The Wordy Shipmates

By Sarah Vowell

The Short Take:

Vowell tells the story of the Puritan’s colony in the New World (not to be confused with the Mayflower Pilgrims) with humor, giving it context in history as well as relevance to the present day. Her obvious love for her subject is tempered by a lively wit and clear-eyed observations that make this non-fiction book a delight to read.


The Mayflower, Thanksgiving, “Why don’t you speak for yourself, John”: that’s pretty much all I retained about the settling of America by Europeans after many, many American history classes. Sad but true.

This book not only helps to correct that flaw in an entertaining way, it also demonstrates how the beliefs of the original Puritans differed from what we consider to be Puritan thinking today.

Vowell has a political point of view (she definitely is not wild about Reagan), but it is obvious she loves the Puritans in addition to finding them intolerant and hypocritical. And, yes, it is possible to feel both: The Puritans were complex, well educated people who valued writing and reading (hence the book’s title). There is plenty to both respect and decry.

Among other things, you’ll gain a better understanding of the thinking behind separation of church and state (thank you, Roger Williams), and where that “shining city on a hill” reference comes from politicians so delight in using when talking about the U.S.A.

A frequent contributor to public radio, Vowell’s seductive sense of humor and wry observations make this book much more entertaining than your typical history. You not only gain historical information, you also garner a greater appreciation for the uniqueness of this country and it’s Constitution.

A Little Plot:

This book focuses on the Puritans from the time they left England in 1630, until the death of their leader, John Winthrop, in 1683. Within that time they establish Boston and other communities in the area, wage wars against the native inhabitants, and worry about their relationship with their King back home.

However, this books focuses more on how their religious beliefs shape their government and its relationships with other settlements, the original North American occupants, and its own citizens. You’ll see why Roger William’s ideas about religious tolerance  were a troubling and divisive force (he felt the Puritans weren’t saintly enough and wanted them to tolerate his more sanctified life). Again, the slightly different religious thinking of housewife Anne Hutchison is considered just as worrisome as the King’s threat to send a military force to oversee the colony.

It’s a fascinating look at people who not only went boldly into the wilderness but who cared mightily about knowledge, understanding, and community.

By the way, if you like reading about Pilgrims and their ilk, you might consider this as a companion piece to Nathaniel Philbrick’s book, Mayflower (which I wrote a bit about on 9/30/2008 if you care to check my archive). It’s interesting that while Plymouth Pilgrims are so geographically close, they barely seem to impact Boston’s Puritans. Again, a subtle difference in religious belief kept them apart.

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