Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Helwys, Thomas
HELWYS, THOMAS (1550?–1616?), puritan divine, was probably one of the sons of William Helwys of Askham, Nottinghamshire, by Rosamund, daughter of — Livesey of Livesey in Lancashire, and thus uncle of Sir Gervase Helwys [q. v.] He seems to have been born about 1550. He was a member of the Brownist church at Amsterdam, founded about 1606 by John Smyth, with whom he is believed to have worked in England before they emigrated together (J. Robinson, Of Communion), and by whom he was baptised. Smyth mentions Helwys in his ‘Last Booke, &c.,’ and says that he received kindness from him when sick at Bashforth in Nottinghamshire. He supported Smyth in the controversy about infant baptism in the Amsterdam congregation, and was excommunicated at the same time in 1609. Upon Smyth's death in 1610 Helwys was chosen pastor of his newly formed church. He was opposed by the Brownists for maintaining the inadmissibility of infant baptism and the unscriptural nature of free will. In 1611 he published a declaration of the faith held by himself and followers. He became convinced that the English sectaries in Holland had not been justified in emigrating to avoid persecution, and returned to England in 1611, accompanied by a great part of his congregation (Ivimey, Hist. of the Baptists, ii. 505; Evans, Early English Baptists, i. 224), or 1614 (Price, Hist. of Protestant Nonconformists, i. 519). He formed a church at Pinners' Hall, London, which is usually considered the first general baptist congregation established in England, and was extremely successful as a preacher, attracting large congregations, and making many proselytes. His return having been severely attacked as ‘natural courage’ and ‘vainglory,’ Helwys wrote a ‘Short Declaration’ to prove the legitimacy of his action. In 1615 his church put forth a treatise against persecution, of which he was the author. His account of their belief exposed many of the members to persecution. Helwys died about 1616, but no account of his death remains (Taylor, Hist. of the English Baptists, i. 95). Geoffrey Helwys, who was apparently his brother, speaks of him as dead in his will, dated in that year. It is, very improbably, said on the other hand that in 1622, when nonconformists were under persecution, Helwys was employed by a convert to write or correct a defence of his having left the established religion and joined the baptists; the letter was signed ‘H. H.,’ and is dated 10 May.
Helwys's writings show him to have been a man of erudition, and Price considers that his tract on persecution was the first well-reasoned and consistent advocacy of the right of private judgment in religion. Apparently he was well-to-do, as Smyth made it a boast that he had not taken any of Helwys's money. Helwys's works are: 1. ‘An Advertisement or Admonition unto the Congregations, which men call the New Fryelers in the Lowe Countries; written in Dutche and published in Englis, wherein is handled four principal pointes of Religion,’ &c., Amsterdam (?) 1611. 2. ‘A Declaration of Faith of the English People remaining at Amsterdam in Holland,’ 1611. 3. ‘A proof that God's Decree is not the cause of any Man's Sin or Condemnation,’ 1611. 4. ‘Declaration of the Mystery of Iniquity,’ 1612. 5. ‘A Short Declaration,’ 1614 (?). 6. ‘Persecution for Religion, judged and condemned,’ 1615. He is also said to have written ‘A plain and well-grounded Treatise concerning Baptism,’ 1618 (title from Taylor's Baptists).
Helwys, Edward (fl. 1589), another son of William Elwys, who became a member of Gray's Inn in 1550, was probably the E. Hellwis who published ‘A Marvell Deciphered,’ Lond. 1589, 8vo. This is a curious treatise on Revelation, chap. xii., and is dedicated to Lord Hunsdon. There is a copy in the British Museum.