Who was Thomas Helwys?

Thomas Helwys was a country gentleman and lawyer who lived with his wife and family at Broxtowe Hall, Nottingham at the beginning of the seventeenth century. Broxtowe Hall was not far from the site of the present Bilborough Baptist Church where there is a plaque to his memory.

About this time some thinking people were breaking away from the Established church. They believed that the Church of England was so corrupt as to be impossible to reform. A group of such people formed themselves into a ‘separatist’ church which worshipped at Gainsborough. Their leader was John Smyth and Thomas Helwys became a member. Soon this church came into conflict with the authorities and, in 1608, the membership fled to Amsterdam where they would be free to worship according to their beliefs.

In Amsterdam there was serious debate about the meaning and practice of baptism and church membership. The group soon constituted themselves into a Baptist church.

Eventually Helwys became convinced that he should return to England to bear witness to the truth. He and twelve followers settled in Spitalfields, London, where they founded the first Baptist Church in England in 1612 (the year after the Authorised Version of the Bible was published). Helwys wrote an appeal to the King (James 1) to give all his subjects full liberty of conscience. “The King is a mortal man and not God, therefore has no power over immortal souls of his subjects.”

Thomas Helwys was arrested and died in prison in 1616 at forty years of age.

Helwys Letter