I was rereading James F. Cooper, Jr.'s great book Tenacious of their Liberties: The Congregationalists in Colonial Massachusetts, in the context of this blog on the founding of America. While Cooper's book focuses on church polity for the most part, his Introduction stresses the ways in which the Puritans at once failed and succeeded at being democratic.
The Puritans have been labeled as the ultimate anti-democratic people, almost completely on the basis of their religion. Because they only allowed church members to vote to elect representatives to the General Court (the judiciary and legislature of the Massachusetts Bay Colony), and because Puritan giant John Cotton once wrote a letter in which he said that democracy was not ordained by God as a fit government, and mostly because people today hate the Puritans, scholars spent most of the last three decades denying that religious Puritans were ever democratic. The town meeting was hailed as the real democratic institution, and put in direct conflict with church-going.
The Puritans were not democratic in some ways. They did not let women have a political voice. One did have to be a church member to vote for the GC. They did not always provide justice for all, and there was no freedom of speech or religion.
But in other ways, they were the first democratic English society in America. As Cooper says,
"Congregational thought and practice in fact served as one indigenous seedbed of several concepts that would flourish during the Revolutionary generation, including the notions that government derives its legitimacy from the voluntary consent of the governed, governors should be chosen by the governed, rulers should be accountable to the ruled, and constitutional checks should limit both the governors and the people. ...Congregationalism certainly encouraged a significant (if varying) degree of popular participation. Notwithstanding its undeniable debts to the Enlightenment and the English dissenting tradition, Revolutionary ideology in Massachusetts emerged from a political culture that contained deeply rooted libertarian traditions stretching back to its founding generation of Congregational settlers."
When we study the Founders of the Revolutionary period, we struggle to understand the meaning of religion in an overwhelmingly politically focused tradition of scholarship. When we study the Puritans, the opposite is true: we struggle to recognize the innovations and importance of politics in an overwhelmingly religiously focused scholarship.
The importance of acknowledging the proto-democracy of the Puritans is not just that it goes a long way toward explaining the political climate of Massachusetts in 1770. It's also that their Puritan heritage helped shape Massachusetts Founders' attitude toward God and man, their belief that religion matters but should be entirely personal, but that politics must answer to God, in whatever form.