We celebrate them at Thanksgiving, we revile them when we read The Crucible, but what do we really know about that first generation of religious malcontents to reach New England? Sarah Vowell’s The Wordy Shipmates gives us portraits of these strangers known as the Puritans who came to New England during the Great Migration, in between the Mayflower and the Salem witch trials. It is infused with Vowell’s pop culture references and Gen-X snarkiness. I like her style just fine, some people find it annoying. She focuses on the writings of John Winthrop and John Cotton of the Massachusetts Bay Colony and two dissenters Roger Williams and Anne Hutchinson who went on to found Rhode Island.
The Massachusetts Bay Colony was not that radical. They did not leave England to separate from the Church of England, rather they wanted to reform it because it still looked too much like Catholicism. If there was one thing Puritans could agree on was that Catholics were destined for hell. The New England Puritans were able to practice their reformed version of Anglicanism without too much interference from home during this time. In England Charles dissolved Parliament and then the English Civil War began, so it is understandable that the Brits’ attention was clearly elsewhere.
The Massachusetts Bay Colony established themselves in what are now Boston environs. The Puritans were classically educated and quite literate. Vowell challenges the notion that Puritans were know-nothing religious zealots. The Puritans were intellectuals who rejected the idea that all one needed was belief and passion to find salvation. Even good acts weren’t enough, salvation was predetermined by God. Nevertheless, Puritans believed in a classical education, including Greek and Latin, and advocated knowledge and respect for their cultural heritage. Heck, they even founded Harvard.
Winthrop was the first governor of the Massachusetts Colony, and held that position on and off for a long time. Interestingly the governor enforced both civil and religious law. People were banished from the colony for either their religious or civil crimes. One such person was Roger Williams, who actually advocated that the government should stay out of the religious business. He was one of the first advocates for a separation of church and state, but was coming at it from a different perspective than we do today. Anne Hutchinson was another person who challenged the religious idea that only certain people could be saved. Vowell had no Hutchinson writings to refer to, but her trial transcript reveals a sharp-witted foil for Governor Winthrop. She was doing pretty well until Winthrop allowed her an opening in which she really cut loose with ideas that not only were radical, but they started throwing the word “witch” around. Winthrop found her guilty and banished her, so she too ended up in Rhode Island.
The Puritans also were perpetrators of atrocities against the Pequot tribe, those nice folks that celebrated Thanksgiving with the Pilgrims. Like most wars, the reasons were stupid and the consequences were devastating. They massacred 700 people, including women and children. As she often does, Vowell takes her sister and her nephew Owen, then 7, along with her to historic sites. At the Mashantucket Pequot Museum they watch a film about the Pequot massacre, to which Owen asks: “when do they have Thanksgiving?” Usually Owen’s presence adds a little humor, but this is somewhat heartbreaking.
For those who have read some of Vowell’s other works, this one isn’t quite as laugh-out-loud funny as Assassination Vacation, but I enjoyed it. While there is more scholarly work available about the Puritans, I imagine those works can get really dry. I prefer a little dry humor, thus I enjoyed this book.