Book Review: The Wordy Shipmates by Sarah Vowell

Gen Xers probably don’t need, let alone want, advice from me. But if I may make one small suggestion. If and when you want to name a historian laureate, give serious consideration to Sarah Vowell.

I know, Vowell says she is not a historian and she’s not. But that elevates form over substance. History often played a part in Vowell’s earlier books. Her last two, Assassination Vacation and the just released The Wordy Shipmates, are squarely in the American history category. With them, the 39-year-old commentator and humorist may well reach and educate more people about American history than historians of other generations currently writing.

Vowell once attributed her ability to make history interesting to a lack of pretense, allowing the reader to learn along with her and being “kind of irreverent.” With the latter being perhaps a bit of an understatement, these elements were in full form in Assassination Vacation, where Vowell took readers on her pilgrimage to sites connected with the assassinations of Presidents Lincoln, Garfield and McKinley. With The Wordy Shipmates, Vowell applies the same talents as she moves from pilgrimage to Pilgrims.

Sure, Vowell now lives in New York City but you have to ask why a woman born in Oklahoma (and part Cherokee) and who was raised and attended college in Montana is fascinated by Pilgrims. And it’s not the Pilgrims from the Mayflower. Instead, it’s the Massachusetts Bay Colony, a group of Pilgrims headed by John Winthrop who arrived 10 years later and helped establish Boston. Her answer is that she believes the U.S. “is haunted by the Puritans’ vision of themselves as God’s chosen people, as a beacon of righteousness that all others are to admire.”

For Vowell, this is exemplified in large part by Winthrop’s “A Model of Christian Charity,” a sermon he wrote before or during the voyage. Although no one really took note of it at the time, a particular part of it has echoed in modern America: Winthrop’s vision that the colony was specially ordained by God to “be as a city upon a hill,” a model for others. That phrase, largely a “sound bite” today, was cited by President John F. Kennedy, repeatedly used by President Ronald Reagan and even employed by Sarah Palin in last week’s vice-presidential debate.

Vowell notes, though, that other portions of the sermon were and are too frequently overlooked. “A Model of Christian Charity” also urged that the principles of “Justice and Mercy” governed human relations and that to love your neighbor as yourself was the foundation of all moral law. Modern Americans, though, aren’t the only ones where there seems to have been a disconnect from those ideas. This language came from the leader of a colony whose official seal shows an Indian in a loincloth saying, “Come over and help us.” “The worldview behind that motto — we’re here to help whether you want our help or not,” Vowell notes, is the colony’s “most enduring bequest to the United States.” Not only do the concepts of loving thy neighbor, justice and wisdom go out the window in dealing with — at times massacring — Indian tribes, Vowell contends this view served as a basis for U.S. gunboats and troops being sent to various places in the world, from the Philippines to Vietnam to Iraq.

That is just part of the dichotomy explored in The Wordy Shipmates. Winthrop left England to find religious freedom. Yet in America, he insisted upon rigid adherence to proper doctrine, at least proper as he and most of his fellow white males saw it. Two disputes in particular draw Vowell’s attention.

One is with Roger Williams, who would be exiled from the colony because of doctrinal differences, including his contention that civil officials had no right to dictate or enforce religious beliefs. Williams would found Rhode Island, which would shortly thereafter guarantee “liberty of conscience.” Vowell notes it was Williams who first referred to a “wall of separation” between religion and government, a concept that would become a fundamental American principle.

The other is with Anne Hutchinson, strong, opinionated woman who had the audacity to open her home for women to engage in Bible study and discussion of religion. The meetings grew to attract others and Winthrop and other colony leaders contended her ideas were heretical. These include the concept salvation is not determined by the clergy judging a person’s works but by personal inner sanctification. Hutchinson was banished from the colony following a trial over which Winthrop, as governor, presided.

Vowell organizes the book more by concept than chronology, which can leave the reader slightly muddled at times. In addition, The Wordy Shipmates can occasionally be a bit of a trudge. That is not necessarily Vowell’s fault. Explaining the distinction between a “covenant of works” and a “covenant of grace” — a core issue in the colonies and the Hutchinson trial — is not easy, especially when most readers have little or no background in the concepts. Vowell manages to use modern comparisons to help the reader grasp some of the elements of Puritan theology, She also employs her usual eye for the offbeat and unique, whether it be a small replica of the Mayflower serving as a slide in a swimming pool, the fact it’s an Indian casino where she sees dioramas and films about tribal life and the massacres, or that the rock in the park supposedly marking the site where Williams founded his settlement was “mistakenly blown up” by city workers in 1877.

While presidential assassinations may be comparable to the car wreck that draws attention, Puritans likely are not a big draw for modern readers. As such, The Wordy Shipmates may not be as well received or as big a success as Vowell’s prior works. That does not change the fact that she may be unmatched in her ability to inject life into, create interest in and explore the modern ramifications of American history, especially a part that average readers may usually find dreary.

The only thing more dangerous than an idea is a belief.

Sarah Vowell, The Wordy Shipmates

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