The Civil Magistrate’s Power (1653)
(In Matters of Religion)

By Thomas Cobbet

Historical documents

The Civil Magistrate’s Power in Matters of Religion Modestly Debated, Impartially Stated according to the Bounds and Grounds of Scripture, and Answer Returned to those Objections Against the same which seem to have any Weight in Them

By Thomas Cobbet (1608 – 1685), English Puritan, Teacher and Minister of the Word at the Church at Lynne in New England. Author also of the work, Gospel Incense: A Practical Treatise on Prayer.

Take us like foxes, the little foxes which spoil the vines (Canticles 2:15).

Rulers are not a terror to good works, but to the evil (Romans 13:3).

This reprint, 2008. This title is owned by Sprinkle Publications, Harrisonburg, Virginia. For more information, contact Sprinkle Publications at: 540-867-9618; email:

ISBN: 978-1-59442-160-0

This publication is available as a hardbound book (151 pages) and can be obtained from Reformation Heritage Books, 2965 Leonard St. NE, Grand Rapids, MI 49525. Call: 616-977-0889; or visit:

From: The Puritans in America: a Narrative Anthology, edited by Alan Heimert and Andrew Delbanco (p. 191):

THE OUTBREAK of the civil wars in England, the rise of the Commonwealth and the Protectorate, the emergence of “toleration” as the guiding principle of an English Puritanism liberated by the New Model Army; all had their impact on New England’s own conception of itself, its definition of its special character and destiny. So too, of course, did the Restoration of the British monarchy and Episcopacy in 1660, which left New England seemingly a last and isolated redoubt of pure religion in a Christendom restored to darkness. Until 1660, however, New England increasingly imagined itself a “model” for the Old World, issuing progressively more strident instructions to its former Independent allies and proffering gratuitous and even impudent advice to Cromwell himself, as is Thomas Cobbett’s (sic) The Civil Magistrate’s Power (1653).

Copyright does not allow this publication to be reproduced here. For a sample of this work, please see the brief excerpts below taken from the book.

From the Foreword (p. iii) by pastor John Weaver:

GOVERNMENT! Government is a word that can bring forth frustration, exasperation and desperation – especially civil government. It constantly seeks to tax, spend, control, regulate, increase its power and intrude into every area, sphere and aspect of our lives. What is the answer? Is the answer, as some suggest, simple submission to its tyrannical demands or just try to ignore its ever-present intrusion in our lives? The thirteenth chapter of Romans – at least the first few words of verse one that say, “ Let every soul be subject unto the higher powers” – is a favorite section of scripture appealed to by those who allege that Christians are obligated by God to render unquestioned obedience and submission to every law, ordinance, regulation, edict and decree promulgated by civil government. How do we explain that misapplication of Scripture? Our forefathers had the answer. We have forgotten and forsaken their teaching.

Today we are living in a land of ignorance – ignorance of the Word of God, ignorance of the Constitution, and ignorance of our Christian heritage. Ignorance is conducive only to slavery and destruction. Our Lord says in John 8:32, “And ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.” Hosea 4:6 declares, “My people are destroyed for lack of knowledge…” If we are to be a “free people,” we must be able to understand and apply the truth. There cannot be any “self-government” without knowledge and responsibility. If we are to live in a land of freedom we must also understand the institution and limitations of civil government.

All government had been ordained by God – self government, family government, church government and civil government (Romans 13:1). God ordained the family as a ministry of education, the church as a ministry of grace, and the civil government as a ministry of justice. Each has its proper sphere of authority and responsibility. Each also has its boundaries and limitations.

If we understand God’s ordination of civil government, its limitations are easily seen. God instituted civil government for a two-fold purpose that it might be a terror to evil works and a praise to good works (Romans 13:3-4). The role of government may be summarized as protection and punishment. It must protect the righteous and punish the wicked. We must understand that both good and evil are defined by God and not by man. Civil magistrates are to use God’s sword to punish and terrorize evil workers. Likewise, civil rulers are to refrain from using the sword and from interfering in the lives of the righteous. One of the greatest blessings is the right of freedom from interference.

… …

In order to have a solid, biblical view of government, on must read Vindiciae Contra Tyrannos, or A Defence of Liberty, written by Hubert Languet; Lex Rex by Samuel Rutherford, and The Civil Magistrate’s Power by Thomas Cobbet. Once you have thoroughly digested the truths of these volumes, you will realize how far we have fallen, how deeply we have apostatized, and how grievously we have sinned against God in the area of civil government. It is time to repent and subject our thinking on civil government to te word of God.

