The Wordy Shipmates
Sarah Vowell offers her witty take on the Puritans who settled the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1630.
Sarah Vowell, a popular contributor to public radioâ€™s â€śThis American Life,â€ť is an American-history buff with a self-proclaimed predilection for Puritan New England, the Civil War, and bloodbaths. Hers is emphatically not the history taught in high school â€“ often a target of her sarcastic wit.
Her last book, â€śAssassination Vacation,â€ť chronicled a quirky road trip stalking the murder sites â€“ now tourist pit stops â€“ of Presidents Lincoln, Garfield, and McKinley.
Vowell is a master of the unexpected angle or pop-culture connection used to confer fresh relevance on often dowdy subjects.
In her new book, The Wordy Shipmates, one of her more outrageous parallels compares the Pequot war, in which 700 Indians were murdered in Mystic Fort, with a frustrated skateboarderâ€™s â€śdestructive tantrum.â€ť
Vowellâ€™s eponymous shipmates are the Puritans who settled the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1630 â€“ 10 years after theÂ Mayflower Pilgrims settled Plymouth.
Why should we be interested in Protestants who fled Charles I during the Great Migration? Because â€śthe country I live in is haunted by the Puritansâ€™ vision of themselves as Godâ€™s chosen people, as a beacon of righteousness that all others are to admire,â€ť Vowell writes.
What Vowell finds worrisome is that we have lost the Puritansâ€™ humility and fear of God, which kept their egotism and delusions of grandeur in check.Â Even more troubling, we have also lost their respect for learning.Â Vowell asserts that the United States has veered away from the original bookishness of the Bay Colony in favor of the anti-intellectual, more emotional religion now practiced in America.
She writes, â€śThe United States is often called a Puritan nation.Â Well, here is one way in which it emphatically is not: Puritan lives were overwhelmingly, fantastically literary.Â Their singleminded obsession with one book, the Bible, made words the center of their lives â€“ not land, not money, not power, not fun. I swear on Peter Stuyvesantâ€™s peg leg that the country that became the U.S. bears a closer family resemblance to the devil-may-care merchants of New Amsterdam than it does to Bostonâ€™s communitarian English majors.â€ť
How did this happen? Relying on the voluminous paper trail left by the â€śquill-crazy New Englanders,â€ť â€śThe Wordy Shipmatesâ€ť traces the â€śmicroscopic theological differencesâ€ť among the Massachusetts Bay Colonists that led to â€śa dangerous disregard for expertiseâ€ť in American society today.
Vowellâ€™s fundamental concern in teasing out these nitpicky squabbles, as it has been in much of her writing, is what she characterized in her 2002 essay collection â€śThe Partly Cloudy Patriotâ€ť as â€śthe conflict between freedom and community, between individual will and the public good.â€ť
No slouch in the verbiage department herself, Vowell spills much ink articulating both her admiration and approbation for such early Bay colonists as John Winthrop, Roger Williams, Henry Vane, and Anne Hutchinson.
She waxes ecstatic over Winthropâ€™s sermon, â€śA Model of Christian Charity,â€ť with its model of a â€ścity on the hillâ€ť (to which Ronald Reagan added the adjective â€śshiningâ€ť).
All glibness dropped, she confesses movingly that in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, she found comfort in Winthropâ€™s words.
Roger Williams, whom Winthrop banished to Providence, is described as â€śtoo theologically intenseâ€ť even for Massachusetts Bay. Heâ€™s â€śa sort of proto-Thomas Jeffersonâ€ť or better, an â€śun-Jefferson, a man who devotes his life to keeping government out of the church â€“ not the other way around,â€ť a proponent of the First Amendment 156 years before it was ratified.
Vowell declares him â€śhard to like, but easy to love,â€ť and adds, hilariously, â€śI just feel sorry for him that he lived in an age before air quotes.â€ť
Fair warning: Lacking chapter divisions and filled with arcane, hairsplitting religious distinctions, â€śThe Wordy Shipmatesâ€ť is, despite Vowellâ€™s lively, insightful prose, heavier navigating than her more personal essay collections.
That said, it is also a painfully relevant book, a passionate secularistâ€™s argument for why the fine print matters.
As Vowell reminds us in her discussion of the Rev. John Cottonâ€™s 1630 send-off sermon to the Puritans, â€ś[T]alk like this is the match still lighting the fuse of a thousand car bombs.â€ť