Thomas Helwys

c.1550-c.1616. Founder and pastor of what was probably the first General Baptist church in England. He joined the English Independent (“Brownist”) Church in Amsterdam, founded by John Smyth* in 1606. In 1609 he and Smyth, probably influenced by the Mennonites, were expelled because they advocated believer's baptism, and they were Arminian in theology. Smyth became pastor of a Baptist church in Amsterdam; when he died in 1610, Helwys succeeded in the pastorate. In 1611 the church issued a “Declaration of Faith,” notable for its definition of baptism: “the outward manifestation of dying with Christ and walking in newness of life; and therefore in nowise appertaineth to infants”; and its declaration-perhaps the first ever-of the right of full individual freedom of conscience: “the magistrate not to meddle with religion or matters of conscience, nor compel men to this or that form of religion.” In 1611 Helwys and his flock returned to England and established their church in Newgate Street. Although practicing believer's baptism, they did not normally immerse candidates, but used a Mennonite-style affusion. Helwys was a powerful preacher and the church grew rapidly. In 1615 he published a treatise against persecution.