John Weaver, Pastor
Freedom Baptist Church
Fitzgerald, Georgia

The Method and Scope of the Ensuing Discourse … (p. xvii) – Paraphrased:

The main theme and bulk of this work is taken up with asserting and proving the following five corollaries:

  1. The civil magistrate is justly endowed with coercive power concerning matters of religion (i.e., doctrine, worship, etc.). Objections tending to undermine said authority are refuted.

  2. Rulers are duty-bound to diligently search and seek the scriptures as to gaining a thorough knowledge of God’s word, law, and methods.

  3. The highest and chief civil authority has the power to make law in religious matters.

    1. Thus human laws to the contrary cannot bind the conscience.

    2. But such laws as are agreeable to a right and biblical standard ought to be obeyed.

  4. The civil power has authority to judge which religious acts of men are agreeable to the word of God, and which are contrary to it.

    1. When doubtful matters arise, ecclesiastical assemblies may be called, and counsels appointed by the magistrate have actual authority over such church matters.

    2. Magistrates are to call upon ministers of the gospel to expound the whole counsel of God to their congregations.

    3. Rulers are to establish laws with the consent of the people or their representatives.

  5. Therefore, persons are not to be left to the liberty of their own judgements or consciences in such matters.

[Dedication] (p. xx)

This treatise concerning the Christian Magistrate’s power, and the exerting thereof, in, and matters of religion, written with much zeal and judgement by Mr. Cobbet of New England, I do allow to be printed, as being very profitable for these times.

Feb. 7th, 1652 OBADIAH SEDGWICK*

[*1600?-1658. An English presbyterian clergyman and member of the Westminster Assembly.]

A Discourse Concerning the Nature and Latitude of Civil Powers in Matters of Religion

Page 1:

If ever it were a time, wherein the zeal of God’s house should burn in the hearts of the sincere members of Jesus Christ; or if ever the Lord called for the flaming forth of that holy fire, in their zealous expression and actions (according to their several places and callings) in a way of vindication of the Lord’s abused name, truth ordinances and ways, surely this that time; when under the pretense of spiritual light, so much hellish darkness beginneth to overspread the face of the Churches of Christ. Wherefore before I do enter upon the main point which I intend in this Discourse, I shall first present a memorable example, of such holy zeal in our Head Jesus Christ, to the intent, that such of His members, who are by office and place most concerned therein, may in the fear of God wisely and seriously ponder, whether that holy zeal was in Jesus Christ, as a wellhead, and is doubtless (in their measures) derived to them also, should not now be more abundantly exerted and exercised that way.

The example I intend is recorded in John 2:13-17:

And Jesus went up to Jerusalem. And found in the temple those that sold oxen, and sheep, and doves, and the changers of money, sitting. And when He had made a scourge of small cords, He drove them all out of the temple, with the sheep and oxen, and poured out the changers of money, and overthrew the tables. And said to them that sold doves, Take these things hence, make not my Father’s house an house of merchandize. And His disciples remembered that it was written, the zeal of Thine house hath eaten me up.

This history of Christ’s purging the temple, being the relation of one of His most glorious acts, in which He put forth His hand in public view, after His most solemn entrance upon His great work; it is the more observable, and doth call for more than ordinary improvement, by all such, as whose property it is as saints, to make narrow search into all the great works, as of God a Creator (Psalm 111:2), so of Jesus Christ God-Man their redeemer, but especially by all such, whose duty it is by office and place, to be reformers of matters amiss in the house of the Lord. …

… If any would demand the ground why Christ did thus, it is given partly in that Himself spake: Make not – My Father’s house – an house of merchandise. It was His Father’s house which was so profaned and polluted: and He, as His Son, is nearly concerned in it; and partly in that which the Spirit of God suggested seasonably to the disciples from the Book of Psalms; The zeal of Thine house hath eaten me up [(Ps. 69:9)].

And now may not the saints learn for their instruction sundry things hence, which concern them also, even all of them in their several callings, especially those in higher place? Yes verily.

… …

Page 15:

[In order] to find out some part of God’s counsel in this famous history of Christ’s purging the temple; I shall leave the same to the judgment of the godly Wise.

The theists and position, which I shall propound to be cleared and confirmed from the Scriptures, shall be that which before I hinted, namely:

That corruptions in religion, outwardly breaking forth and expressed, may, yea and must be restrained and punished by such as are called thereunto.

