Sarah Vowell on the Puritans' Legacy

The author and 'This American Life' correspondent talks about her book on the colonies' early religious leaders

Puritan leader John Winthrop arrives in the Massachusetts Bay Colony. (Corbis)

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Winthrop and his fellow magistrates eventually ban Williams from Massachusetts, and he goes on to found Rhode Island. Williams is able to escape before the Massachusetts militia comes to put him on a boat back to England—and the person who warned him was John Winthrop!

Publicly, Winthrop thought Williams was disturbing the peace and needed to be removed—but he was still his friend, so he warned him. And they kept up this correspondence for the rest of Winthrop's life. I thought it was just a great story that their friendship could live on after one guy banished the other. It made me interested in finding out more.

Tell us about Anne Hutchinson, another strong character. How did she end up getting banished from the Massachusetts colony?
Anne Hutchinson was the groupie of John Cotton, who was the most important Protestant minister in England. So when John Cotton immigrates to New England, she and her husband and their 15 children follow him to Boston.

She is a midwife, so when she gets to Boston she meets a lot of women very quickly. And she starts having these prayer meetings in her home for the other women. At first she's just talking about Cotton's sermons, but eventually she starts preaching on her own, and attracts these huge crowds to her house. Not just women, men came too. She became really influential, really fast.

She and her followers were causing an enormous amount of discord and trouble in the colony, so the magistrates of the Bay Colony haul her into court and put her on trial for disturbing the peace.

She's probably about to get acquitted, because she really refutes all of their arguments against her, but the thing about her is: She couldn't shut up. And she liked the sound of her own voice. She uses this opportunity to just go off and start kind of preaching what she believes—and a lot of what she believes is very blasphemous. Like, she believes she hears the voice of God. She believes she's filled with the Holy Spirit.

A lot of what she's saying, modern-day evangelicals would probably recognize as the kind of Protestantism they practice, but for the Puritans it was way too emotional. To say that you heard the voice of God was not to be believed.

So she gets kicked out, and also goes to Rhode Island, as Roger Williams before her. And Rhode Island becomes a place of refuge, where not just Puritans who get kicked out of Massachusetts seek solace, but all kinds of religious outcasts.

If there were a ship full of people sailing off for a new colony today, would you join them?
Well, no. I like where I live (laughs)!

I mean, what they did was pretty remarkable and brave. And just, one thing I love about Winthrop's and Cotton's sermons, is they are both these pep talks given almost at the dock, as these people are about to embark, and what they're embarking on is really terrifying. The fact that they would do it exhibits an enormous amount of bravery and optimism.

And... I also hate boats and can't swim.

About Amanda Fiegl

Amanda Fiegl is a former assistant editor at Smithsonian and is now a senior editor at the Nature Conservancy.

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