The Lord of Consciences
Today, people widely assume that the theory and practice of religious toleration emerged from secular thinkers who were either anti-Christian or on the margins of Christian orthodoxy. But in fact, many of the earliest defenders of religious toleration were Christians. They based their arguments for the acceptance of others, including Muslims and Jews, squarely on the teachings of Jesus and the New Testament. Therefore, there is no necessary connection between toleration and theological liberalism. Present-day advocates for religious freedom stand in a robust, distinctly Christian tradition.
Thomas Helwys (ca. 1575—ca. 1614) led the earliest Baptist congregation in London and was known for his radical views on civil government and religious toleration. Helwys lived in a dangerous era. Religious and civil uniformity were strictly enforced. The idea of allowing more than one Christian confession—to say nothing of different religions—within a civil jurisdiction was unheard of at the time. Fines, prison sentences, and possible death awaited those who dissented from the Anglican church, and it was dangerous merely to publish differing views. The English government pointed to the Old Testament to justify its belief that civil order depended on the union of church and state under the authority of the king or queen.
Helwys was entirely orthodox in his views on the Trinity and the atonement, but he defended the practice of adult baptism and therefore stood at odds with the state church. (At that time, infant baptism was linked with citizenship.) Helwys's belief in the lordship of Christ over conscience led him to question the authority of both kings and churches. His treatise A Short Declaration of the Mystery of Iniquity (1612) was ...