Recovering the Baptist Legacy


By Bruce Prescott


Recently some Baptist preachers were arrested for acts of civil disobedience.  They were arrested for blocking the removal of a ten commandments monument from an Alabama judicial building.


Baptists have a long history of civil disobedience and it is not unusual for Baptists and their preachers to spend time in jail.  The recent arrests in Alabama, however, are for reasons that are opposed to the convictions that distinguished Baptists in the past.  In the past, Baptists were imprisoned for championing religious liberty and for advocating separation of church and state, not for protesting against it.


Thomas Helwys, one of the first Baptists, died in jail because he had the audacity to tell the King of England that it was not his business to try to enforce all ten of the ten commandments.  Here’s the way he said it:


“Mens religion to God, is betwixt God and themselves; the King shall not answer for it; neither may the King be judg between God and man.  Let them be heretikes, Turks, Jewes or whatsoever, it apperteyenes not to the earthly power to punish them in the least measure.”


In his day, this thought was so radical that King James — the same one who gave us the KJV Bible — literally locked him up and threw away the key. 


In effect, what Helwys said was — separate the two tables of the ten commandments.  Separate the commands that govern our relation to God (the first four commands — dealing with matters of worship — the sphere of the church) from those that govern relations between men (the last six commands — dealing with civil matters — the sphere of the state).   Helwys told the king that he only had jurisdiction over civil matters, not religious matters.  He was insisting that church and state be separated.


The difference between Helwys and the Baptists with Judge Roy Moore in Alabama could not be more striking.  Moore’s monument symbolizes the attempt by some modern Christians to reunite church and state by insisting that both tables of the ten commandments are fundamental to our system of law.  


To use the terms that Helwys used, all “heretikes, Turks, Jewes or whatever” who entered that Alabama courthouse were being given clear notice that the “earthly power” intended to serve as ‘judg between God and man.”   At the entrance to the Alabama Supreme Court, chiseled in bold letters on 2 1/2 tons of granite, there was fair warning that those who fail to worship properly need not look for just and equitable treatment in that state.


Ironically, many Baptists are among the supporters of Judge Moore and his monument.  It signifies how far we have fallen from the convictions that once shaped our Baptist identity.


Contrary to what Southern Baptist mythologists like Jerry Falwell and Rick Scarborough say, the call for separating church and state is not derived from the constitution of the Soviet Union.  Reliable historians have long confirmed that “full religious liberty” and “separation of church and state” are Baptist’s primary legacy to the history of Western Civilization. 


But, dividing the two tables of the law did not originate with Helwys.  Jesus separated the obligations related to God from those related to civil society when he said, “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and render to God the things that are God’s.”


What Helwys and other Baptists did was to pay the price necessary to lead others to consider the wisdom of Jesus’ distinction and eventually write it into the constitutions of civil government.


The Baptist legacy begins with Thomas Helwys because he was the first Baptist who believed in the priesthood of the believer and in religious liberty enough to die for it.


Helwys believed that relationships with God must be direct, personal and immediate — “betwixt God and themselves.”  And, as fully empowered believer-priests, laymen were supposed to read the Bible and interpret it for themselves under the guidance of the Holy Spirit.


Knowing that he was accountable directly to God for his convictions, Helwys did not hesitate to question the conclusions that his pastor drew when he interpreted scripture.   When he was convinced that his pastor was leading his church astray, he became the leader of those who left the congregation.


Returning to his homeland in the midst of religious persecution, Helwys planted the first Baptist church on English soil.  Then, he openly challenged the king who refused to let him worship according to the dictates of his own conscience. 


Helwys did not petition the king to enlist the power of the state to force Baptist convictions on others.  He petitioned the king to let everyone worship as they pleased.


Helwys did not petition the king to erect a monument to the ten commandments.  He demanded that the king stop using the power of the state to force observance of the first four commandments.


Helwys’ witness did bear fruit.  Others took up the cause that he championed.   Within a generation, convictions like his found expression in the charter to the colony of Rhode Island.


In other places, however, Baptists were imprisoned or fined or beaten.  It took more than another hundred years of religious conflict and persecution before men had the wisdom to give expression to such convictions in the First Amendment to the Constitution.  All along the way Baptists were at the vanguard as champions of separating church and state and granting religious freedom for all.


Tragically, Baptists who know not Helwys now stand in the limelight of life in the twenty-first century.  By neglecting the lessons of their own history, they will condemn future generations to repeat the mistakes of the past.


Modern Baptists need to renew their commitment to the priesthood of every believer.  Laypeople need to read the Bible for themselves and start raising some questions with their preachers.   All Baptists need to go back to the source books for their own history and doctrine and recover an appreciation for our legacy of church/state separation.


A good place to begin would be with the book that landed Thomas Helwys in jail:


A Short Declaration of the Mystery of Iniquity by Thomas Helwys.  Edited by Richard Groves, 1984. 308 pp. cloth. $32.00. 0-86554-574-X. H429.  Mercer University Press -- Call toll free at 800-637-2378, ext. 2880 or 800-342-0841, ext. 2880 (in GA)For help on orders email


Or, click here to order it online at Amazon Books.



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