Major commemoration of Thomas Helwys
Around 400 years ago, one of the founders of the Baptist denomination in England – Thomas Helwys – died in Newgate gaol
, the Baptist church closest to his birthplace in north Nottinghamshire, is organising a major event on 12 March to mark this occasion, and also to promote awareness of what Helwys and Baptists have done in the cause of religious tolerance.
Thomas Helwys is of global significance because:
Helwys was the first Englishman to explicitly state that people of any religion – Christian, Jew or Muslim – should be free to exercise their faith without government interference; the importance of this view has increased greatly in recent times
He founded the English-speaking Baptist denomination – the largest single Christian group in the USA and with nearly 50 million Baptists worldwide
In an age dominated by strict Calvinists, he preached that God’s love was available for any person who wanted it
Who was Thomas Helwys?
Helwys was from a North Nottinghamshire family and was probably born at Askham, near Retford. The family held lands there, at Saundby and in Lincolnshire. His uncle Gervase was governor of the Tower of London but was executed after an important prisoner was poisoned. Thomas’s father moved the family to Broxtowe Hall where he also brought up his own family; he became a friend of the puritan and separatist, John Smyth, and helped finance the escape of the Pilgrim Separatists to the Netherlands in 1608.
There, Smyth and Helwys became Baptists, but Helwys felt called by God to return to England to start an illegal Baptist church – the first congregation of the Baptist denomination. He also wrote the first book in English to argue that all people should have freedom of religion, for which he was imprisoned by King James and was never released. The message of freedom was taken up by other Baptists, such as John Murton of Gainsborough, and taken to America by Roger Williams who was married to Mary Bernard, daughter of a friend of Helwys, who had been vicar of Worksop.
How are we marking 400 years since his death?
There will be two keynote speakers, a short film about Thomas Helwys, some music, and a chance to talk with representatives of groups campaigning for religious liberty today. A buffet lunch will be followed by an optional tour of local churches relevant to the Helwys story (cost £10 each).
This event is being held at The Well, also known as Retford Baptist Church. This is the nearest Baptist church to Helwys’s most likely place of birth and has been part of his denomination since at least 1691, when Baptist churches became legal. We are very grateful to the Well for their hospitality.
The commemoration event will include two keynote speakers:
BARONESS ELIZABETH BERRIDGE: Baroness Berridge is the Co-Chair of the All Party Group on International Freedom of Religion and Belief. Since 2012, Elizabeth has become a key voice in the deepening worldwide discussion on freedom of religion and belief as defined in Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Elizabeth will explain the importance of Helwys in the World today.
THE REVD TONY PECK: Tony is General Secretary of the European Baptist Federation (EBF) and also an ordained Baptist minister. He has spoken widely on religious freedom and wrote a well-received report on the history of religious freedom in central Europe. In his work for the EBF he has travelled widely in Europe, Central Asia and the Middle East visiting the 57 member bodies of the EBF. His main academic research interest is in the concept of religious freedom, especially as pioneered by the English Baptists in the 17th century, as well as its contemporary role in the modern concept of human rights.
Tony will introduce us to the life of Helwys.
All those interested are invited to Retford Baptist Church at 10.30 on 12 March, followed by a lunch and the opportunity to go on an afternoon coach tour of places connected with Helwys.
If you would like to attend, it would help the organisers if you confirmed by email to Sandra.firstname.lastname@example.org.