Baptist churches have their historical roots deep within the convictions of Thomas Helwys, who Baptists profess to be the founder of the Baptist church. In 17th-century London, Thomas Helwys strove to faithfully follow the New Testament Scriptures using the Geneva Bible, and his beliefs still challenge Baptists today to reconsider their current beliefs and pursue to be the Church of Christ Jesus in the Bible.
Richard Grove wrote a preface to Thomas Helwys’s book, “The Mystery of Iniquity,” reporting,
“In 1612 Thomas Helwys, an English country gentleman whose theological and ecclesiological interests had led him to identify first with the Puritans, then with the Separatists, and finally, along with John Smyth, to help establish the first Baptist church, returned to England from exile in Holland” (Helwys, Thomas, & Richard Groves (Ed.). (1998.) “Preface.” In Mystery of Iniquity. Mercer University Press. vii. emp added.).
Did Helwys help establish the first Baptist church? This article is a friendly challenge to Baptist churches and churches of Christ to compare their beliefs to the Scriptures and draw from them. Thomas Helwys’s beliefs come from the Bible and are align with the churches of Christ today.
While the title “Baptist” was never accepted or mentioned by Helwys, Helwys did refer to the church numerous times as “the church of Christ” (P. 10, 12, 36, 56-58, 60, 66-67, 81, 84, 99-100, 113). Helwys made this confession of faith in 1611 and he noted this about the church of Christ,
“That the church of CHRIST is a company of faithful people (1 Corinthians 1:2. Ephesians 1:1) separated from the world by the word & Spirit of GOD (2 Corinthians 6:17) being knit unto the LORD, & one unto another, by Baptism. (1 Corinthians 12:13). Upon their own confession of the faith (Acts 8:37) and sins. (Matthew 3:6)” (Helwys, Thomas, & Joe Early (Ed.) (2009). “A Declaration of Faith of English People Remaining at Amsterdam in Holland,” 1611. In The Life and Writings of Thomas Helwys. Mercer U. Press. emp. added).
Before reading more of Helwys’s words about baptism in a plea to King James of England, he also noted about church elders and deacons,
“But let our lord the king freely restore at once to the church and house of God the whole glorious power of Christ the only king thereof, and particularly that most beautiful ornament of election and ordination of bishops and deacons thereof, who ought to be elected and ordained according to the rule of the Holy Ghost (Acts 14:23; 6:3), and who ought to be qualified with all and every one of those gifts and graces set down by the apostle (1 Timothy 3; Titus 1). Yea, and their wives and children also, or else it is grievous iniquity to choose them. And who must only by their office bear those names and titles which the Holy Ghost has given them, and lead or rule by the power which Christ has appointed and by those laws and ordinances, and live by those maintenances, if they stand need” (Helwys. In Mystery of Iniquity. Ibid. P. 52).
Helwys noted that the only pastors are church elders (bishops). He stated,
“According to this law in every particular must a bishop or pastor, and his wife and children, be qualified. For it is the law of the lawgiver. And you shall have no other bishop or pastor before his face. This set down to put you and the people of God in mind to look first that you, their bishops, or pastors, be thus qualified. For all that are not so, both in themselves and their wives and children, are not sent of God to be pastors of his flock, but are false prophets in the first degree. For God sends none but those that are according to his own rule. And hereby may you see that every holy man and excellent preacher may not be a bishop and pastor over the house of God. […]
How woeful and wretched is the estate of you all (if you repent not) that join in this wickedness to deprive the church of Christ of such a blessed and comfortable ordinance of Christ” (Helwys. In Mystery of Iniquity. Ibid. P. 65-67).
About baptism, Thomas Helwys wrote in 1612,
“And our Savior Christ says, ‘Except a man be born of water and of the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God.’ (John 3) And Hebrews 10:22, ‘Let us draw near with a true heart in assurance of faith, our hearts being pure from evil confidence, and washed in our bodies with pure water.’
Here is the true baptism set down, which is the baptism of amendment of life for the remission of sins. And here is the true matter where men must be washed, which is water and the Holy Ghost, that is pure from an evil conscience, and washed with water. Therefore can you not divide the water and the Spirit in this baptism. Christ has joined them together, and he that denies washing, or is not washed with the Spirit is not baptized, because we see the baptism of Christ is to be washed with water and the Holy Ghost.” (Helwys, Thomas, & Richard Groves (Ed.). (1998.) In “The Mystery of Iniquity.” Book 1. Mercer University Press. P. 103).
