Thursday, September 24, 2009

The Wordy Shipmates

Genre: History
Author:Sarah Vowell
"I'm always disappointed when I see the word "Puritan" tossed around as shorthand for a bunch of generic, boring stupid, judgemental killjoys. Because to me, they are very specific, fascinating, sometimes brilliant, judgemental killjoys who rarely agreed on anything except that Catholics are going to hell".--Sarah Vowell, "The Wordy Shipmates"

Ms. Vowell's latest book is about the Puritan settlements of the 1630's in modern-day Massachusetts, USA. Back then the place was called the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Their leader for nearly twenty years was Governor John Winthrop, a Cambridge educated theologian whose word was pretty much the law. They had left England, these couple hundred souls, mainly because they wanted to practice the Christian life their own way, and the squeeze was on back home. King Charles I had disbanded the Parliament in 1629 because the Puritans in the place were the main culprits preventing him from raising money for a ceaseless war with Spain and were ticked off that he was doing things--like arresting MPs--that were in contradiction to the tradition of the Magna Carta. Since a revolution seemed a long way off, around 20,000 people, who were not keen on Charles and the pomp and heavy-handedness of High Anglican officialdom, left England in the time before and during the English Civil War.

The book focuses on Wintrop's achievements--such as the founding of Harvard University--originally a theological institution, in 1635, and the grim things--such as leading the settlers against Native-Americans in lob-sided military affairs that come close to genocide.

This 2008 book is not a formal history, but is rather a tour de force of biting humor, measured with some respect for the better actions of men like Winthrop, who besides being an authoritarian in the Calvinist mode, was also an idealist who believed that God sent him to America to help build a "city on a hill" for the world to admire, a New Jerusalem for a new Chosen People no les. These small bands of English from East Anglia (mainly) helped shape modern American politics in ways we can still see nearly four centuries after they set up shop.
In between dealing ruthlessly with political/religious dissidents, and killing Native-Americans who resented their intrusion into a place already heavily ravaged by European diseases like smallpox, Winthrop and his fellow colonials lay the groundwork for the dicey relationship between Church and State in America. Unlike many of today's modern lay Christian Protestants of the fundamentalist variety, they were well-read and believed that they could fail and God would not give them a break (or a tax cut) if they did fail. American Presidents, especially Ronald Reagan, have used "the city on a hill" motif in their campaigns. Reagan called America "a shining city on a hill" over and over again, adding the word "shiny" to Winthrop's initial remarks (from a 1631 sermon called "A Model of Christian Charity") as a bit of razzmattazz worthy of a former General Electric pitchman. In Vowell's entertaining book, the early colonial past and the modern American colossus of McDonald's, Theme Parks, Native-American casinos and CIA prison camps for alleged terrorists are all woven in to the narrative in a way that might be a bit jarring but never seems too forced or off-the-subject.


  1. Sounds like a must-read.

    (Note: They didn't all believe Catholics were necessarily 'going to Hell'; Brewster actually sheltered a Catholic priest from some of the anti-Catholic persecution going on in England - he even went so far as to serve the man fish on Friday).

  2. I
    'm always heartened to hear about some exception to the kind of crazy internecine bloodiness going on between Catholic and Protestants in England of that time. Thanks Astra.

    Vowell is an entertaining writer, modern and not a historian in the classic sense, but a person who does her homework and makes the personalities (like the kooky dissident Roger Williams, who wound up taking refuge in and founding what would become Rhode Island) and Anne Hutchinson, a well-known early American heroine, and another one sent to Williams Rhode Island by Winthrop and the Powers-That-Be in Boston flesh and blood characters.

    It was in 1663, by the way, that Rhode Island Colony became a relligious refuge in British America, the very first. King Charles II, a guy who knew something about being a fugitive, signed its charter.

  3. Will look this up. Looks interesting. ..

  4. I believe on arrival in America the Pilgrims were suppose to settle within the Virginian company's territory, but instead landed at Plymouth after pledging to govern themselves, through what they called equal laws. Why they timed that landing to hit winter I can't think! Strange that the native Americans were so accommodating. I read somewhere they introduced them to the staple diet of corn on the cob.

    It seems that many of the local people had died of smallpox, so there was plenty of free land. Isn't it tragic that this disease should claim so many lives and medical science hadn't even got a foot in the door to ease their pain. Although hopefully, there was much knowledge of these comforts by the elders which may have been passed down.

