In time for Columbus Day (shortly there after) comes a book on American Puritans and their interesting ways. The Wordy Shipmates may be an eye-opener for those who know little about the puritans than buckle hats and conflicting stories about the first Thanksgiving. Whether it will be a bit frustrating for those of us who love them and their influence on our faith and culture, I don’t know, but author Sarah Vowell has given us several details ahead of time to help us judge her book by more than its cover blurbs. Here’s the first part of our Q&A with Sarah Vowell (sent to us by Penguin Group).
1. Why did you decide to write a book about the New England Puritans?
I can probably pin it down to how I kept thinking about John Winthrop’s 1630 sermon “A Model of Christian Charity” during three events between 2001 and 2004—the terrorist attacks, the war in Iraq, and Ronald Reagan’s funeral. I write about how, as a New Yorker, I was so comforted by the part of Winthrop’s sermon in which he called upon his shipmates to rejoice and mourn and suffer together “as members of the same body.” Then, all of the rhetoric leading up to the war smacked of the American exceptionalism that derives from Puritan notions of New Englanders as God’s new chosen people, Winthrop’s idea and ideal that Massachusetts should be “as a city upon a hill.” And, since no one had adopted that phrase as a personal motto like Reagan, when Sandra Day O’Connor read part of Winthrop’s sermon at Reagan’s funeral, during a time when everyone in the world had Abu Ghraib on the brain, when she stood there in front of the current president and various members of his administration who got us into that whole mess, when she read the part where Winthrop warns that “the eyes of all people are upon us,” it hit home how much Winthrop and his fellows are still with us.
2. It’s commonplace to say that we’re a Puritan nation. But what do you think people really mean by that, and is it in any way related to our actual Puritan heritage?
Generally, Americans call ourselves a Puritan nation as a lazy way of saying that as a culture we are sexually repressed. I think a more interesting, accurate, and important way we’re a Puritan nation is the legacy of Winthrop’s, and then Reagan’s, idea of America as city on a hill, as a beacon of hope, as God’s pet project. Namely, the idea that America is always “good.”
3. Were the Puritans really as sexually repressed as the stereotype would have it? Were they really such killjoys in general?
This book doesn’t particularly deal with that first question much. I do briefly mention the fact that the Puritans were bully for marital sex because they felt God invented it. And I discuss, also briefly, the marriages of my two main characters, John Winthrop and Roger Williams. As for the killjoy thing, these were not the most lighthearted figures in American history. My real answer to these two question is another question. Namely, who cares? What I’m interested in—and this probably makes me a killjoy, come to think of it—is the Puritans’ ideas about freedom and community. I’m interested in their writing on civics and law and religion, their love of learning, their thoughts on God and country. Also, to a person who loves not just ideas but ideas being hashed out and argued over and dissected, witnessing the Puritans of Boston bickering with and banishing each other is, I think, kind of a joy.
4. Why were the Puritans such a “wordy” or literary people?
The short answer is their absolute obsession with reading, dissecting, and discussing the Bible meant that a book was the center of their lives. The long answer is that the people who settled the Massachusetts Bay Colony during the so-called Great Migration between 1630 and 1640 were mostly highly educated, frequently scholarly people. Many of them had degrees from Cambridge. I call them “quill crazy.” Considering they had so many chores, what with building a society from scratch, they did an awful lot of writing—sermons, letters, diaries, religious tracts.
5. Were the Puritans anything like today’s evangelical Christians, to whom they’re often compared?
Some Puritans were like some evangelical Christians—and all dangerous people—in that they believed, they knew, they were right. Other than the obvious Protestant similarities between the two movements, one misconception is that today’s evangelicals are simply modern-day Puritans. This is not true. The Puritans were much more intellectual. Trust me, I just spent years trying to decipher their abstract and brainy theological texts. The Puritans privileged the text of the Bible and scholarly theological expertise and just education in general above all else, above religious emotion, above personal experience. I write in the book that there wasn’t any speaking in tongues going on in the Massachusetts Bay Colony unless you count classical Greek. In fact, part of my book is about the trial of Anne Hutchinson. The magistrates of Massachusetts Bay banish her from the colony for beliefs that are very similar to today’s evangelicals in terms of her personal relationship with God and the way she believed herself to be filled with the Holy Spirit. This was blasphemy to the Puritans—way too emotional. Plus, Hutchinson was just a homeschooled woman. To the Cambridge-educated patriarchy of Boston, the fact that Hutchinson was preaching in her home without any proper theological training was a travesty. And the fact that she was so influential, as well as witty and logical during her trial, made said patriarchs get cracking on building Harvard University so their sons (and future ministers) learned Latin, Greek, and Hebrew and were well grounded in proper theology so that if any more self-taught spiritual piedpipers came along, the sons and ministers could crush them in debate.