Now for the better handling, and the more full discovery of the truth of this point; we shall first propound some distinctions. [Secondly, to] lay down some conclusions about it. [Thirdly, to] confirm the point from scripture. [And fourthly, to] draw three or four corollaries thence.

  1. Touching the first:

    1. Corruptions in religion are either dogmatical or practical. And these again, are either such as are more gross, and strike at the very fundamentals, or vitals, of religion, whether directly or collaterally; or such as are of a more circumstantial and lighter nature.

      Again, corruptions in religion are either such as are secretly taken up and embraced, and so kept close in the minds and hearts of persons; or such as come under man’s ken and view being outwardly expressed in word, writing, action, or the like. And these again which come thus into open view, are either such as are held forth with meekness, peaceableness, and real expressions of cordial readiness to lay them aside and reform them upon better information; or such as are carried on in any insolent and turbulent way; or with expressions of contempt of civil or Church order.

    2. Restraint and punishment of these is either that which is merely and immediately Divine, or that which is mixed – partly Divine, partly human, in respect either of the agent, or manner of acting; or that which is properly in the nature of the act, person, and manner of acting, human. And this is either political, which is carried on in a civil way, and by political means; or ecclesiastical, which is carried on in a Church way, and by ecclesiastical means.

    3. A call of God, to restrain and punish abuses, is either immediately Divine, as when by Divine vision, revelation, prophesy, inspiration, instinct, and the like; or that which is mediately Divine, in respect of God the Author, but immediately human, in respect of man designing and inviting.

  2. Now let us is the second place lay down some conclusions: 1. Negatively; what may not be done this way. 2. Affirmatively; what may and must.

    1. No private person, now, in these days, under any pretense whatsoever, may take upon him to restrain and punish corruptions in religion in those who are not under his personal charge. Calls which are immediately Divine are now ceased; men are now to look for a call from man, and by man to act in way of restraining and punishing the faults of others which are not under them, either as parents, guardians, masters, tutors, or the like. It is rash zeal – zeal without knowledge – to do anything that way, without the bounds of one’s particular calling; in limits whereof, every one should abide with God (1 Cor. 7:20, 24). It tendeth to confusion in churches and commonwealths; and God is no Author of that (1 Cor. 14:33).

      In those days, when God was pleased to give forth sometimes extraordinary calls to such work; yet those zealous Levites await their call from Him, whose proper work it was, in a forcible and corporal way, to punish such abuses (compare Ex. 32:26-28 and Deut. 33:9). …

    2. No civil authority whatsoever, nor persons thereto called may, as persons in civil authority, curb or punish abuses in religion, in any ecclesiastical manner, or by means properly ecclesiastical; as excommunication or the like. What he who is a godly ruler may do, considered as a member of a particular visible church, with joint concurrence of the church whereof he is a member is another case. …

    3. Neither civil, nor church church power may curb or punish a mere supposed corruption in religion, but that which is so really and manifestly appearing from grounds of the Word. The contrary is condemned, when men are made offenders for a word rightly uttered by the just (Is. 29:21), when assemblies shall ignorantly and rashly pass censures out of a bare supposal of services therein done to Christ (John 16:2-3), they that kill you shall think they do God good service.

    4. [List continues through point 2.8]

Page 21:

Positively we affirm that both church officers, with their churches in a church way, and highest civil authority and rulers in their political way, they may, yea they must restrain and seasonably suitably punish all grosser corruptions in religion manifestly cross to the Word when they are outwardly and openly expressed to the just offense of the saints and hurt of others. (To explain this a little.)

We say they may do so, not as a matter of their own liberty to do or not to do so, a thing may be lawful which in case is not expedient; but this is a duty to which they are bound, and with which they cannot wholly dispense. It’s therefore added, they must do it; oft times indeed they do it not, but in duty they are bound to it. …

… …

Page 22:

But because in these latter times so many depart from the faith, giving heed to seducing spirits and to doctrines of devils, and because that civil government is now so much despised, and too many are not afraid to speak evil of dignities in kingdoms and commonwealths, making them usurpers for meddling in such matters of religion, or for daring to improve their civil power to restrain and punish such enormities in religion. I shall therefore only address myself at present to prove and confirm this position; that it is the duty of highest civil authority, and of the civil rulers in a religious State, to restrain and punish corruptions and abuses in religion, breaking forth within their jurisdiction, according as even now explained and stated in the foregoing conclusion.

… …