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.

For men's religion is between God and themselves.

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 the first defense of religious liberty in the English language. Here he boldly stated, "The King is a mortal man, and not God, therefore hath no power over the immortal souls of his subjects, to make laws and ordinances for them, and to set spiritual Lords over them." Christ himself is sole Lord in his Church and sole Lord over the consciences of people, and this means that no human being can exercise authority over another's conscience. "For men's religion is between 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 appertains not to the earthly power to punish them in the least measure."

Helwys argued that since Christ has come, and since Christ's kingship is spiritual in nature, all forms of coercion in matters of conscience are forbidden. But he went further: This liberty should be extended not only to all Christians, including Roman Catholics and those who believe in adult baptism, but even to heretics, Muslims, and Jews.

Because of severe persecution at the time, Helwys's ideas could not bear immediate fruit. He was imprisoned in London for his views and evidently died there. But the same line of distinctly Christian thought was taken up by Roger Williams, the founder of Rhode Island. In the New World, Williams's writings influenced the cause of religious freedom in individual colonies and contributed to the separation of church and state at the national level, a hallmark of the U.S. Constitution.

James E. Bradley is professor of church history at Fuller Theological Seminary.