Helwys showed that baptism is necessary for one to be saved. He stated,
“And therefore please not yourselves so much in those things, although we acknowledge they are worthy of great commendations in you, and our souls are much affected to you for them. But if you follow not Christ in the regeneration, that is, if you be not ‘born again of water and of the Spirit, and so enter into the kingdom of heaven,’ all is nothing, as you see by the example of this ruler. And Cornelius (Acts 10), if he had not been baptized with the Holy Ghost and with water, for all his prayers and alms he had not, nor could not have entered into the kingdom of heaven.
Thus entered all the people of God of whose entrance the scriptures give testimony, either by rule or by example, and thereof if there be any other entrance found out, it is not, nor cannot be of God. This only is the door which Jesus Christ has set open for all to enter in at, that enter into his kingdom. (John 3:5) And the Lord sanctify all your hearts with grace that you may enter therein. For no other way of salvation has Christ appointed but that men first believe and be baptized. (Mark 16:16)” (Helwys. In The Mystery of Iniquity. P. 88-89).
Thomas Helwys taught that there was one baptism for salvation saying,
“If you will examine the New Testament throughout, you shall find no seal, nor none sealed, but they that believe, ‘who are sealed with the Holy Spirit of promise,’ (Ephesians 1:13) by which the Holy Spirit ‘we are all baptized into one body,’ (1 Corinthians 12:13) And there is but ‘one Spirit, one baptism, and one body,’ (Ephesians 4:4-5) which holy seal of the Spirit seeing infants cannot have, they cannot be baptized with that one baptism into that one body. So is your consequence for the baptizing of infants directly contrary to the covenant and ordinance of God. The covenant of the Lord being that; they which believe and are baptized shall be saved,’ and the ordinance being the ‘baptism of repentance for the remission of sins.’
To conclude this point with a ground that all who have any knowledge of the Word of God will confess, which is this: the covenant of the New Testament is a covenant of life and salvation only to all that believe and are baptized. (Mark 16:16) The seal of the covenant must needs be answerable to that holy covenant, a seal of life and salvation only to them that believe and are baptized. (Ephesians 1:13-14; Revelation 2:17-18) The apostle here to the Ephesians does show that ‘after they believed they were sealed with the Holy Spirit of promise.’” (Helwys. In The Mystery of Iniquity. P. 128).
Regarding faith and works, Helwys confessed in 1611,
“That man is justified only by the righteousness of CHRIST, apprehended by faith, (Romans 3:28. Galatians 2:16) yet faith without works is dead. (James 2:17)” (Helwys. “A Declaration of Faith…”. Ibid.).
Thomas Helwys stated about falling from grace,
“That men may fall away from the grace of GOD, (Hebrews 12:15) and from the truth, which they have received & acknowledged, (Hebrews 10:26) after they have tasted of the heavenly gift, and were made partakers of the HOLY GHOST, and have tasted of the good word of GOD, & of the powers of the world to come. (Hebrews 6:4, 5). And after they have escaped from the filthiness of the World, may be tangled again therein & overcome. (2 Peter 2:20). That a righteous man may forsake his righteousness and perish (Ezekiel 18:24, 26). And therefore let no man presume to think that because he hath, or had once grace, therefore he shall always have grace: But let all men have assurance, that if they continue unto the end, they shall be saved: Let no man then presume; but let all work out their salvation with fear and trembling” (Helwys. “A Declaration of Faith…”. Ibid.).
Thomas Helwys confessed free will contrary to Calvinism. In speaking of the Roman Papal church, Helwys wrote,
“And here maybe discovered, by the way, the damnable heresy of those men which are twice dead, and plucked up by the roots, and those are they who have fallen from grace, which were once dead and have been quickened by the Word and Spirit of God and are dead again, which now hold and say that the man of sin sits and rules in the church of Christ” (Helwys. In “The Mystery of Iniquity.” Ibid. P. 10).
Concerning predestination, Helwys stated in his confession,
“That GOD before the Foundation of the World hath Predestinated that all that believe in him shall be saved, (Ephesians 1:4, 12; Mark 16:16) and al that believe not shall be damned, (Mark 16:16) all which he knew before. (Romans 8:29) And this is the Election and reprobation spoken of in the Scriptures, concerning salvation, and condemnation, and not that GOD hath Predestinated men to be wicked, and so to be damned, but that men being wicked shall be damned, for GOD would have all men saved, and come to the knowledge of the truth, (1 Timothy 2:4) and would have no man to perish, but would have all men come to repentance. (2 Peter 3:9) and wills not the death of him that dies. (Ezekiel 18:32). And therefore GOD is the author of no mans condemnation; according to the saying of the Prophet. (Hosea 13). Thy destruction O Israel, is of thy self, but thy help is of me” (Helwys. “A Declaration of Faith…”. Ibid.).
