Did the puritans incubate democracy in America?
Cut through the blend of fact and myth with which the Pilgrim heritage is based, and one finds paradox and controversy. That includes how much Pilgrims and other Puritans may have influenced the shape of democracy in America through their emphasis on independent, self-governing congregations beholden to no king or bishop.
"We talk about the principal of Congregational church government here as something that's so foundational to the way that Americans think about institutions today," said Peggy Bendroth, executive director of the American Congregational Association, which maintains the Congregational Library in Boston.
"And we want to be careful and not say that Congregationalism is the source of all American democracy, but I think it is really possible to say that it was in Congregational churches in New England where that principle of the consent of the governed took root," she added.
Jon Butler, a professor of religious studies and dean of the graduate school of arts and sciences at Yale University, differed.
"The origins of democracy in America are very complex, and they certainly don't depend on the Puritan tradition," said Butler, who acknowledged that some other historians would disagree. "Puritanism didn't care to recognize one of the core ideas of democracy, the importance of individualism. They were forever shunning people in their congregations, issuing judgments.... They were exclusive instead of inclusive."
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