Sarah Vowell Finds Humor In Puritan History Think the Pilgrims were all straight-laced seriousness and tight buckles? Think again, says author Sarah Vowell. In her new book, The Wordy Shipmates, Vowell explores the lively history of America's ancestors. Just who were those folks living in the "shining city on a hill"?
NPR logo

Sarah Vowell Finds Humor In Puritan History

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
Sarah Vowell Finds Humor In Puritan History

Sarah Vowell Finds Humor In Puritan History

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


This is Talk of The Nation. I'm Lynn Neary in Washington. The United States is often called a Puritan nation. It's a shorthand way of saying we're a society filled with repressed, austere killjoys. But that's too limiting, says author and humorist Sarah Vowell. In her new book "The Wordy Shipmates," Vowell takes us into the lives of the Puritans. It's a world pack with heresy, exile, quotable sermons, and punctuated with colorful characters. Think John Winthrop and Ann Hutchinson. OK, so maybe you don't remember who they are but Vowell will remind you and tell us what makes them so fascinating. If you want to talk with Sarah Vowell, give us a call. Our number here in Washington is 800-989-8255. Or send an email to and you can comment on our blog that is at

Later in the hour, the lowdown on the Dow, what does it mean to you, but first a witty look back on that city on the hill joining us now, is Sarah Vowell. Her book is called "The Wordy Shipmates". She joins us now from our bureau in New York. Good to have you with us.


NEARY: Now I suspect that a lot of listeners who may know you from This American Life will be surprised to discover that you really are quite a historian. Is this is a new love of yours?

VOWELL: I don't think of myself as an historian. I just think of myself as a writer and I probably - I still just write about history as a journalist, you know. I set out to just find out about things and then go forward. I'm not any kind of expert. So I think maybe for that reason my books can be fairly welcoming to people who think they are not interested in history which is - you know, I call those people Americans.

NEARY: But you know, you're not a slouch. I have to be honest with you.

VOWELL: Oh, thanks.

NEARY I learned an awful lot and some of it I think I never learned, maybe some of it I had forgotten but a lot of it I think I didn't know in the first place. And I was really surprised by just how much history there really is in there. There's a lot of really, you know, classic Sarah Vowell moments and there's a lot of funny stuff in here, but I learned an awful lot about the Puritans. But I bet a lot of people are wondering, OK, the Puritans, Sarah Vowell, why? Why the Puritans?

VOWELL: One reason, I think, the reason I wanted to do it is probably the reason you were perhaps less informed on the subject is because, you know, what people think of the Puritans, and I specifically write about the founders of the Massachusetts Bay Colony around the Boston area in 1630s, is that they're so intellectual. I think we'd sort of think of Puritans as stupid, but they are so brainy and they are so learned that a lot of their writings are kind of dense and hard to get through. And so I feel like I tried to do that for you and understand them and then, you know, hand over the juicier, more quotable bits from their writings.

But that's their writing and their sort of passion for that - for literature and for, you know, books, one book, specifically the Bible, of course, but just the writing is so vivid sometimes and there's so much of it. They were intensely bookish people considering they were, you know, kind of frontiersmen. It's remarkable and it's the thing that I admire most about them. You know, I started out - I didn't start out in radio. I started out writing as a critic and I wrote about books and music mostly, and so this is kind of a return to that root, a lot of what I write about is the writing.

NEARY: Yeah. Which is why they are called wordy shipmates. I have to say when I first saw that, I thought they were all very talkative people or so.

VOWELL: Well, they are. They cannot shut up and some of them more than others and some them get kicked out of Massachusetts for their talking.

NEARY: Well, I have to start right - go right to the first point you made which is that you are talking about the Puritans from Massachusetts Bay Colony in the 1630s, right from the start I have to admit that I didn't realize the distinctions there were between the Plymouth Puritans and the Massachusetts Bay Colony Puritans and things like that, which you really go into.

VOWELL: Yeah. Well, I think mainly when we learn about 17th century New England in school, it's basically, we hear about Plymouth and Thanksgiving and then maybe there's a pit stop at the Salem witch trial and then move on. But in the middle bits are actually I think, with the Bay Colony and John Winthrop and John Cotton and their shipmates, I think that's sort of the most crucial - ours most crucial inheritance as Americans sort of comes from their ideas. Their ideas of themselves as chosen by God, and you know, the idea of the city on a hill, I think not to downplay the importance of Thanksgiving, but I think knowing about Winthrop and his people is - we are them in a lot of ways.

