I wish I could have experienced this as an audio book. Not just because Sarah Vowell is a very entertaining and erudite speaker, but because the book is written in such a way that it feels like you’re having a long conversation with the author. The Wordy Shipmates is an informal history of the Puritans who arrived in Massachusetts in the 1630s and 1640s, after the Pilgrims and the Jamestown colonists. Vowell’s history revolves around John Winthrop, on the first governors of the Massachusetts colony, and his struggles with trying to create a “city on a hill” while dealing with rightfully angry natives, fanatical and not so fanatical Puritans, and the harshness of the climate.
Vowell makes repeated allusions to how little we Americans know about our history and how erroneous our view of the Puritans is. Years of movies and books about the Salem Witch Trials would give anyone a dim view of that bunch of immigrants. What surprised me was the evidence that the Puritans were highly educated (about Christianity and its theology) and that one of the first things they did after their got their farms and towns up and running was to found a university, Harvard, in 1636. They weren’t a grim bunch of nutters living in the paranoid fear that someone, somewhere, was having a good time. Sure, they probably wouldn’t have been the funnest bunch of people to hang out with, but they weren’t superstitious morons either.
And boy, did they like to argue! A big chunk of the book has to do with the ongoing arguments between Roger Williams (who, after his big mouth got him banished, founded the colony of Rhode Island) and Winthrop. For Williams, the colony wasn’t radical enough. Williams was a separatist and so religious that, in Jon Stewart’s words (more or less), the other Puritans thought he should cool it. But at the same time, Williams also believed in religious freedom and a strong division between the Church and the State. If he hadn’t been such a jerk, I would probably have admired him for those ideas. Anne Hutchinson, for other reasons, got into similar trouble with the colony’s leaders. Her problem, however, was that she believed that women ought to have the right to opine on religious matters and that, in a nutshell, people could have a personal relationship with God and that they could achieve salvation. This may not seem like a big deal unless you know about the Puritans’ soul-gnawing belief in predestination (and maybe not even then). If you’re not religious, it’s hard to see what people get so worked up about. Hutchinson eventually got kicked out and headed to Rhode Island, as well.
Another thing that Vowell meditates on is what it really means to be a Puritan country. She rightly states that most people use that phrase to say that Americans are prudish or pigheaded about their opinions or think they are superior to other countries. Vowell traces the idea of American exceptionalism back to some of the things that the Puritans believed. First, Winthrop and others believed that they were headed over to “help” the native population. Second, Winthrop wanted to create a “city on a hill” that would be a beacon to other countries. Their colonies and, later, America, were special. They weren’t about making money or politics (according to the Puritans if not the king who signed the charter or the merchants who no doubt bankrolled the project), but it was about creating a haven for fellow believers. It was a way to escape the dominion of Archbishop William Laud so that they could practice in their own way.
When I first learnt my American history, this was where I started to get the idea that the colonies (with the exceptions of Virginia and Georgia) were founded for religious freedom. When I got older and into the more advanced and nuanced interpretations of history, I learned that this meant religious freedom only for members of the original faith and no one else. Just like other nations, we look to our past (sometimes) to find inspiration and a mission. But unlike other nations, America was created on purpose and didn’t just evolve on its own. We had blueprints that are filled with high-minded ideals that we strive to live up to. It’s no small wonder that we think we’re special. The Wordy Shipmates is a great lesson in history, but also an opportunity to examine the origin of those ideals.