Book Review: The Wordy Shipmates

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Sarah Vowell’s new book, The Wordy Shipmates is about the Puritans coming over from England in the 1620s. I know what you’re thinking, but it’s really interesting and gives the Puritans much more depth than you normally see. Sure, they were religious freak buzz-kills, but they were a lot MORE than that too — they were intellectuals interested in learning and education.


The most interesting thing about the book is the way Vowell shows how the various beliefs of the Puritans have colored the political climate of today. The idea of acting as the world’s policeman came directly from the Puritans — the original seal of the Massachusetts Bay Colony showed an Indian saying “Come Over And Help Us” — even though, honestly, they probably didn’t really need any help (and definitely not the type of “help” that would come later from Andrew Jackson). That idea is what lead us into the Philippines (in an attempt to Christianize… even though the country was already Catholic), Vietnam and, currently, Iraq.

Oddly enough, the idea of the separation of Church and State came from the Puritans as well — though not the Massachusetts Bay Colony; Roger Williams, a banishee for disagreeing that the magistrates should be able to punish colonists for religious sins rather than societal wrongs, ended up founding Rhode Island on exactly that platform. Vowell even traces the current strain of anti-Intellectualism to another Massachusetts banishee, Anne Hutchinson, whose belief that a connection to God can be found directly with oneself informed modern Evangelical Christianity… as well as a distrust of “experts” in other fields as well as religious ones.

Of course, since it’s by Sarah Vowell, the content itself isn’t the only interesting thing about the book, but her authorial voice is immediately engaging, humorous and gripping. Much like her previous Assassination Vacation , she embraces the darker aspects of history (including the Mystic Massacre, where an Indian fort was burned to the ground along with women, children and infants) in a way that explains how horrible it was but makes it relevant to the reader in an way other than just “Oh, that was an awful bit of history”. Sarah Vowell’s approach to history, much like Paul Collins‘, is interesting, conversational and, above all, humanistic — and it makes history accessible to everyone,