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"No armor for the back": a sermon written from Prison by Thomas Hardcastle, August 18, 1675.

Thomas Hardcastle (1636-1678) pastored the Church of Christ in Broadmead at Bristol, England, for seven years from 1671 until his death in 1678. This church began as an Independent congregation sometime in 1640. When it became identified as a Baptist church is unknown, although the church in the early 1650s discussed the necessity of baptism after a profession of faith, and by 1670, most of the members had been baptized on their professions of faith. (1)

During Hardcastle's pastorate at Bristol, he spent two six-month prison terms in Newgate Prison for preaching at illegal worship services. Hardcastle was no stranger to prison, having been arrested at least five times before arriving in Bristol. Sometime in 1668 or 1669, after being imprisoned fifteen months in Chester Castle, he moved to London, was baptized, and became a member of Particular Baptist church worshipping in Swan Alley (London). (2)

When the Broadmead congregation's pastor died in 1670, the church contacted Hardcastle about becoming its pastor. He stated his willingness to go to Bristol, but two things stood in his way: (1) he was currently in prison, and (2) he was also currently "on trial for eldership" (being considered as pastor) by the Swan Alley church, (3) whose members did not want to let Hardcastle go to Bristol and fought hard to keep him. (4) These members warned Hardcastle that his going to the Bristol church was sinful. Others prophesied that he would be cursed if he went. Such threats, however, did not faze Hardcastle. He responded that he would sin if he did not go to Bristol, and as for being cursed, he was defiant: "I told them I did not use to be frightened by great words, and that no man's conscience should be the rule of mine." (5) Ultimately, Hardcastle went to Bristol.

In 1672, Charles II published his Declaration of Indulgence, which granted 1,500 licenses to dissenting ministers. (6) Hardcastle received his license stating that "Thomas Hardcastle," who was "of the persuasion commonly called baptized," was permitted "to be a teacher, and to teach in any place licensed." (7) In February 1674 or 1675, however, the king repealed his declaration of 1672, invalidating those licenses. (8) Hardcastle firmly believed that God had called him to preach, and he was not about to let the lack of a government license prevent him from preaching. Consequently, the Bristol mayor, Ralph Ollive, and several other men arrested Hardcastle on February 12. Hardcastle served six months in prison and was released on August 6. Two days later, he preached at his church, was arrested, and then released. On Sunday, August 15, Hardcastle once again was arrested and sent to Newgate to serve another six-month prison term (beginning in August 1675).

While serving the second prison term during his pastorate at Bristol, Hardcastle wrote twenty-two weekly letters to his congregation that were to be read during the church's Sunday afternoon worship services. According to Roger Hayden, these letters "contain some of the most discerning words about the meaning of 'true faith' written in the seventeenth century." (9) The following letter (which has been slightly edited for easier readability and given a title) was effectively Hardcastle's first sermon from prison to his congregation. By all accounts, he was a fearless, faithful preacher, spending perhaps forty-one months of his life in jail for preaching the gospel. His first prison sermon supports those accounts.

"No Armor for the Back"

To my beloved friends, the members and auditors of the congregation meeting in Broadmead. (10)

Dearly beloved friends--The Lord has been pleased to permit the wrath of the adversary to break out so far upon us, as to separate us, and shut me up in prison again, and out of the public assembly for a season. Thus divine pleasure thinks fit to deal with us. Though you cannot see my face, nor hear my voice, yet I can write epistles to you, which being read among you, may, through the blessing of God, be a means to encourage, instruct, and establish you.

Beloved, my imprisonment preaches louder than ever I did. You serve thousands of others by this sacrifice and resignation of yours, and stir up so many prayers and thanksgivings for you. You engage the Spirit of God more among you. God can make this providence to be a greater ordinance to you, to all intents and purposes, than ever you had any. It is time for us to realize the gospel, and to consider upon what terms we took up profession, and what the cross of Christ means. We have had a long time of liberty, and have enjoyed our ministers, and sermons, and ordinances, with freedom; and we grew dull, and slothful, and sleepy. We would not be awake with our privileges, nor sleep with them. But when you see your ministers torn from you, before your eyes, by ungodly men, this may be an awakening sermon, and make you remember.

And, my brethren, here is a bright side, a comfortable side: better [to] be driven and pulled from our duty than [to] draw back from it. Let us not be ashamed of the gospel of Christ. Let us stand by our posts. Let not the adversary reproach us that we dare not stand to our profession, and that we shall be weary in time, and that prisons will tame us and take off the edge and briskness of our spirits. Let us walk answerably to our profession. I often think of Ezra 8:21-23: "Then I proclaimed a fast there, that we might afflict ourselves before our God, to seek of him a right way for us, and for our little ones, and for all our substance. For I was ashamed to require of the king a band of soldiers and horsemen to help us against the enemy in the way: because we had spoken unto the king, saying, The hand of our God is upon all them for good that seek him; but his power and his wrath is against all them that forsake him. So we fasted and besought our God for this; and he was entreated of us."

O read this! God is with us while we are with him. He gives new strength according to the day. It is not holding out a while, but it is enduring to the end. The blessing is to him that overcomes. The greatest safety lies in duty, and keeping close to it. He is most in danger, and runs into it, who declines duty for fear of the cross and suffering from men. It has been our great error that we have not trusted in the power of God. We have reasoned about the worst that men can do, but have not believed the best that God can do. Sense and carnal reason must be left behind the things of God. We must not consult in flesh and blood. "He that will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me" [Matt. 16:24]. This is gospel sense. Is preaching and meeting together a duty only when men will suffer us, or is it an indispensable duty at all times, when men forbid and persecute? The gospel makes no exception or suspension, but rather a supposition that we shall be persecuted and hurried before ruler; and [it] therefore makes provision, not for our hiding or withdrawing, but for a mouth and wisdom, and says [our persecution] shall turn to testimony. See and read Matthew 10:16-21: "They will deliver you up," etc. But how shall they meet with you, if you be not found in your duty? "Be wise as serpents; and beware of men." But how? And for what? Why, [so] that they do not frighten us from our work [and] that they do not ensnare and entangle us in our consciences. If to beware of men implied keeping out of the way, how should the next word be, "They will deliver you up, and scourge you," etc.? Religion is still for standing and going forward. There is no armor for the back.