NEARY: Let's just talk about that whole idea of a city on a hill because that was a phrase from one of Winthrop's sermons which we have heard over and over again in different forms, in modern speeches. Tell us a little bit about...

VOWELL: You heard that one phrase, but it comes at the end of a fairly long sermon. And to me, the sermon, it's really quite beautiful, and it's the context of it is - we don't know specifically when Winthrop gave it, either back on the shore in England as the colonists were about to set sail or maybe out on the open sea but my point being that sermon was - it was delivered at the very beginning, before the colonists even arrived in New England. And I was just rereading it, a little bit of it again this morning, and thinking about in the context of leadership and these people were on a verge of a pretty scary future and they don't know what's coming, and they don't even know if they'll live through the sea voyage.

And Winthrop is telling them, this is going to be hard and we are going to have to stick together. And we should be knit together in this work as one man. And rejoice together and mourn together and suffer together and as if we're members of the same body. He is saying we're one person. We should be one person in this endeavor. And that is our work, and we will be the city on a hill. And people are watching us. Not just to look up to us but also perhaps to see us fail. And so it's this very stirring sermon about solidarity and community that I think when, you know, the phrase is, the city on a hill, the soundbite means just, you know, just thrown out there, like it was the other night in the vice presidential debate. Sarah Palin threw it out, it's just a shorthand that everyone should look up to us. And that wasn't exactly what Winthrop meant entirely. He thought everyone could look up to us, but he also thought, we are special. We are blessed. We have this enormous responsibility, and if we fail, everyone will see us fail. And I think sometimes in America, we might understand that part of it.

NEARY: But something that was really interesting about your own - the sort of the personal connections you made with that sermon came at the time of 9/11 and the sense of community that you felt occurred in New York at that time, sort of that sermon, I guess, kind of resonated in your head at that time.

VOWELL: Yeah. It was just one of the things I read to, you know, just this a of solace. That part the rejoicing and suffering together as members of the same body. And I would turn to that sermon in those days because, you know, for one thing, living in New York besides the, you know, actual just grief, the air quality was so poor and partly that was because of the incinerated steel and building materials from the World Trade Center but it was also our incinerated fellow citizens.

We were breathing them and that was horrifying, but also on the ground in Manhattan at that time, and it was so beautiful really. And there was a sense of this kind of communal love, and you know, people look you in the eye on the sidewalk and say hello, and it was not a happy time but a really meaningful time because of that sense of community in a time of crisis.

NEARY: So when you read that and you make the connections, do you think there really is like a direct connection in the sort of - in who we are as Americans to this group of people who brought over those kinds of notions - who brought those kinds of notions with them when they created the colony?

VOWELL: I definitely think there's a direct connection to their idea of themselves as God's new chosen people. I think we're not always good at solidarity in this country you know. I mean I talk about - I came of age in the Reagan era and I spend a bit of the book talking about the way President Reagan would, you know, bandy about that phrase about being a city on a hill. And to me, my interpretation...

NEARY: And he called it a shining city on a hill, which you...

VOWELL: Yes, he liked to sparkle things up a little bit.


VOWELL: He was a little bit of showman there. But to me the sermon - it's called "A Model of Christian Charity" and it's about charity and generosity and communal welfare basically which you know wasn't really President Reagan's strong suit. I mean he could talk - he could quote the city on a hill bit and then you know the Winthrop and then go and cut the budget for housing and urban developments, you know, sending thousands of people out of their homes and things like that. So part of it, there's like a true Christianity and I mean the kind of radical revolutionary Sermon on the Mount, sort of Christianity. And in fact, Winthrop gets the image of the city on a hill from Jesus, from the book of Matthew. And there's - I don't even know where I'm going with all of this. I'm just saying I think in this country, yes, there's a definite direct connection from our idea of ourselves as, you know, the most blessed chosen nation on earth.

NEARY: The whole idea of American exceptionalism, I think you say, really they brought with them.

VOWELL: Yes, exactly.

NEARY: Yeah - which still lives very much today.

