“The Wordy Shipmates” by Sarah Vowell

I wanted to re-read Sarah Vowell’s Wordy Shipmates in the wake of Marilynne Robinson’s passionate defense of Calvinism and Puritanism in The Death of Adam, and Margaret Atwood’s dim view of Puritans, on whom she based the theocracy in her dystopic Handmaid’s Tale. Who was right, Robinson or Atwood? I figured I’d read Vowell and see if her book on the Puritans shed any light on the disagreement. And it did.

Vowell writes in a breezy, funny voice that is all the more interesting given the amount of historical fact and the depth of empathy she brings to her subjects, here the Puritans who founded the Massachusetts Bay Colony after departing England in 1630. She quotes Puritan scholar Perry Miller, one of the Handmaid’s Tale dedicatees, as she details who these people were based on their journals and recorded sermons and more. She is writes mainly of Governor John Winthrop, the author of the phrase “we shall be as a city on a hill,” based on a biblical verse in the book of Matthew, but also of Roger Williams, an early proponent of separation of church and state and the founder of Rhode Island, and Anne Hutchinson, who so exasperated the Massachusetts Bay Puritans that they put her on trial and banished her to Rhode Island.

Vowell quotes original texts and scholarship to present a complicated, engaging, and very human portrait of these historical figures. Reading this helped me determine that Atwood is talking about Plymouth puritans, while Robinson is quoting her own translations of John Calvin’s works, centuries before either of these groups. Are the Puritans good or bad? Robinson says good; Atwood says bad; Vowell says, “it’s complicated.” I’m with Vowell.

4 Responses to ““The Wordy Shipmates” by Sarah Vowell”

  1. Joy Weese Moll Says:

    This sounds like a really terrific book to read in November in advance of Thanksgiving. And maybe The Death of Adam, too. As a lapsed Presbyterian, I have a passing interest in Calvin and Puritans. Although one of the reasons that I lapsed was a failed attempt at reading Calvin (and becoming convinced that the man was a lunatic). Maybe a gentle guide like Marilynne Robinson would be helpful.

    Thanks! I hadn’t paid attention to either of those two, but I loved the Handmaid’s Tale and still consider it the scariest book I ever read.

  2. girldetective Says:

    If you’re interested at all in these topics, these too books are good ones. Robinson is a strong advocate for a re-reading of Calvin. They don’t tie to Thanksgiving much, though, as it wasn’t the same set of pilgrims Vowell writes about.

  3. DebD Says:

    great review. I’ve read 2 other Sarah Vowell books and enjoyed them very much, but was a bit wary of this one, knowing Vowell’s Protestant (4 Square?) background and current Atheism I feared it would not take a fair look. It sounds like she tries to be fair.

    Thanks for your review.

  4. girldetective Says:

    Deb, I don’t recall any overt anti-religious stuff, except for when there was a contrast between words and deeds. Instead, I found she writes with affection and compassion for the complicated people in the book and I found it respectful of their beliefs. What I continue to mull over is the shift from the communal, accountable aspects of Calvinism (which Marilynne Robinson is a big proponent of) to one where individuals are saved by grace, not acts, and what the results of that have been for various Christianities in America.