Autumn is here. Along with the pretty foliage, the opportunity to layer fashionably, and the back-to-school season, we get an annual dose of:
New England Nostalgia
I’m talking cutting belt-buckles out of black construction paper, similar turkeys, and a freestanding stack of jellied cranberry sauce, straight out of the can.
Timed as an intellectual appetizer to Thanksgiving turkey comes Sarah Vowell’s latest adventure in pop-American History, The Wordy Shipmates.
Vowell, a familiar to NPR Junkies, does a fine job of generating enthusiasm for her pet subject especially if you haven’t thought about the Puritans since your first grade pageant.
Her passion for these cranky old English cats (Oh yes. It does apply when you sail for a new continent with 10,000 gallons of beer) really brings them to life.
Your basic players:
John Winthrop, a small time aristocrat who gets his chance to govern a non-separatist Puritan Colony. He is both strict (cuts the ears of dissenters) and kind (he offers his own firewood to a man accused of stealing firewood).
A preacher come from Olde England who is, as Vowell calls him, an “Argumentative Jesus Freak”. He believes that the worst thing ever to happen to Christianity was for it to be adopted by ruling powers as a state religion. For him, Church must be separate from State to protect the purity of the former, not the latter.
He is also, I am proud to say, the founder of my home state, Rhode Island and was one of the only settlers to deal squarely with the Native Americans. That said, despite his godliness, he used his Algonquin language skills to spy for the English during the horrifyingly bloody Pequot War.
This zoo is also named after him.
Vowel calls her “one of the brainest women of the 17th Century” and of the popularity of her homespun preaching, she writes, “She has something other people want, some combination of confidence, glamour and hope. She is the Puritan Oprah— a leader, a guru, a star.” She causes trouble by advocating personal revelation, through prayer, and defys church leaders by saying that the Holy Gost lives inside a person. Like an actual ghost inside an actual person. She and her fifteen (15!) children are banished, and they go live in Rhode Island with Roger Williams.
Vowell makes the connection between these cantankerous pamphleteers and today’s political culture.
John Winthrop’s rhetoric has been co-opted by Ronald Regan ( he loved to quote “For we must consider that we shall be as a city upon a hill. The eyes of all people are upon us.” from Winthrop’s sermon, “A Model of Christian Charity”) Sarah Palin recently regurgitated this appealing image in her VP debate with Joe Biden.
Vowel goes farther though, and in explaining the context of Winthrop’s sound bite, makes him sound more like a Socialist than Reagan or Palin would have it. In the very same speech that Conservatives tout as the origin of “American Exceptionalism“, Winthrop said,
“We must delight in each other; make other’s conditions our own; rejoice together, mourn together, labor and suffer together, always having before our eyes our commission and community in the work, as members of the same body”
This kind of talk is why Vowel likes her subjects.
Making a particularly interesting link to today’s culture is her examination of the impact of Anne Hutchinson’s brand of personal revelation Protestantism.
“Protestantism’s evolution away from hierarchy and authority has had enormous consequences and the world. On the one hand, the democratization of runs parallel to political democratization.. . . On the other hand, Protestantism’s shedding away of authority. . . inspires a dangerous desregard for expertise. So the impulse that leads to democracy can also be the downside of democracy, namely a suspicion of people who know what they’re talking about. Its why in American presidential elections the American people will elect a wisecrackin’ good ole’ boy instead of a serious thinker who actually knows some of the pompous brainy stuff that might actually get fewer people laid off, or killed.”
Bonus Fact: George W. Bush is distant relative of that same Anne Hutchinson. And John Kerry, he’s related to John Winthrop.