Sarah Vowell embodies that rare breed of author: the amateur historian with an eye for accuracy and a talent for wit. I love her history of the Hawaiian Islands, Unfamiliar Fishes (which I’ve reviewed twice now), and I was excited to read more. My friend, Wes, lent me her exploration of the Puritans of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, The Wordy Shipmates, and I thought it a good place to start exploring the rest of her work.
The Wordy Shipmates tells the story of the Puritans who settled Boston and the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1630, not to be confused with the Pilgrims of the Mayflower who settled the Plymouth Colony in 1620. This is an important distinction, as Vowell points out early on, because the Pilgrims were separatists, preferring to cut all ties with the Church and State of England, while the Massachusetts Bay Puritans, led by John Winthrop, were non-separatists. They were tired of being persecuted and they definitely wanted to leave England to go somewhere where they could worship God in peace, but they didn’t want to tick off the king or the Church. It was like when a little kid wants to run away from home but only goes as far as she thinks she can without getting in real trouble. It’s really a small difference between the two waves of religious travelers, as Vowell notes, but it is a difference that influences many, many decisions in the early days of American governance. Vowell explores these decisions, interpersonal relationships, and religious beliefs that built the base of our country’s political structure through a close reading of the papers of the Puritan settlers who, as the title alludes, were prolific in their desire to read, think, and, especially, write. She focuses on the writings of the first governor of Massachusetts, the aforementioned John Winthrop, and his arch-nemesis-turned-buddy, Roger Williams, founder of the colony of Rhode Island.
Vowell begins with an examination of Winthrop’s famous (at least within early American literature circles and those familiar with Ronald Reagan’s political rhetoric) speech, “A Model of Christian Charity“. This speech is where the ideal of a city on a hill really became not just a biblical ideal but an American one. Vowell looks at this speech critically, analyzing its lasting images and messages as well as bringing it back later in her account to compare the eventual decisions and actions of Winthrop and his fellow Puritans to his initial goals laid out in this speech prior to their departure for Massachusetts. Much of the rest of the “words” Vowell examines are letters and pamphlets, most written by Winthrop, his “electrifying” minister John Cotton (grandfather of the wonderfully named Cotton Mather, which might trigger a vague memory of US history class in the back of your mind), and the firebrand and extreme separatist Calvinist minister, Roger Williams (whose writings informed much of the basis for Founding Fathers’ insistence on the separation of church and state). Vowell also thoroughly covers The Pequot Wars and America’s first feminist, Anne Hutchinson, lest you think her book is all about old, dead white guys.
Raised Pentecostal in small town Oklahoma, Vowell now has a much more complicated relationship with religion. While I would not normally make note of an author’s personal beliefs, she herself brings them up in the book to make clear that she is not an unbiased scholar. Biased she may be (and it results in some pretty entertaining moments when she tears apart various declarations by Winthrop and Co. with her traditional wit and good humor), but she also is quick to examine all sides of an argument thoroughly. She does not present the Puritans as cold, harsh, religious fanatics or as deeply good, incapable-of-bad, believers. She does not paint these “characters” as stereotypes. She presents them as the whole, complicated, real people that they were. This is one reason why she continuously compares Winthrop’s later writings with his “Model of Christian Charity”. It helps us see the evolution of Winthrop not from good to bad or petty but as someone who is in charge of a truly terrifying journey and has to set up and effectively run a colony without pissing anyone (ANYONE–you hear that, Roger Williams?) off and gets really overwhelmed with stress but kind of drunk on power and ends up making some decisions that don’t quite jive with his ideals. Same goes for Roger Williams. It seems he was kind of a jerk with social issues, but many of his ideals that he fought vehemently for against Winthrop’s board of governors are the very basis of our Declaration of Independence and Bill of Rights–all men (really ALL men) are created equal, etc. As Vowell notes of Williams, “I don’t like him, but I love him.” These were people doing great and not-so-great things at a time when the smallest mistake could get them killed by any number of groups, including the English crown, with very little support for or knowledge of what they were doing. So while Vowell does not mind thoroughly discounting things she disagrees with, she also makes sure that we, the readers, understand why she is discounting that particular statement as well as why it was important to those who stood by it so we can make our own decision about it. And her research is impeccable. The book is chock-full of primary sources, thoughtful analysis, and thorough descriptions of Puritan daily life. I was particularly interested in the work done to create Naragansett-English dictionaries to foster communication and trade between the Native Americans and the Puritan settlers. They were rather selective and, at times, gruesome dictionaries, but apparently effective, nonetheless.
I admire Vowell’s work in this book tremendously. Not only because of her unbiased-biased approach but because of her valiant effort to make Puritan writing interesting. Because the fact of the matter is, it’s not. As much as the Puritan’s wrote, they didn’t really go in for that whole entertainment thing. They wrote for God and to God. As they should. Their religion dominated their entire lives. However, their religion was a dreary one, and, though Vowell strives to bring humor and humanity to the writings of these (mostly) men, there are times when it is just a drag. Winthrop, in particular, is very passive aggressive without being particularly entertaining. Overall, though, I feel that this book is worth the slog. I learned so much more about our very early pre-country days that really explained a lot about the very ideals and rights we take for granted now. I feel like in school, we learn about the Pilgrims and then skip straight to the Revolutionary War, so if you are at all interested in filling in the gaps of your Puritan knowledge, this is definitely an excellent choice.