In his sermon "A Model of Christian Charity," Puritan settler John Winthrop spoke of a city upon a hill. His 1630 message to the settlers of Massachusetts Bay Colony was that the eyes of the world were upon them. His intent was that the settlers provide a good example of a Protestant community, better than the Anglican church in England had been doing. Though they were still affiliated, the hope was that they could provide positive change from within.
Sarah Vowell's latest work looks at the early settlers of the United States through their letters, journals and correspondence, but also through
notable instances of modern pop culture such as Happy Days, The Brady Bunch, and
Thanks, a short-lived late-90's show about the Puritan settlers.
It's a fascinating window to the past that brings the conflicts felt by colony governor Winthrop into focus. Being a good Puritan, he believes in discipline and law, but
he has trouble following through with the prescribed severe punishments. When servant Philip Ratcliffe was brought before the court accused of "most scandalous, foul invectives against our churches and government,"
he was ordered to be whipped, have his ears cut off, and be banished. Though he
was banished, Winthrop was lax in making him leave right away; didn't
have the heart to send him earless into the cold winter night.
There's a good Christian for you.
Vowell focuses on Roger Williams, the co-founder of Rhode Island, as well. He was a bit of a rabble-rouser as well and was a
little too fanatical, even for the Puritans, who banished him from Salem for his wacky ideas about the aboriginal occupants of America being
its true owners, not England. Williams was pretty keen on separating church and state before it was fashionable, too.
All in all, the interactions are fascinating. As usual, Vowell combines present-day visits to historical sites to bring the past into focus. Naturally, her sister Amy and nephew Owen are along for the ride. These present-day visits take more of a back seat here than in
Assassination Vacation, however. Still present are the fabulous cast of readers, including Scott Campbell as John Winthrop, Peter Dinklage
as Roger Williams, Catherine Keener as Anne Hutchinson, and others.
Vowell herself performs the main narrative, and I'd have it no other way.
No one else can perform it quite the way it needs to be done - her deadpan delivery with bright, ironic interjections are priceless.
If you're a fan of early American history, Sarah Vowell's work, or just want a ripping yarn about early America, you won't be disappointed by The Wordy Shipmates.