scrooby groups. In Amsterdam he apparently sided entirely with Smyth in the differences of opinion that had developed there between Johnson and Ainsworth. The schisms  in Smyth's party had begun in 1609. Baptism, church capital, and ordination had been recognized by some, who also rejected adult baptism. Several months later, when Smyth himself had come to the conclusion that it was an error to reintroduce baptism and leaned toward union with the Mennonites, Helwys charged him with apostasy and sinning against the Holy Spirit (under whose guidance the group had previously claimed to act), and wrote an urgent appeal to the Mennonites not to accept Smyth and his followers as brethren.

Helwys presented a brief confession of faith and published a clear exposition of the points in which he agreed with the Mennonites. These points were the general doctrine of redemption in contrast to the Calvinistic unqualified predestination and eternal damnation, as well as a rejection of infant baptism. Like the Mennonites he denied the right of the political authorities to limit religious liberty; on the other hand, he did not agree with them in their view on capital punishment and participation in government. Also the true Adamic nature of Christ and the apostolic succession were points of conflict. On the oath and military service he differed from the Mennonites, and charged Smyth with placing too high a value on the apostolic succession, which charge Smyth, however, denied.

Helwys then wanted to be convinced that he and all those who had fled to the Netherlands had erred, or perhaps sinned, in avoiding persecution. The evangelicals in England were now without a leader who would oppose the fallen, corrupted church. Followed by John Murton and a small group of followers he returned to England late in 1611 or early 1612, and settled in London, where he had influential relatives. The small congregation was severely persecuted, but still succeeded in maintaining itself. About 1626 there were four associations, from whom the General Baptists originated (see Baptists): London, Tiverton Sarum, Coventry, and Lincoln. Dissensions on the deity of Christ and other points were still an issue. Both sides appealed to the Dutch Mennonites for counsel and moral support.

Shortly before his return to England, Helwys published two books in defense of his concept of salvation and adult baptism. In England he published A Short Declaration of the Mystery of Iniquity (1612). Little is known of his later life. He apparently died before 1616. John Murton was now recognized as leader of the party and with other Baptists he published several tracts on freedom of conscience.

See also Baptists, Brownists, Smyth


Burgess, W. H. John Smith, the Se Baptist, Thomas Helwys. 1912.

Evans, B. The Early English Baptists, 2 vols.  London, 1862-1864.

Hege, Christian and Christian Neff. Mennonitisches Lexikon, 4 vols. Frankfurt & Weierhof: Hege; Karlsruhe: Schneider, 1913-1967: v. II, 281 f.

Scheiter, De Hoop and Griffis. History of the Free Churchmen. Ithaca, N.Y., n.d. 1902: 148 ff., 169 ff.

Underwood, A. C. A History of the English Baptists. London, 1947.

Whitly, W. T. The Works of John Smith with Notes and Biography, 2 vols. Cambridge, 1915.

Author(s) A. H Newman
Date Published 1956

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MLA style

Newman, A. H. "Helwys, Thomas (ca. 1575-ca. 1616)." Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. 1956. Web. 26 Sep 2021. https://gameo.org/index.php?title=Helwys,_Thomas_(ca._1575-ca._1616)&oldid=145453.

APA style

Newman, A. H. (1956). Helwys, Thomas (ca. 1575-ca. 1616). Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. Retrieved 26 September 2021, from https://gameo.org/index.php?title=Helwys,_Thomas_(ca._1575-ca._1616)&oldid=145453.


Adapted by permission of Herald Press, Harrisonburg, Virginia, from Mennonite Encyclopedia, Vol. 2, p. 696. All rights reserved.

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