In the Spring of 1843, William A. Scott, pastor of the First Presbyterian Church of New Orleans, delivered a sermon that caused such a stir among his congregants and other members of the community they asked him to publish it. A local printing house published the pamphlet sized work The Duty of Praying for Our Rulers.
Scott appealed to Protestant tradition and argued that prayer for rulers in particular remained a Christian necessity. He told his congregation that churches of the era neglected this aspect fo Christian life. The president at the time, John Tyler, remained relatively unpopular. It is probable Scott’s parishioners—likely the Whig merchant class of the city—soured on Tyler because of his unwillingness to carry out William Henry Harrison’s Whig program which originally included federal funding for internal improvements to the port of New Orleans and its environs. That’s speculation, but it is not unlikely. For whatever reason, Scott chided his congregation and city for not entreating the almighty to guide the president and those in civil authority.
Apostolic Christianity, Scott declared, did not admit partisan scruples in selecting which rulers to pray for. Scott did not believe “in the supremacy of the pope, nor in the divine right of kings” but he did believe that “the powers that be are ordained of God. ‘The Heavens do rule. The Most High ruleth in the kingdom of men, and giveth it to whomsoever He will.’” Civil power, stated Scott, “is in some sort the representative of the Divine government. Our rulers are the image of the Supreme Ruler, Magistrates are God’s officers, To render them that respect and homage which is well-pleasing in his sight is to acknowledge His Providence.” Respect for civil authority was “an act of religious worship. It is an act of homage to God from who all power emanates. It is an act of adoration.” God’s people, Scott argued, prayed for their classical rulers from Cyrus the great to Caesar and the pattern remained in force for Christians citizens of the American republic.
Included in Scott’s definition of those in authority were people of wealth and social importance. Scott enjoined his parishioners to pray for society’s elites. “The duty of praying for rulers, implies the duty of praying for all properly constituted authorities in the church and the world. That list included “parents, teachers, legislators, judges, officers of the army and the navy” as well “all that are possessed of wealth, learning or talent, or any other consideration that gives them influence among their fellow-men.”
Scott’s vision was not uninterested in Christian influence on high culture or politics. “Pious men,” he argued, too often gave up “the management of political affairs too much to the irreligious.” Church members, he lamented, “have not looked for sound principles in the men seeking their suffrages, nor have they sought , as was their duty, the divine blessing upon their rulers.” Scott was no theocrat, but he exhorted Christian involvement in politics, lest God withdraw his temporal blessings. Pious men, he demanded, “must seek offices of power and trust for the public good, or our government will fall into the hands of the ungodly, and then the curse of the Almighty will rest upon it.”
Tellingly, however, Scott did not demand obedience to those in authority to the same degree he demanded respect.