Pilgrims, Progress?

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).

Roger Williams:

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.

Anne Hutchinson:

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.

4 Responses to Pilgrims, Progress?

  1. Are you saying the Protestantism of our nation’s founders influenced the way they organized what would become the foundation of our government? And the Protestant dislike for authority is partially the reason why today we, as an electorate, cast votes for leaders who are populist and folksy? If so, are you then suggesting America would be better off if founded as a colony of the Papacy? And that Catholic “Pilgrims” would have established a more authoritative, hierarchical system of governance that today would place a premium on clergy-like leaders who know more than the populace endowed with the enlightened disposition to rule?

    I mean, I know you’re not, but I’m just saaaaaaaaying…

    Though it would be interesting to read Vowell’s description of the “Protestant evolution away from hierarchy and authority.” It’s my understanding Protestantism emerged in response to Catholicism in the 16th Century because it challenged the Vatican’s authority over states hundreds of miles away and the authority of the Clergy over the Word. However, Martin Luther simply wanted to place authority of Christianity back on the Bible and personal behavior. Though politically Protestantism wanted to decentralize government, religiously it wanted to consolidate it in the principles of Christianity instead of in the hands of those who gained power by exploiting it.

    Gd, that would have made some sense if I could say it in like 10 words.

  2. Walter Crunkite says:

    I could have added more of her argument, but it basically boils down to this:

    The Puritan brand of Protestantism was Calvinist and Bible Heavy and it was also Preacher Heavy, meaning:

    As Calvinists they believed in predestination, and could never be sure if they were saved or not. So they acted virtuously, according to the doctrines set down by their leaders, who were even more ‘visible saint-y’ than they were.

    Hutchinson was saying that with the Holy Ghost wriggling inside of you, each person was potentially qualified to save him or herself, sans Cambridge educated preacher, and certainly sans Pope.

    Vowel links this sentiment to the Great Awakening kind of Protestantism, which then leads to the Evangelical Protestantism we seem to have today in the US, which is based much more on a personal relationship with Jesus. This means you are saved NOT based on your knowledge of the bible, your erudition, or your Pequot Killing Skills. Just on your ability to repeat John 3:16 over and over.

    She jokes that the New England of John Winthrop was the true “Bible Belt” and what we the Bible Belt today should really be called the “Personal Relationship with Jesus Belt”, or the “Filled with the Holy Spirit Basket of America”:

    If you are Saved so easily (perhaps Born Again), instead of through good works (Catholicism) and you are not kept in perpetual doubt about your status and constantly have to consult with Cambridge educated preachers (Calvinist Puritan Protestantism) you may become smug and contemptuous of ‘educated’ authorities, spiritual and secular alike.

    She then links this anti-intellectual attitude, to the same anti-intellectual disregard for wonky expertise that see in political contests.

    It may be a stretch, but I think it is an interesting one. I have no idea what would have happened if there were Catholic Pilgrims. Perhaps Mexico?


  3. Yeah Catholics leaving Spain because of persecution is pretty hard to imagine. Probably why Catholic Pilgrims are just called conquistadors. I’m actually going to check out that Vowell book. I always wanted to read Assassination Vacation but I could never bring myself to buy it. Probably because I’m afraid any money I spend on Sarah Vowell will somehow find its way to Mo Rocca and I just don’t know if I can pay for that man’s insight. Love him on Wait Wait, but that shit’s for free.

  4. Walter Crunkite says:

    Haha. Mo Rocca.
    I can definitely reccomend the Wordy Shipmates — she gets a bit cutesy at times, but she is so genuinely in love with her subject that it comes off as charming. Haven’t read Assassination Vacation, but I bet it is fun, too.

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