I think, and am persuaded, my second imprisonment will be a greater advantage to you and to the gospel, than the first. And for my own particular [situation], I find my spirit much quieted and composed; and do not with one step, or one word I have spoken, bating human frailty, otherwise than it is. God will provide for you, and God will take care of me. You will find, in due time, that the gospel has lost no ground by this dispensation. But you must not expect to have great matters, and never exercise faith and patience. You must believe for what you cannot see at present and patiently endure what will, in a little time, be removed with greater advantage than if the cross had never been laid on. Beloved, it now high time for us to be in good earnest in religion. If the credit of the gospel will not bear the weight of our outward concerns, our families, wives, children, and estates, how shall we venture our souls and the salvation of them from the devil, hell, and death, and the obtaining everlasting glory for them upon it? I am set for the defense of the gospel, and am every moment upon service for you and the gospel, day and night. If I had been at liberty only a few hours a week, they would have been taken up in preaching to you. And if I had withdrawn, I know not what blessing I could have promised myself upon my labors elsewhere, in consulting my own ease and liberty, and left you, my charge, for fear of suffering, and made myself incapable of serving you [and of] suffering with or for you. If any say it would be but for a little time; I answer:

1. We must take up the cross presently; duty must not be delayed, no, not [for] a moment, when there is opportunity.

2. Is not a season of suffering righteously to be prized as much or more than a season of grace?

3. Do we know that God will ever honor us with such an opportunity, if we neglected this?

4. Can we tell how many thousands are encouraged by our standing now, and who would have been troubled if we had given way but one day?

5. Lastly, who knows that he shall live six weeks, or one week, or one day? And shall we not do all we can for Christ? Shall we neglect a present season of service, upon a supposition of serving him six weeks hence? Is this like [the] gospel? (See James 4:13-15.) Today we will keep our liberty, and enjoy our ease, and tomorrow, when persecution is over, we will worship and preach? Who knows what good six weeks' imprisonment may do and what the power of God can do to work liberty by means of imprisonment and convince an ungodly generation that it is not interest and faction that makes us separate and meet together, but pure conscience? Suffering leaves a testimony in their conscience, when shrinking might harden them in their wickedness, and draw out their rage more. I am called, by virtue of my office and place, to stand. My circumstances differ from others.

My dearly beloved friends, brothers, sisters, and hearers! My heart is enlarged towards you. I have no greater joy than to serve you in the most effectual way. I am sure I am not now out of God's way, and there you would have me to be. The Lord sanctify this present dispensation to us all, and help us to find out and fight against these corruptions that provoke the Lord thus to contend with us. For though men deal unjustly by us, and our sufferings, with respect to them, are for righteousness' sake, yet, with relation to God, we must acknowledge ourselves guilty, guilty, and that he has punished us less than our iniquities have deserved.

I know you pray for me. We may meet at the throne of grace in spite of opposition. Pray for your enemies as the gospel requires. Prepare for further trials. Pray for the Spirit to bring things to your remembrance that you have heard, and to make you more fruitful in every good work to the praise of God. Get the love of the world more out of your hearts, and the love of God more into your hearts; and this will make you willing to part with everything rather than part with him, his name, profession, word, or worship. The Lord be with you, and give us a comfortable meeting again in the public assembly, to tell of all his wondrous works. You are dear to your willing servant, for Christ's sake,

Thomas Hardcastle

(1.) Roger Hayden, ed., The Records of a Church of Christ in Bristol, 1640-1687, Bristol Record Society's Publication, vol. 23 (Bristol: Bristol Record Society, 1974), 47.

(2.) Ibid., 36; Edward Bean Underhill, ed., The Records of a Church of Christ, Meeting in Broadmead, Bristol, 1640-1685 (London: J. Haddon, 1847), 388.

(3.) Thomas Hardcastle to the Church of Christ meeting in Broadmead, Bristol, 24 August 1670, in Underhill, The Records of a Church of Christ, 111.

(4.) The London church and the Broadmead church exchanged several angry letters concerning Hardcastle. See Underhill, The Records of a Church of Christ, 117-20, 153-55, 198-205. According to Hayden (The Records of a Church of Christ in Bristol, 40-41), the acrimony between the two churches lasted for seven years, ending only when Hardcastle died in 1678.

(5.) Thomas Hardcastle to Edward Terrill, 3 July 1671, in Underhill, The Records of a Church of Christ, 149.

(6.) Mark Goldie, "The Search for Religious Liberty, 1640-1690," in The Oxford Illustrated History of Tudor & Stuart Britain, ed. John Morrill (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996), 302.

(7.) Underhill, The Records of a Church of Christ, 217.

(8.) Ibid., 220.

(9.) Hayden, The Records of a Church of Christ in Bristol, 42.

(10.) Thomas Hardcastle to the Church of Christ meeting in Broadmead, Bristol, 18 August 1675, in Underhill, The Records of a Church of Christ, 257-60.

Keith E. Durso is a freelance copyeditor and writer, Nashville, Tennessee.
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Author:Durso, Keith E.
Publication:Baptist History and Heritage
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Mar 22, 2005
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