VOWELL: Very much, very much. Yes, we are still the greatest, U.S.A. U.S.A. But the thing that the Puritans had, they were like hardcore Calvinists, you know, and they had this sense of wrath and fear of failure and failing their god. And there was a real kind of constant questioning going on you know, are they failing their God? And they would do things like have a day of fast like, oh, we're failing our God. We can't eat today. And I think America has sort of lost a little bit of that - the sense of like fear of failure and responsibility.

NEARY: All right. We're going to continue this discussion with Sarah Vowell, the author of the new book "The Wordy Shipmates." And if you would like to talk with Sarah Vowell or have any questions for her, give us a call at 800-989-8255. This is Talk of The Nation from NPR News. I'm Lynn Neary.


NEARY: This is Talk of The Nation. I'm Lynn Neary in Washington. They wore little in the way of colorful clothing but be assured the Puritans were anything but stayed. We're talking with Sarah Vowell about her new book on those vibrant ancestors of ours. It's called "Wordy Shipmates." And we're taking your calls at 800-989-8255. Our email address is and check out our blog at And we're going to take a call now from Paul and he is calling from Whiteville, North Carolina. Hi, Paul.

PAUL: Hi. This is a question for Sarah or Lynn. You had mentioned the Puritan experiment as rejoicing and suffering together as members of the same body. I should like to add that, perhaps from a Puritan perspective, as long as that body is male and not female. My question has to do with Anne Hutchinson, if you wouldn't mind, Sarah, talking about that a bit, namely, would you see Anne Hutchinson as the Joan of Arc of early colonial America and I'll hang up and listen to your response.

NEARY: Thanks for that, because the book talks quite a bit about Anne Hutchinson, as a matter of fact.

VOWELL: Yeah. Thanks, Paul. The Joan of Arc, I don't know. You know - I mean I set up the whole Winthrop sermon City on a Hill thing and talk about my love for this beautiful idea of being members of the same body, but then I also say it like those words were spoken before they even got here and Winthrop actually had to govern. And it turned out that there were a lot of mouthy rabble rousers who lived amongst these Puritans and they needed to be sort of clipped from the body like a toenail, and just you know the troublemakers. And Anne Hutchinson was certainly one of those. And she was this woman, I kind of call her the Puritan Oprah because she...

NEARY: That's better than Joan of Arc I think.

VOWELL: Probably things turned out better. So Anne Hutchinson, she was a minister's daughter and she was a mother, a very fertile woman who had, I think, 15 children, comes over here with her husband who was very wealthy. They're kind of like the richest people in Boston basically. And she's also a midwife, and so she meets a lot of women in Boston very quickly because she's helping them deliver their babies, and she starts having them over to her house to, at first, to talk about that Sunday's sermon. But then, she starts basically delivering her own sermons in her home, and dozens and dozens of people, including a lot of men, start coming to hear her essentially preach. And her followers start questioning the other ministers in the colony and heckling them in their churches and so she goes on trial. She's basically causing so much trouble, she needs to be removed and she basically outwits all of them, including Winthrop, in her trial.

She makes them say what law she has broken and they can't think of anything to say other than, you're driving us nuts, essentially. But she's about to be acquitted, but then one person stands up and kind of digs her grave and that person is Anne Hutchinson because Anne Hutchison finally - she has the floor and she loves the sound of her own voice. And she cannot shut up and so she starts expounding all of her eccentric religious belief. She believes she is filled with the Holy Spirit, and this is just blasphemy to the Puritans, and so they kick her out. And like Roger Williams she goes to Rhode Island and Rhode Island kind of becomes the refuge where all kinds of people - not just Puritan heretics but Baptists and Quakers and Jews come to live in relative religious freedom. So she's an interesting figure, definitely.

NEARY: And you just mentioned Roger Williams and I mean this was really interesting Roger Williams' role in sort of just, you know, the early sort of underpinnings of the idea of separation of church and the state.

VOWELL: Right. He wants there to be a wall of separation. He uses those words, you know, way before Jefferson, but he wants there to be separation between the two because he doesn't want the state muddying up his church. He's incredibly idealistic about his religion and he tries - he is a very sort of, in a lot of ways, eccentric person and kind of clownish sometimes and he's terribly annoying and won't shut up. But he's also a pretty remarkable thinker, and he believes one of the tenets of Christianity is thou shalt not kill and he doesn't like state-sponsored religion because it gets all muddied up with state-sponsored violence.

