The Wordy Shipmates by Sarah Vowell: The Real Puritans of Massachusetts Bay

In this presidential election year, it is assured we will hear lots of talk about our founding fathers and the concerns that brought our ancestors to this country.  But how many of us really know about their beliefs and ideals?  I must confess that my own knowledge is sadly lacking.  Yes, I took American History classes in elementary, junior high, high school, and college.  But those classes only skimmed the surface, and presented a very sanitized version of our country’s birth.  And I’ll be brutally honest, even though I love history, I was more concerned with socializing and partying in my school years.  


All this talk of “American values” and what our founding fathers really meant, has made me determined to dig deeper into our country’s origins.  And nobody makes history fun and relevant like Sarah Vowell.  Earlier, I reviewed her book Assassination Vacation, and immediately moved on to The Wordy Shipmates which tells about the John Winthrop and the Puritans of Massachusetts Bay Colony.  

The Puritans of Massachusetts Bay Colony differed from their fellow Puritans on the Mayflower.  The Mayflower Puritans (separatists) wanted complete separation from the Church of England, which they deemed too Catholic.  The Puritans of Massachusetts (reformists) did not want to abandon their brothers and sisters in the Church of England.  They hoped to reform the church from the inside out.  However, both groups agreed on one thing:  The Pope was the “whore of Babylon”.  Who knew?

These two groups of Puritan pilgrims came separately to the United States, the separatists on the Mayflower and later, the reformists on the Arabella.  The group on the Mayflower may be more famous, but the group in Massachusetts had more impact on our country.  They were prolific writers, readers, and communicators, never missing a chance to proclaim their beliefs and opinions.  Winthrop’s Model of Christian Charity sermon is still well-known today, and has been quoted by both President Reagan and President Kennedy.  In it he describes the new colony as a “city on a hill” whose light cannot be hidden.  He also encourages the colonists to love and provide for each other.  

But things were not always peace, love, and harmony in Massachusetts Bay Colony.  The Puritans had their fair share drama.  They argued loudly and frequently about matters of theology and morality, and sometimes people were banished from church and colony.  Such was the fate of Roger Williams.  We know Roger Williams as a pioneer of the separation of church and state.  But to John Winthrop and the Massachusetts Bay church, he was a cantankerous pain in the ass.  His ideas were both conservative and liberal at the same time, and they did not coincide with other church leaders.  Williams consistently and publicly argued with the church and eventually they banished him.  He left to found a community in Rhode Island where people were free to worship as they pleased.  

Williams unwaveringly believed that the protestant church was the only way to heaven and salvation.  However, he did not believe that it should ever be forced on anyone.  He strongly believed that people should be allowed to worship as they wished.  His insistence on the separation of church and state was not to keep the church out of the government, but rather, to keep the government out of the church.  Sarah Vowell describes him as “hard to like, but easy to love.”  After reading this book, I agree.

As with her other audio books, Vowell narrates this one with the addition of special guests.  I love her books, but I love listening to them even more.  Her narration (and that of the special guests), is excellent.  You can hear and feel how much she loves this nation and cares about its history.  

Even if you are not a history buff, I highly recommend this book.  I think in this time of election, readers will find it interesting and more relevant than ever.


Book:  The Wordy Shipmates

Author:  Sarah Vowell

Publisher:  Simon and Schuster Audio

Date Published:  October 2, 2008

Narrator:  Sarah Vowell (with special guests)

Overall:  A+

Story:  A+

Performance:  A+

Source:  Audible (my own collection)