Home > Culture, History, Literature, Reviews > Sarah Vowell’s “The Wordy Shipmates”: Puritan America, Then and Now

Sarah Vowell’s “The Wordy Shipmates”: Puritan America, Then and Now

It is frequently stated that the United States of America is a Puritan country. Intended as a facile sort of penetrating insight, this epithet connects contemporary American stuffed-shirt morality to the semi-legendary English founders of the first permanent colonies in the northeast of the continental U.S. In this formulation, the Puritans who settled in the Massachusetts Bay area in the early 1600s are popular understood as severe, humourless, stuffed-shirt Bible-thumpers who enforced a strict conformity on the basis of Scripture that has survived, in altered form, in the modern society of the nation.

This impression has been accomplished with a literary assist from the common curriculum assignment novel The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne, who was descended from a judge in Puritan America’s defining atrocity (or one of them), the Salem witch trials (to say nothing of Arthur Miller’s The Crucible, a transparent historical allegory for McCarthyist “witch hunts”). In the Puritans, those who employ this simplified expression see the precursors of today’s Bible Belt’s Evangelical Christian fundamentalists, a prediction of the pearl-clutching shock with which evocations of sex are greeted in the public sphere, and/or a historical explanation for any rigidity to change or difference displayed anywhere in the 50 states at any given time.

It wouldn’t be exactly correct to dismiss this received opinion of the New England Puritans as an entirely inaccurate myth. Indeed, it is more than half-right, encapsulating much more of the nature of these important figures in American history than many popular myths come close to doing (Andrew Jackson, right this way, throw your coat up on the bed). But as Sarah Vowell shows in The Wordy Shipmates, the Puritan settlers of the Massachusetts Bay Colony are not only ironclad religious authoritarians. They are certainly that, but they are also dedicated scholars, pragmatic administrators, unselfish communitarians, rebellious seekers and irrepressible mavericks, and cruel, racist war criminals.

Drawing on archival sources as well as her own particular experiences with the remnants of Puritan society and culture to fill in the full, rounded human nature of the Puritans, Vowell locates many more aspects of the American character than mere unbending, stringent moral rigidity (which is intermingled with clandestine permissiveness in American society anyway). In the published sermons of Puritan preachers prior to and during their Transatlantic crossing, Vowell traces the kernels of communitarian values and destructive exceptionalism alike.

She spends some fruitful time exploring the numinous application of the Biblical phrase “a city upon a hill” by the Colony’s first, dominant governor John Winthrop to the forthcoming settlement in his lay sermon A Model of Christian Charity. “The city on the hill” was engraved firmly upon the modern American psyche by President Ronald Reagan, who utilized the image frequently throughout his political career to legitimize the arrogant strain of American exceptionalism that his presidency rendered hopelessly ascendant. Vowell, who grew into her peculiarly patriotic progressivism in the Reagan years, valiantly battles for many pages against Reagan’s claim to Winthrop’s Biblical invocation, pointing to rising homelessness, economic disparity, Defense overspending, and the deeply distasteful Iran-Contra scandal as compelling reasons to doubt Reagan’s rosy optimism as well as to emphasize his excising of the sense of highly-exposed sense of responsibility in face of a judgmental deity inherent to Winthrop’s use of the phrase in his sermon.

But more tangible elements of Puritan New England occupy Vowell’s attention and strike both author and, consequently, reader as being more vital to the development American social and civic identity. The tremendous bookishness of the Puritans, as referenced in the title, is one of the defining features of their society as well of their faith, especially as contrasted to early 17th Century Catholicism. This highly Protestant engagement with the text of the Bible and with analyzing and understanding the word of God for one’s self marked the Massachusetts Puritans as scholars and intellectuals in a way that current American conservative Christianity, with its reverence for patriarchal power and seemingly endless enemies list, has lost. Indeed, Vowell laments the anti-knowledge philistinism of contemporary America in general. For all of the Puritans’ God-bothering ignorance and ranks-closing prejudice, they possessed an admirable intellectual openness.

Less admirable, to Vowell’s eyes and likely our own, were other Puritan characteristics. The conflicts between Winthrop’s Bay Colony power base and the uncompromising ideas of unorthodox citizens like Roger Williams and Anne Hutchinson demonstrate an iron will towards communal conformity that continues to make differences in identity and adjustments in social standards painful and difficult in modern America. Both splitters were banished from the Colony for their divergent conceptions of how to live under God’s law (and founded new settlements in Rhode Island that allowed for religious dissent in a way that Winthrop’s regime would not), belying the claimed preference for co-existence and compromise by the Colony’s Puritans (as opposed to the Plymouth Pilgrims, who pointedly agitated for separation from a Church of England that they found to be irredeemably tainted by Papism, the Massachusetts Bay Puritans balanced their disapproval of the Church with a stated desire to remain within it and achieve desired reforms).

Perhaps Vowell’s most vigorous effort of connecting threads of American history in The Wordy Shipmates involves her detailing of the Pequot War, one of the initial salvos in European colonists’ long, heinous, and largely successful genocidal cleansing of the continent’s indigenous inhabitants (following on the heels of cataclysmic epidemics of disease that denuded Amerindian populations after first contact). A brutal skirmish in alliance with other local tribes, the Pequot War was marked by one terrible massacre and other atrocities besides while either killing, capturing, or dispersing the Pequots almost entirely. There was nothing noble or even justifiable about the Pequot War, and Vowell sees in its prosecution the template for future Indian wars and mass displacement that remains a largely unacknowledged but horribly important factor in U.S. nation-building.

Vowell, who claims Cherokee ancestry, has a bee in her bonnet on this subject (and good for her; America needs more bees of this sort in their collective bonnet), which also provided the engine for her outrage at American imperialism in Hawaii in Unfamiliar Fishes. The Wordy Shipmates is not only about the first stirrings of Amerindian genocide, but the Pequot War is the harshest manifestation of the social characteristics of Puritan New England that Vowell skillfully (and even entertainingly) narrates in the book. Puritan society is very unlike modern American society in many ways, but it resembles it in many ways as well. It’s worth appreciating Sarah Vowell’s work on the subject for establishing distinctions in regards to those resemblances.

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