I finished Sarah Vowell’s new book The Wordy Shipmates nearly a week ago, but I haven’t gotten around to reviewing it, due to the craziness of the past week. The topic seems sort of weird at first blush—it’s a history of the Puritans that first settled the Massachusetts Bay Colony, but Vowell makes her case for why it’s relevant upfront. Vowell argues that the American heritage from our Puritans is not necessarily our work ethic or sexual repression (in fact, she argues that the Puritan obsession with sex is something later people read into their culture—not that they weren’t patriarchal and repressed, but that they didn’t have the same obsession with it that our current fundies do), but that it’s the belief in inherent moral superiority, that we are god’s new chosen people. Her explanation of how the Puritans differ from today’s fundies alone makes the book worth reading, and will make you like the Puritans more, because for all that they were practically medieval, at least they strove to be better people, whereas today’s fundies wallow in the art of backsliding anti-intellectualism.
In fact, one of the most fascinating things about the book is how obvious it is that Puritans of old would be appalled by the fundies of today, and not because of differences on the issue of theocracy (all of the above are for it), but on theology. Calvinism is pretty damn dead in modern American Christianity, and evangelicals especially differ on that point, with their assurances that they are saved because they’ve come to Jesus. For a mean-spirited atheist like myself, there’s a delicious irony in the fact that the Puritans started colonies that then became America because they wanted a place where they could press their religious beliefs on the community, only to see their religious beliefs destroyed in the tide of history. There are still a few Calvinists wandering around these days, but I’m not even sure that there’s an organized church for them. But that’s the law that drives this book—the law of unintended consequences.
In Vowell’s telling, there was a certain inevitability to what happened after the Puritans populated the Northeast, even if they didn’t like it. The rebellions of Anne Hutchinson and Roger Williams that led the latter to form Rhode Island (with its religious freedom) and the former to flee to it and found Providence were the natural next step after insubordinate Calvinists started to criticize the Church of England. It’s hard to put the genie back into the bottle. Once it was established that you could criticize authority and even hold ministers accountable to the congregation (the minister positions in Puritan churches were elected positions), then it followed that you could break away from the church (Williams), redefine basic beliefs to move away from predestination into the direction of personal salvation (Hutchinson, who believed in predestination, but was starting to define salvation in terms of feelings, which was one step away from rejecting predestination), and who knows what else, especially when you introduce the shelter that Rhode Island gave to Quakers and Jews. The end result of all this questioning is our modern era, where more and more people question right into not believing in god at all. Interesting irony—the same forces that allow modern evangelicals towards their emotional, anti-intellectual personal salvation style Christianity are the very same forces that allow atheism to flourish. Luckily for most fundies, they’re not the biggest readers and probably won’t generally figure that out.
The other, more complex thread in the book is the one about the beginnings of American imperialism, disguised always as a desire to help people. In the Puritan era, it was assumed that Englishmen would help Native Americans, mostly by converting them but it was also assumed that Native Americans would benefit from changing their agricultural styles to the English way. The dark joke of this is that, as Vowell explains, there wasn’t much “helping” attempted, except perhaps by Roger Williams, who spoke Algonquin and made friends easily with the people living in Rhode Island, which meant he had lots of opportunities to harangue them about Christianity. Instead, the Puritans ended up getting embroiled in warfare between various Native tribes, in no small part because their allies figured the Englishmen were eventually going to start warring with Native Americans over land, and it was best to cozy up to them instead of get wiped out. (Those who gambled that way were sadly correct.) It’s all fascinating history, and Vowell mostly avoids hitting you over the head with it, but the parallels to the war in Iraq should be clear.
All in all, I can’t recommend this book enough. It’s a real page-turner, especially for a book about history that’s usually portrayed as lifeless and dreary. Vowell sees the Puritans as the deeply flawed people that they are, but is also broad-minded and can take them on their own terms and write about them affectionately all the same. It helps that they’re a bookish crew, and if you’re big on reading, you’ll relate to them the same as Vowell does.