And he wants everyone to be able to worship how they see fit, or not worship, because he's kind of focused on the fact that everyone - all the other sinners, the ones who don't believe as he does, they'll be punished in the afterlife in the eternal flames of hell. So that's kind of enough punishment for him. So he wants everyone to live side by side and believe or not believe whatever they want. He just wants them to constantly argue about it, which I find to be an incredibly enlightened sort of religious fanatic you know.

NEARY: But they're willing to argue the points, yeah.

VOWELL: Yeah. I mean he does - even as an old man, he gets in his canoe and goes to Newport to argue with some Quakers who he thinks is nuts. But he doesn't want them banished from Rhode Island. He's happy that they're living there. He just thinks they're wrong and he wants to tell them that.

NEARY: OK. Let's take another call. We're going to go to Kyle calling from Cincinnati, Ohio. Hi, Kyle.

KYLE: Hi. Thank you for taking my call. I was wondering if Sarah in examining Puritan culture could see any significant influences from the native nations they encountered. Any long-lasting reactions on Puritan thought, for example? Did it reinforce or disrupt Puritan values?

VOWELL: Well, the Roger Williams story is really interesting in terms of that interaction because when he gets banished from Massachusetts, the Narragansett take him in; and he actually eventually he ends up writing this dictionary, an English-Algonquin dictionary, that's kind of a glossary of terms from the Algonquin languages. But it's also this remarkable book. In between the glossary he talks about native culture and it's sort of all of the words that he knows, he knows because of how welcoming they were to him.

So a lot of his vocabulary is all about being welcomed and offered food. And you know even when he describes things like canoeing, he talks about how some of the Narragansett, they tell him don't be afraid if you fall out of your canoe. We'll help you, we'll pull you out. And the way he describes it, you know, and he talks about the Narragansett and how like they - if someone gets something, everyone shares; and if someone goes through some kind of trial, everyone is sad.

And in a strange way, the way he describes Narragansett culture, it's almost like they're living out those ideals of Winthrop of rejoicing and suffering together, except for the Jesus part, which Roger Williams is horrified by native religious ceremonies. But he actually has a bone to pick with the English who kicked him out and ruined his life and took his house and sent him on the run. And he's rather charming when he's talking about - especially when he's comparing the Narragansett to the English who you know he just thinks were a little too judgmental.

NEARY: All right. Thanks for your call.

KYLE: Thank you.

NEARY: I have an email here and that email is from Robin from Jacksonville, Florida. What were their views on the economy, profit, and personal wealth? I think somebody might want you to be making some pronouncements about the current state of the world.

VOWELL: Oh, relevance. Interesting. Why would you be thinking about that? Let's see. I do know that Winthrop believed - I mean, he certainly, actually, "A Model of Christian Charity," to be quite honest, the very first part of it is about how God has decided some people would be reach and some people will be poor - like that's his opener. And you know some people will lead and some people will follow, and you know he's the governor so we know who he is. But the basic start of it is God has decided what kind of life you'll have and some of you are not going to be rich.

So there's that, and so everyone's station in life and their afterlife is all predetermined by God. So there's that. But Winthrop also believed, especially when they were starting the colony, when they were first building everything, some people obviously did have more means than others and Winthrop as a governor and his deputy governor was kind of a little bit of a bee in his bonnet and those two didn't often agree. And Winthrop caused this whole fracas in the colony because the other guy, Winthrop's sort of nemesis, built this ostentatious house with this ostentatious wainscotting. And Winthrop is appalled about this wainscotting thinking, you know that this guy is being too showy, and it's like the beginning of a plantation we need to, you know, we needed to tone all that down. And so there's that, and he also berates the man because he overcharged some poor people for some grain, I believe, so.

You know, I think the Puritans are just like any other sort of people. There are some that are a little more profit-oriented and others who aren't, but like, I'm talking about the 1630s. I mean, later in the century, I don't really get into that, but once things become much more mercantile, and there all these, you know, there are all the kinds of books about Salem and the witch trial era, which I don't really talk about, but where, you know, there's New England merchants and seafaring and fishing and all that brings so much more money into the colony that economics becomes, you know, a bigger controversy. In the beginning it's basically trying not to die.

NEARY: All right, let's take a call now from Dean in Idaho Falls, Idaho. Hi, Dean.

