One thing to be said for Sarah Vowell’s The Wordy Shipmates is that she makes her agenda clear from the very first sentence: “The only thing more dangerous than an idea is a belief. And by dangerous I don’t mean thought-provoking. I mean: might get people killed.” If you object to the automatic association of religious belief with fanaticism, intolerance, and violence, then Vowell’s book might not be the one for you. Also, if you object to sweeping statements directly connecting John Winthrop’s sermon “A Model of Christian Charity” to the Iraq War, with a brief detour for manifest destiny, then this book might not be one for you. But if you can weed through the more irritating aspects of The Wordy Shipmates, then at least you’ll find a very clear and entertaining explanation of the 17th-century Pequot War.
Sarah Vowell may be known best to most of us as the voice of Violet in The Incredibles. She’s also an NPR commentator and has written several other pop-history works, such as Assassination Vacation and The Partly Cloudy Patriot. In The Wordy Shipmates, she sets out to chronicle some of the history—but mostly the cultural and political influence—of the 17th-century Puritans of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Why the Puritans? Why now? Vowell answers that question clearly: “The most important reason I am concentrating on Winthrop and his shipmates in the 1630s is that the country I live in is haunted by the Puritans’ vision of themselves as God’s chosen people, as a beacon of righteousness that all others are to admire.” You see, John Winthrop gave a sermon with the phrase “city on a hill,” which of course got picked up by Ronald Reagan in the 1980s. Therefore, there is apparently a connection between the Puritans’ vision of themselves as the new Israel and everything Republicans have done in the past 30 years.
To be fair, Vowell does acknowledge the key difference between Winthrop’s sermon and 20th- and 21st-century American exceptionalism: the recognition that, if we are chosen by God, we may also be punished by him if we do not uphold our part of the covenant. Winthrop wrote, “For we must consider that we shall be as a city upon a hill. The eyes of all people are upon us, so that if we shall deal falsely with our God in this work we have undertaken, and so cause Him to withdraw His present help from us, we shall be made a story and a by-word through the world. . . . We shall shame the faces of many of God’s worthy servants, and cause their prayers to be turned into curses upon us till we be consumed out of the good land whither we are agoing.” Reagan did sometimes include the “doom” clauses when invoking the city on a hill phrase, but usually only to assure his audience, “Well, we have not dealt falsely with our God.”
Vowell connects Winthrop’s warning about the community’s potential to invoke God’s displeasure to that famous Puritan introspection over individual sins. She writes, “This humility, this fear, was what kept their delusions of grandeur in check. That’s what subsequent generations lost. From New England’s Puritans we inherited the idea that America is blessed and ordained by God above all nations, but we lost the fear of wrath and retribution.”This is where The Wordy Shipmates has the potential to get more insightful: how, when, and why did we lose this part of the Puritan covenant with God? My guess would be that it occurred largely during the liberalization and sentimentalization of American Christianity in the 19th century, but as someone who studies literature rather than history or politics, I’m hardly qualified to make that assertion. My point is: if you’re writing a book connecting the Puritan communal covenant to current American exceptionalism, mightn’t it be helpful to make a few historical stops between 1630 and 1980? And mightn’t that be more important than describing the “Pilgrim” episode of The Brady Bunch?
There are some strengths to The Wordy Shipmates: Vowell may sometimes resort to oversimplification just because she’s trying to explain the history of American Puritans to readers who primarily think of them only at Thanksgiving. I’ll give Vowell credit for working to correct a common confusion here: she delineates the differences between the Pilgrims of Plymouth, who separated from the Church of England, and the Puritans of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, who opted to reform the Church from within—since I have to explain this every semester in my American literature survey classes, I’m thankful for the reinforcement. And, as I mentioned earlier, she does a better job of breaking down the complexities of the Pequot War than any other source I’ve read.
However, while Vowell assumes her readers’ ignorance of matters Puritan, she also seems to assume an audience that will agree with her political opinions. Though I would probably actually agree with much of her politics, as a reader, I’m easily irritated by writing that presumes my agreement, rather than working for it. For me, it’s kind of analogous to the experience of watching something written by Aaron Sorkin: I generally agree with the politics, but few things irk me more than that self-righteous tone.
Given the furor over the recently released memos sent by Donald Rumsfeld during the early days of the Iraq War—one of which juxtaposed a photo of American tank entering Baghdad with the words of Isaiah 26:2 (“Open the gates that the righteous nation may enter, the nation that keeps faith”)—it’s clear that we need to have an intelligent conversation about America’s habit of viewing itself as God’s chosen nation. Sadly, I’m not sure The Wordy Shipmates has much to contribute to that conversation.