In The Wordy Shipmates, Sarah Vowell makes it very clear that she isn’t writing about the Pilgrims of the Mayflower. In fact, one of her motivations in writing the book is to highlight the fact that there were very influential Puritans who didn’t 1) arrive on the Mayflower, or 2) hunt witches in Salem. Sarah’s Puritans are the non-separatists (the Mayflower inhabitants were separatists, an important distinction that Sarah clearly spells out in the book) who arrived about a decade later as part of the Massachusetts Bay Colony and founded Boston. Dust off your American history and these names will sound vaguely familiar: John Winthrop, Roger Williams, Anne Hutchinson, John Cotton. The religious zealots that founded our nation both literally and, as Sarah points out, intellectually.
The foundation of the book is Winthrop’s A Model of Christian Charity speech in which he invokes “a city upon a hill” from the Book of Matthew in the New Testament. More than one President took up the phrase from Winthrop. Sarah explains, “The most important reason I am concentrating on Winthrop and his shipmates in the 1630s is that the country I live in is haunted by the Puritan’s vision of themselves as God’s chosen people, as a beacon of righteousness that all others are to admire.” She points out that the seal of the Massachusetts Bay Colony includes an Indian with the words “Come over and help us” coming out of his mouth. Sarah noted that ever since we have been helping people to death.
A Model of Christian Charity sets out a road map for how the Puritans are to live in community: the rich are to help the poor, all are to mourn together, rejoice together, take on each others “conditions.” Sarah calls it a declaration of dependence. She then sets out to look at how Winthrop and his Puritans lived up to the ideal. They failed miserably. Enter stage left, Roger Williams and Anne Hutchinson, on scene to prove that Winthrop’s community is a model of charity as long as everyone agrees with him and the leadership he established.
Sarah chronicles the founding years of the Massachusetts Bay Colony inhabited by bookish people. A subject matter that could turn deadly dull in an instant, Sarah describes with humor and a knack for showing the continuing relevance of the events. Sarah finds Winthrop, with all of his flaws and inconsistencies, laudable and lovable, but hard to like. Williams and Hutchinson, two people who have come down through history as outcasts for standing up for religious freedom retain their reputation, but are also fanatics. Quite frankly, I would have been happy to see them go myself.
At her reading at Book Soup earlier this month, Sarah explained that she decided to write the book after hearing the “the city on a hill” image used during Ronald Reagen’s funeral. The irony that the term was used by Winthrop to describe a city where the poor were helped and everyone contributed to the betterment of the community when Reagen aggressively slashed programs for the poor was not lost on her. Winthrop declared that the the world would be watching the Massachusetts Bay Colony to see if it failed to provide mercy and love. Sarah found the entire meaning twisted by the 20th century. At the end of the book, Sarah describes Pres. Kennedy use of the phrase a city on the hill that everyone is watching in a speech a few days prior his Inauguration. She notes that of course the world is watching us, we have stock pile of gigantic bombs that we could use to end the world as we know it.
I loved the book and I enjoy Sarah’s voice, although the degree to which her opinions are secular can be strong for me at times. As a fan of history, my hope is that people who don’t usually read it will find Sarah’s writing so fun that the knowledge will sneak in with the enjoyment. Asked who her favorite historian is, Sarah responded that she doesn’t think of herself as a historian, she wants to write better than that. Thankfully, her emphasis is more on the writing than the history, making the entire reading experience better for all of us.
We’ll be taking the rest of the week off to enjoy the holiday with our families. Happy Thanksgiving!