on October 31, 2008 by in Uncategorized, Comments (0)

Book review: “The Wordy Shipmates”

Ever wonder where the debate about separation of church and state began? You’ll have to go back farther than the more recent influx of evangelicals into the political process to find that answer. Sarah Vowell’s new book goes a long way towards showing that the church has had an earlier influence on American government than you might think.

“The Wordy Shipmates” (Riverhead Books, $25.95) documents the formative years of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, less celebrated than its neighbors in Plymouth (the original Pilgrims) but no less important to the early history of the nation. The Puritans at Boston, led by Jonathan Winthrop, aspire to be a “city on a hill,” a shining example to the world of its people’s holiness. Such grand aspirations are tempered by the realities of first-time colonizing, when threats come from within the community as well as without. Vowell explains the Puritans’ belief system as one in which you have no way of knowing if you’re saved, because God already determined your status before your birth, and He ain’t telling. So you might as well assume that you’re doomed and accept the fact that you’re a miserable sinner. The Puritans sure knew how to have a good time, obviously.

Winthrop and his fellow settlers are trying to separate themselves from the Catholic influences that they see on the Anglican Church back in England, but they aren’t as eager to cut ties with the home country’s faith as the Pilgrims were. It’s this clash between trying to be separate while still staying close to the old ways that makes the Massachusetts Bay Colony relevant to our own times. Every time you hear a talking head on TV going on about “family values” versus “a more open society,” you’re hearing a conflict that goes back long before there was anything like the United States in existence.

Vowell is funny, first and foremost, and she does wring some humor out of the conflict between Winthrop and Roger Williams. Winthrop came from England to avoid being banished, and yet he banishes Williams because the latter dares to question Puritan values (makes me think of the “meet the new boss, same as the old boss” line from the Who). The irony of Winthrop’s situation isn’t lost on anyone, least of all Winthrop himself. Other conflicts test the Puritans’ notion of Christian values, such as the slaughter of Indians that they organize during the Pequot War. The gap between our ideal and our reality as a nation has roots in the way that the Puritans tried to justify the harsh terms of existence in a foreign land where they weren’t wanted.

The only flaw of the book is in the layout, because there’re no chapter breaks for some reason. (It gave me nightmares trying to find some point to stop and pick up reading later). Other than that, “The Wordy Shipmates” finds a story that we think is familiar and old and shows that we don’t know as much as we would like, especially when it comes to the parts that still apply to us. Vowell has a historian’s eye and a comedian’s voice when dealing with these issues, and it might just make for the most enjoyable history lesson in a long time.