In the early seventeenth century, Helwys was principal formulator of that distinctively Baptist request: that the church and the state be kept separate in matters of law, so that individuals might have a freedom of religious conscience. Thomas Helwys was an advocate of religious liberty at a time when to hold to such views could be dangerous. He died in prison as a consequence of the religious persecution of Protestant dissenters under King James I.
Not a great deal of detail is known about Thomas Helwys' early life. He was the second son of Edmund and Margaret Helwys who were descendants of an old Norman family which had significant holdings in Lincoln, Northampton, Nottingham, and York. Edmund had sold his land in Lincolnshire and Northamptonshire and had taken a lease on Broxtowe Hall in Bilborough parish. In 1590 when his father died, Thomas Helwys assumed control of the estate, but in 1593, left the care of the estate in the hands of his father's friends and began studies in law at Gray's Inn, one of the four Inns of Court in London.
Helwys' family was on the rise in London. Geoffrey Helwys, his uncle, was a successful merchant, an alderman and the sheriff of London. His cousin, Gervase, was knighted by King James before becoming lieutenant of the Tower of London. After completing his studies at Gray's Inn in 1593, Thomas himself spent some time in the capital.
Thomas married Joan Ashmore at St, Martin's Church, Bilborough, in 1595. They had seven children over the next twelve years and lived at Broxtowe Hall. During this time, the Helwys' home became a haven for early Puritans, one of the many groups of English dissenters within the Church of England and it is likely that Thomas contributed financially to their mission. At some point, Thomas Helwys developed a close bond with dissenter John Smyth and he and his wife became committed members of Smyth's separatist congregation in Gainsborough, Lincolnshire. (See "Congregationalist church".) The sixty or seventy Separatists in Gainsborough were allowed to meet in secret in Gainsborough Old Hall by the Hall's sympathetic owner Sir William Hickman. (By late 1606 a second Separatist church, the Scrooby congregation, had been established at Scrooby Manor led by John Robinson).
Inevitably, the Church authorities were unable to tolerate any significant degree of puritan independence. In 1607, the High Court of Ecclesiastical Commission resolved to clamp down on the Gainsborough and Scrooby dissenters. Sometime later in the winter of 1607/08, Helwys, John Smyth, and around 40 others from the Gainsborough and Scrooby congregations fled to the safety of Amsterdam in the more tolerant Dutch Republic. Protestant dissenters in England still faced being burnt at the stake for 'Heresy'. On 11 April 1611 Anabaptist Edward Wightman became the last religious martyr to be burnt. Assuming their safety, Helwys allowed his family to remain in England. Unfortunately, his wife was soon arrested and, after refusing to take the oath in court, she was imprisoned. It is likely that she was banished after three months in prison.
It was in the Dutch Republic that a distinctive Baptist faith first emerged amongst the English émigrés. Open debate amongst the émigrés, and close contact and interaction with earlier English exiles and continental Protestants, led the congregation to question the meaning and practice of baptism, among other things. John Smyth became convinced that baptism should be for Christian believers only and not for infants. The other English émigrés agreed. However, at the same time as Smyth started to embrace Mennonite doctrines, Helwys and a dozen or so others began to formulate the earliest Baptist confessions of faith. This "confession" became the twenty-seven articles in A Declaration of Faith of English People Remaining at Amsterdam in Holland (1611).
In the next twelve months or so, Helwys wrote three more important works: an argument for Arminianism (A short and plain proof, by the word and works of God, that God's decree is not the cause of any man's sin or condemnation: and that all men are redeemed by Christ; as also that no infants are condemned), a polemic explaining his differences with the Mennonites, and, most importantly, A Short Declaration on the Mystery of Iniquity, a critique and apocalyptic interpretation of the Papacy as well as criticisms of Brownism and Puritanism, and possibly the first ever English book defending the principle of religious liberty. For Helwys, religious liberty was a right for everyone, even for those he disagreed with.
Despite the obvious risks involved, Helwys and twelve Baptist émigrés returned to England to speak out against religious persecution. They founded the first Baptist congregation on English soil in Spitalfields, east end of London. Early in 1612, Helwys was able to publish A Short Declaration of the Mistery of Iniquity. He wrote an appeal to King James I arguing for liberty of conscience and sent him a copy of his book. "The King," Helwys said, "is a mortal man, and not God, therefore he hath no power over the mortal soul of his subjects to make laws and ordinances for them and to set spiritual Lords over them." The King had Helwys thrown into Newgate Prison, where he had died by 1616 at about the age of forty. Helwys' presentation copy of A Short Declaration of the Mistery of Iniquity is still preserved in the Bodleian Library.
Thomas Helwys is honoured with the Helwys Hall at Regent's Park College, Oxford. Thomas Helwys Baptist Church, in Lenton, Nottingham is named after him. Broxtowe Hall, the Helwys' family home, is now only a remnant but in nearby Bilborough Baptist Church there is a simple plaque to his memory.
"If the Kings people be obedient and true subjects, obeying all humane lawes 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." — A Short Declaration of the Mistery of Iniquity
"If our lord the King by his discerning judgment see that as Queen Mary by her sword of justice had no power over her subjects consciences (for then had she power to make them all Papists, and all that resisted her therein suffered justly as evil doers) neither hath our lord the King by that sword of justice power over his subjects consciences: for all earthly powers are one and the same in their several dominions." — A Short Declaration of the Mistery of Iniquity