    What good fortune for the Pilgrims to have stretched their territory to the gorgeous Nantucket. Their god surely must surely have smiled on those who settled there. I understand that the Pilgims prospered so well, they were actually able to pay back the English investors who helped them.

    Then soon to follow were the Puritans.... Heavens above, what a place to live if one was a bit of a rebel without a cause. :-)

    There are a few splendid pictures in that video, Doug.

    The book seems like an interesting read.

    Thank you for your review.


  5. America is a "city on a hill" Doug. A beacon for all of us,

  6. Thank you Jeffers (I think) I cannot always see sarcasm in the written word.

    I have always enjoyed history. I had contemplated becoming a history major in college. My father's family has been traced back to the Puritan times in Massachusetts. I have read a lot agout them . I am looking forward to reading this book. I will have to see if my personal librarian will bring it home fo rme to read.

  7. Audio book? Not a printed book then? I am a little confused.

    I continue to find it interesting that the US colonisation was so focused on religion and the freedom for people to practise their chosen religion without interference from state - an understandable reaction when we look at the persecutions they were leaving behind them. It is interesting now to see how the state of politics and religion during those colonising periods of history continues to reverberate centuries later in the psyches of our people. By the time people got around to colonising Aotearoa/NZ the industrial revolution had kicked in and people were more inclined to see religion as a tool of the bosses wielded against themselves. Thus New Zealand has been described as one of the most secular countries around.

  8. Yes, Ialways thought that strange about the Pilgrim voyage of 1620, Cassandra. Why start a brand-new colony late December that far north!? Heck of a date for that climate to start a new colony. I'm not sure if they were just down on the Virginia Plantations or way, way off-course. At least the Puritans had a few settlements to stop into on their voyage down the New England Coast. The Pilgrims had only the local natives of Patuxet Indians. Most of their tribe had been wiped out by smallpox, as you say. Their generosity to the newcomers says a great deal about these "first peoples" of America.

    One of the saddest things about this book is a fact Vowell reports that The Smithsonian National Museum in Washington estimates that NINE of ten native peoples from modern Chile to Newfoundland had been killed by European-borne contagions between 1492 to 1650. That means millions perished from humble organisms that had no resistance to. It goes to show indeed how much power fatal diseases had over a pre-scientific world.

    The Wintrop Puritans of Massachusetts indeed walked a fine line between separating themselves from the the Mother Country and adhering to their sponsors and the Crown Charter they received. Being left to their own devices pretty much in the second decade of the colony due to the English Civil War was another "benefit" which gave them more autonomy than planned. Thanks for your comments.

  9. I hope people will always see American civilization as a beacon, Jeff. We may fall short of our ideals at times here and abroad, but we have those ideals--some imported from England--as our compass.

    Thanks for remembering America for the aspirations of our best men and women.

  10. Good points, Iri Ani. Colonial America was a pre-Newtonian, pre-industrial civilization. So much of the politics of western Europe at the time were wrapped around religion and adherence to the authority of the state. The American psyche is more attuned to thinking that government is the only "big dog" on the block and if you have your freedom from fear of government and you can worship or not worship as you please, then you are "free". But that 18th Century idea of freedom did not take into acount the power of manufacturing.
    Americans under the Progressive Movement of the late 19th and early 20th Centuries tried to bring "the bosses" to heel with government regulations and labor unions and organizations to clear slums, etc, etc. These were issues that only existed in miniuture at the time of our devolution from Britian in the 1770's, and some people here still act as if our greatest fear is the return of some authoritarian government. Hence the "Tea Party" movement among reactionary elements, that, alas, has captured ellements of the working class to subvert their own cause for some past battle already won! I think you'd like Vowell's takes on this subject because she is freguently tying those Puritans' actions in Massachusetts and how they reverberate right up to today.

    Thanks for the comments, Iri Ani. :-)

    The book is available both as a regular read and as an audiobook. My apologies for not making that clearer before introducing the You Tube video.