DEAN: Hi. This was spinning my world around because I always had Winthrop in that group of "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God"-style preachers and you're describing a much warmer and fuzzier John Winthrop. Am I - was I just off my nut?

VOWELL: Well, I actually think the sinner in the hands of the angry God, that's Jonathan Edwards who's the - he's a century later. And that's actually a much more touchy-feely, in a way, sort of Christianity. It's much more ecstatic and fire and brimstone like that. Winthrop is - their form of Christianity is incredibly, you know, disciplined and guilt-ridden. I mean, what religion isn't guilt-ridden, maybe there are some, I don't know.


VOWELL: But, no, he's - in fact, I talk about, like - what you're talking about Jonathan Edwards is that's part of the Great Awakening which came later, which was a much more emotional form of Christianity, and that's actually why one reason Ann Hutchinson gets kicked out because she's starting to practice that sort of later form of Christianity, the kind that we would probably recognize more closely resembling evangelical fundamentalism. You know, these days, like - my Puritans in the Massachusetts Bay Colony, they're incredibly intellectual, and like I say, there's no speaking in tongues going on in Massachusetts Bay Colony unless you count classical Greek.

NEARY: I don't think there's any speaking in tongues going on in Massachusetts now either. Right?


VOWELL: I wouldn't know. Actually that's a relatively late development. I think speaking in tongues doesn't come about until maybe the 19th century. I could be wrong, that's off my area. But, no, Winthrop is - he's not a touchy-feely guy. And, I mean, we are - this is, you know, just a one hour radio show. I do kind of go into, he is also - he's a totalitarian as well. And so, when he becomes governor and you see how he governs, there are some harsh punishments for people who disagree and who, you know, refuse to - I mean, agreeing to agree is kind of the Puritan orthodoxy, you know, the party line, so anyone who doesn't agree with the magistrates and the ministers, if - they're given the opportunity to admit they're wrong and to repent. But if they fail to repent, then there are harsh punishments. One person I describe was a servant who refused to stop bad-mouthing the magistrates and the minister, and Winthrop and his fellow magistrates had the man's ears cut off and he was banished. And...

NEARY: Let me just remind the listeners that we're talking with Sarah Vowell about her new book, "The Wordy Shipmates" and you are listening to Talk of the Nation from NPR News. I mean, this does bring us, Sarah, to one point I wanted to make which is, you know, there's clearly - we have talking about a certain kinder, gentler period and then people may have thought of. But there's also violence, you know, Puritans could be violence and...

VOWELL: Yeah there is.

NEARY: How did they reconcile that? And their treatment of the Indians, the Piquots, in particular?

VOWELL: Well, part of their whole - you know, to them, God was like all-powerful, in a way that I think most Protestants nowadays like - I was raised evangelical and a lot of the responsibilities, say, for my own salvation, was my own. But the Puritans in Massachusetts, they are Calvinists and they believe that God is all-powerful and everything that happens is because God wants it to happen. And so, there's a lot of like circular logic when - and like with the Pequot, in the Pequot War - it's a horrifying moment and they end up engaged in this, you know, war and they set a Pequot village on fire and 700 men, women, and children are burned alive.

And the writing that some of the New England militia captains, they write afterward, it's kind of horrifying because they see the very fact that God allowed these people to be burned alive as justification and as a cause for celebration when that militia comes back to Boston, Boston has a day of thanksgiving just to celebrate this victory. So they see themselves as God-blessed and God-chosen, and this was just a justifiable, God-blessed act that just reinforces their own superiority.

NEARY: All right, let's see if we can get one more call in here. Elizabeth from Tucson, Arizona. Go ahead, Elizabeth.

ELIZABETH: Hi. I just wanted to ask Sarah if she had ever considered becoming a history teacher. I'm a teacher myself, and I have never heard anyone describe American history, especially the period in which you've written about and describing now in such a vivid and juicy way.

NEARY: Well, read the book because it's pretty juicy, too.

VOWELL: Thanks, Elizabeth. Thanks. I could never really become a teacher as a, you know, full job because I don't really like talking to people.

ELIZABETH: I absolutely understand that, but I want to thank you...

NEARY: Well, there you go. You have a new - a new option now in your career path, Sarah.

NEARY: I'm Lynn Neary, and it's Talk of the Nation.

Copyright © 2008 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.