In honour of Thomas Helwys

If you believe free speech and tolerance are important for us all, you have a significant anniversary to celebrate in 2012.

410 years ago in 1612 the first ever plea for religious toleration in the English language was published in a small book that contained the following declaration:

“… 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. Let them be heretics, Turks, Jews or whatsoever, it pertains not to the earthly power to punish them in the least measure.”

In those days, whoever held power told people what to think. People in Britain were routinely fined, flogged, imprisoned, tortured and even executed for crimes of belief. Free speech and tolerance were revolutionary, new ideas. The author of the little book was literally risking his neck – a brave man.

His name was Thomas Helwys and the book was entitled  The Mistery of Iniquity. Thomas included his plea for tolerance as part of a dedication to King James I (the one who had authorised the translation of the Bible the year before). I believe Thomas deserves more fame and recognition than he has ever received and that we all owe him a debt of gratitude.  Thomas was a Lincolnshire squire and one of the founders of the Baptist movement. At the time he was the pastor of a church in Spitalfields, London.

As a result of the bravery of people like Thomas Helwys, people in Britain today enjoy the precious freedom to practice, promote and, if they so desire, change their religious or other beliefs. In many countries in the world these freedoms do not exist. Even in Britain these freedoms are under threat of erosion by a combination of radical Islam, fundamentalist atheism, militant political correctness and simplistic tabloid journalism.

Join me in honouring the memory of Thomas Helwys and carrying on his advocacy of toleration and freedom.