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“Whether It Is Permitted to the King, Prince, or Magistrate to Establish Religion”

Richard Hooker famously (?) said: “A gross error it is, to think that regal power ought to serve for the good of the body, and not of the soul; for men’s temporal peace, and not for their eternal safety: as if God had ordained kings for no other end and purpose but only to fat up men like hogs, and to see that they have their mast” (Of the Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity 8.3.2, with “and” corrected to “as”).

As Brad Littlejohn has noted in More than a Swineherd: Hooker, Vermigli, and the Aristotelian Defense of the Royal Supremacy,” the image the herdsman also occurs in Peter Martyr Vermigli’s Loci communes 4.13.10. Littlejohn remarks that in that passage “Aristotelianism is evident,though not stated explicitly” (90).

As it happens, Vermigli uses the image again at least twice: in Loci communes 4.14.2 and in a brief piece included at the end the expanded Loci communes, as printed by Pierre Aubert in Geneva beginning in 1623,1 in a section of quaestiones aliquot et responsa (“some questions and reponses”). In each of the two sections, which are almost identical, Vermigli concisely gives his view on whether the magistrate can establish religion; and here, unlike in 4.13.10, the metaphor, having been preceded by putative biblical objections to establishment, is followed immediately by a reference to Aristotle.

I have translated the version from the quaestiones aliquot et responsa below from the Latin edition of 1624. Indeed, I had already done so before I found the archaic English translation of the almost identical passage in the Loci proper. I post mine anyway, for a few reasons: it is more modern and readable than that one; this particular version has not, to my knowledge, appeared in English before (not that it adds much to the other, since the content is the same, even if there are a couple of instances of difference in wording); and it may add something to Littlejohn’s thesis by way of further confirmation.

The one point that is absolutely fundamental to note is Vermigli’s form of argument that the metaphor is meant to reinforce. Though he makes use of biblical exempla and patristic authorities, the form of argument is that of classical political philosophy as found in Aristotle’s Politics. Indeed, the biblical exempla are mostly counterexamples raised by his imagined interlocutor, which he then interprets on the basis of other parts of revelation and a closer attention to the proper distinctions in play (e.g.: King Uzziah wanted to sacrifice, which was the duty of the priest, not the king; but cura religionis is not analogous to sacrifice or the priestly office; therefore the example is inapt).2 King David and King Solomon, as well as Constantine and Charlemagne, on the other hand, exemplify what Vermigli takes to be the natural, not revealed, approach to government and the architectonic ordering of society. The assumptions of his opponents, who would use Uzziah and Uzzah as dispositive counterexamples, he takes to be papistical.  


Whether it is permitted to the king, prince, or magistrate to establish religion.

It is asked whether it has been permitted to the king to establish religion. It seems rather to have been the business of priests and prophets. Nay, rather: it was permitted to Saul to do this, and this as a matter of his office. For God had commanded him to remove the soothsayers. However, those who say that it is not right that “secular” princes (as they call them) and profane men take this matter in hand take thought for the health of the church in the worst way. For what if a pastor should turn out to be a wolf? Who will remove him but the magistrate? Or if bishops (as does occur) should not govern in accordance with the dignity of the church nor the Word of God, who will restrain them? But King Uzziah, when he had wished to sacrifice, was struck with leprosy; and Uzzah, when he had touched the ark when it was slipping from the cart, was visited with death. For that reason princes (they say) ought not to involve themselves in these matters. What, then, will they do? They pretend that there are two lights in the church; and that the pope with his bishops is the greater light, but the emperor, kings, and magistrates are the lesser light, and that it is right for the latter to care for (that is, to ruin) bodies, but the former for souls. Thus they want princes to be only herding shepherds, in order to fatten up bodies.

But not even the philosophers think so absurdly. For Aristotle says in the Politics that that it is the duty of the magistrate to take care that the people live well and in accordance with virtue. But there is no greater virtue than religion. God commands that the prince write the law for himself,3 not only in order that he may give heed to it for himself, but also in order that he may compel others to give heed to it. The law, however, contains not only political matters, but also ceremonies and the worship of God. Since the law is divided into two tables, each is entrusted to the power of the magistrate. Paul says, with respect to these matters, that the magistrate occupies the post and place of God, and that it is right that every soul be subject to the higher power. [Commenting] on this passage, Chrysostom says that neither bishops, nor evangelists, nor Apostles are excluded. Augustine says, against the Donatists, “But matters would not be arranged well if the magistrate could punish adultery but could not punish the fornication of the soul, would they?” And he adds that it is right for kings to serve God, not only in order that they themselves may live piously and modestly, but also in order that they may lead others to piety and defend the worship of God.

In all the arts, as Aristotle says, there is a certain directive order [ratio ἀρχιτεκτονική]. For example, the horseman’s art is in a relationship of command to the art that makes saddles and bridles. Also, the nautical art governs the art that has oars and sails as its concern. For that reason, since the art of the magistrate is the first and highest, he ought to be in a relationship of command to all parts of the commonwealth. For he does not himself exercise these arts, of course; but he nevertheless ought to see to it that no one corrupt or defile them. If a doctor is not concerned with the authoritative teaching of Hippocrates or Galen, or if the seller of drugs sells his own corrupt and defective merchandise, the magistrate ought to restrain each one. And if this is possible in the other arts, I do not see why the same thing is not possible in religion. Thus David, Solomon, Hezekiah, Josiah, Constantine, and Charlemagne correctly judged that religion was by right a matter for their concern.

Uzziah was struck with leprosy, and deservedly so. For God wanted him to be king, not priest. But he wanted to sacrifice against the authoritative teaching of God. But if he had restrained a delinquent priest or had forced him back to order, nothing bad would have happened to him for that reason. Uzzah was visited with death, because he had rashly put his hand upon the ark, which it was right for the Levites to carry on their shoulders. But they had put it onto a cart. This man, when the cart tottered and he had put his hand upon it, paid the penalty.



  1. For the publication history of the Loci, see Joseph C. McLelland, “A Literary History of the Loci Communes,” in Torrance Kirby, Emidio Campi, and Frank A. James III, eds., A Companion to Peter Martyr (Leiden: Brill, 2009), 489-94.
  2. This is not to say that Vermigli might not have responded to the biblical exempla on the grounds of natural law and interpreted them in accordance with it; but he chooses to meet his opponents on their own ground.
  3. Vermigli is referring to Deut. 17.18.

By E.J. Hutchinson

E.J. Hutchinson is Assistant Professor of Classics at Hillsdale College.