  11. Good deal. Thanks for stopping by, Frank.

  12. I think this will be right up your alley, Fred, since you already have the background on this era. It's a new book, so hopefully Marianne can bump you up a bit on the "reserved" line ;-)

  13. It seems the Puritans like the Pilgrims had their own problems here in England. What must their vision have been in those early days. The journey was dangerous enough. When the Pilgrims met at Cambridge university, wouldn't I have liked to be a fly on the wall. They left here because they thought they'd, be free to cultivate a society on the basis of the bible. After the party of settlers founded Salem, things took off and there was a great migration from England to America.
    I think Salem is mentioned in one of the psalms. Where does the name really originate?

    I'll have to come back to answer your comment, Doug

  14. You've got a good memory. Thanks to the miracle of the Google search engine, Cassandra, it turns out that "Salem" is mentioned in Psalm 78:2.

    "In Salem also is his tabernacle, and his dwelling place in Zion."

    Salem was the original name for Jerusalem, when it was much smaller in the time of Abraham in the middle chapters of Genesis, which is roughly a thousand years before King David if the Bible chronology is accurate. Genesis records that the King of this little city on a hill was the Priest-King Melchizedek. He treats Abraham (then just "Abram") to a meal, then just disappears from the Bible, although Christian scholars allude that was a proto-Christ. I suspect it was appropriate to name a small settlement "Salem" after the HolyCity's original place-name.

    I didn't realize Salem's founding was so important to the "Great Migration". It is still a small town, relatively speaking, is remembered in American History for the terrors of the Witch Trials in the 1690's. I
    believe it took justice officials from the home country to sail over to put an end to the witch hunts. Other settlements near Salem resisted the hysteria of superstition, but several women and one man live in history as victims of overly sanctimonious "justice".

  15. Haha, it wasn't a result of a good memory Doug. When I took Sunday school classes a couple of years ago I remember Salem being mentioned in a reading we were going over and it stood out, because I had seen the film "Salem's Lot". I was surprised to see the name in a psalm. I'm ashamed to say my knowledge of it has been distorted by the film industry:-)

    Hysteria is a terrible thing when it gets hold of people, they lose all reason.

    Thank you for checking that out for me. When I placed the name in a search engine, all I found was, it's a name for peace.

    "In Salem also is his tabernacle, and his dwelling place in Zion." That makes more sense...

  16. It is sad and yet the settlers had no idea that they were contaminating a people with little or no resistance to disease. It is alarming to learn how far and wide it spread with such rapidity. I wonder what the natives suffered with the coming of the first settlers, because disease wasn't the only killer. Their world as they knew it was turned upside down. The Puritans were out to crush the native Indians and would stop any resistance from them. The natives did learn it was best to make friends with these new settlers

    I find it strange how religion and its teachings can be pushed aside when it suits the cause.

    We are still fighting viruses that can wipe us out as we have found with the Swine flu. I guess we still have a way to go before we are safe from things that can strike us down in our prime.

    On that happy note Doug~~~~~~~~~~:-/

  17. We see it over here in the health care debate, Cassandra. It seems people almost want to believe the worst when change is on the horizon.

    We need a bit more of the old spirit of muddling through the British culture is famous for.

  18. Indeed, any resistance to European settlements--especially singular acts of violence against whites behaving as renegades --was met by a strong over- reaction fr mthe whole community. This was a pattern that stretches from these times to the US Army massacres at places like Wounded Knee in Wyoming 260 years later.

    The wars by the English and Dutch on Native Peoples were far more brutal in scope than anything the natives themselves had been up to before the Europeans arrived. Their world was indeed turned upside down--what disease didn't finish off, direct warfare did.
    Certain native peoples like the Narragansett would try and settle scores with other tribes by joining forces with the English or the Dutch or the French. Mostly this was only a good short-term strategy. There were a few settlers from England, like the nonconformist minister Roger Williams, who actually learned the language of peoples like the Algonquians and extolled their virtues through writings to English book readers in Massachusetts and back home. The Indians had their wars, but they were nothing like the English Civil War or the Thirty Years War. Perhaps they were the real ""God's Chosen", or at least lived in the way of the "Golden Rule" that these emigrants had mostly forgotten.

    Williams, a fugitive from his own people for not bending to official doctrine, described how he was made welcome by the Narragansetts when he turned up at their doorsteps. "There is a favor of civility and courtesy", he wrote, "even amongst these wild Americans, both amongst themselves and toward strangers."

    One of Williams poems reads:

    "I have known them leave their house and mat
    to lodge a friend or stranger
    When Jews and Christians oft have sent
    Christ Jesus to the manger."