Regarding worship in assembly, Helwys stood against worship invented by men. He stated,
“And do you not all these things, when you force and compel men to submit to your whole conformity, which is the perfect image of the beast? Not to speak of your surplice [clergy garments], and cross, and churchings [ceremonies of purification and christening], and burials and coops [prisons], and chantings, and organs in your cathedrals? And how many more such abominations we cannot reckon up, neither need we, seeing so many writings are full of them. But whosoever shall look upon them with an eye of less than half uprightness shall easily see them to come out of the bowels of the beast, and to be the deformed image of the ugly shape” (Helwys. In “The Mystery of Iniquity.” Book 1. P. 17).
In a time when the Lord’s Supper was observed by most believers every first day of the week, Helwys still affirmed,
“That every Church ought (according to the example of CHRISTS Disciples and primitive Churches) upon every first day of the week, being the LORDS day, to assemble together to pray, prophecy [preach], praise GOD, and break Bread [the Lord’s Supper], and perform all other parts of Spiritual communion for the worship of GOD, their own mutual edification, and the preservation of true Religion, & piety in the church (John 20:19. Acts 2:42 and 20:7, 1 Corinthians 16:2)” (Helwys. “A Declaration of Faith…”. Ibid.).
He also noted the order of worship in assembly,
“And whereas we the king’s servants understand, according to the best understanding that God has given us that the Apostle Paul, giving a rule of direction for the people of God how to worship God when they come together (1 Corinthians 14:26, 33), that ‘every one as he has a psalm or a doctrine or a tongue, may speak to edification and if any thing be revealed to another that sits by, the first is to hold his peace, for all that have gifts may prophecy one by one.’ In all this, God is not the God of confusion, but of order. Thus do we hold the disciples of Christ ought to come together to worship God and edify one another in the liberty of the Spirit, according to the gifts and graces that are given to every one (Romans 12:6) and that ‘every man as he has received the gift may administer the same to one another.’ (1 Peter 4:10)” (Helwys. In “The Mystery of Iniquity.” P. 47-48).
Helwys’s doctrinal beliefs are the same as the churches of Christ today whose heritage goes back through the 19th century including David Lipscomb, Alexander Campbell, Barton Stone, and Walter Scott, and through the 17th century of men such as John Morton, Henry Denne, and Thomas Helwys and unto the 1st century to the Apostles of Jesus Christ through the Lollards, early Waldenses, and Vaudois.
Where are there Baptist churches that hold similar beliefs as Thomas Helwys? The Baptist churches actually emerged from the history of the churches of Christ, called “non-conformists” in Helwys’s day, when churches accepted Calvinism and the name “Baptist.” However, Baptist historians claim their history started with Helwys who supposedly established them. The churches of Christ existed before, with, and after Helwys, and these churches taught him and baptized him. Let us all simply be Christians and members of the Church of Christ. Thomas Helwys’s words of reformation and restoration stand to compel the Baptists to reconsider what their preachers are teaching:
“And we pray you by the name of Jesus, that as there is any purpose of heart in you to fear God and walk in his ways, or any love in you to this people, whom you are bound so much to regard with all faithful carefulness, make haste to reform your own ways, and to inform this people in the way to life, and salvation, according to the strict rule of God’s Word, and do not lead them on in the way to death and condemnation, according to the new inventions of your own hearts, and old traditions of other men” (Helwys. In Mystery of Iniquity. Ibid. P. 73).
“Thus does the Spirit of God teach us that a false church is no church, but a synagogue of Satan, and false apostles are no apostles, so then are false sacraments are no sacraments. And so false and none in God’s ordinances are all one, and you cannot distinguish nor put difference between them. And for further manifestation of the truth hereof, let us refer the things that are of God to God, and so shall it appear to all but those that will see that there is no difference nor distinction to be made in God’s ordinances between false and none. As thus: a true church of Christ; a false church; and no church. If now a false church be not no church of Christ, then it is a false church of Christ, So is there two sorts or kinds of churches of Christ, and so should Christ have two bodies, a true body, and a false body. What a blasphemy is this, when the apostle says, ‘There is but one body.’” (Helwys. In Mystery of Iniquity. Ibid. P. 99-100).