April 9, 2013

Face(s) of America: Changes of God’s Authority in American Society (Journey of Religion from Puritanism – Transcendentalism)


The birth of America was the birth of religion freedom. The term ‘freedom’ successfully applied in the development of US religion; the wide gate of probability to welcome new era coming with new ideology which shapes new face of the current ideology. The ‘main’ religion in US history was Calvinist Christianity. However, it grew into some new faces of the later US Christianity due to the emergence of new interpretation of religions, such as Deism, Unitarianism, and Transcendentalism. They are not even seen merely in the case of Christianity doctrines but religion in a universal meaning.

Those first four ideologies in early America indicate the changing identity of US society –although the ideas are not simply represented the whole society of it. Tracking the journey of God in those four isms, I see the way American society construct their identity through their bound with God. It supports the idea of being ‘protestant’ including the spirit to always have new ‘innovation’ of religion by critically re-considering current ideology.

Religion can be seen as a cultural production which is constructed based on certain system of ‘supply and demand’ (Finke, 1997). How this idea works can be seen on the history of American thought. Each new ism comes as the answer of the previous one(s). It can be totally new, half new, or re-appear merely as an old concept in a new name. As a cultural production, the emergence of certain ism cannot be separated from its social background to explain what kind of society owning the demand of religion that the thinker should give supply for it.

According to Hegel’s theory on “thesis – antithesis – synthesis”, the new isms usually come with an additional knowledge or system of thought. They were born to complete the previous ones either in a whole concept or a certain focus. Hence, there will be certain ‘silver line’ connecting the dynamical changing on a particular issue.

In this writing, I will focus on the changing of God’s authority upon American society during the era of Puritanism, Deism, Unitarianism, and Transcendentalism. Later on, this journey of thought is importance to conceptualize the face (identity) of American society since religion is somehow attached –at least, personally– to certain identity of people.


Basic Principles of Ideology

Puritanism came as a breakthrough of current Rome Catholic atmosphere which is viewed as a corrupt disenchanted institution. Based on the idea of Geoffrey Moor in his book entitled American Literature, the basic ideas of Puritanism is defined as follow; 1) total and innate depravity, 2) unconditional election, 3) prevenient and irresistable grace, 4) preseverence of the saints, 5) limited atonement (Sardjana, 1988).

In the era of European and American enlightenment, Deism was born in a more extreme way of thinking. It is not only protesting the institution of religion but also refuse the institutionalization of religion (Horton & Ewards, 1974; Sardjana, 1988; Suseno, 2006). This thinking was the first step to have an open-minded religion culture of US society. Its basic concepts are; 1) that there is a God, 2) that He ought to be worshipped, 3) that piety and virtue are the essentials of worship, 4) that man ought to repent his sins, 5) that there are rewards and punishment in a future life (Horton & Ewards, 1974; Sardjana, 1988).

As the effect of mass growing on science and technology, Unitarianism appeared with a more diffuse ‘rituals’ of religion (Blau, 1965; Horton & Ewards, 1974; Sardjana, 1988). This ideology give more rooms for human development as it can be seen from its basic principles as follow: 1) the fatherhood of God, 2) the brotherhood of man, 3) the leadership of Jesus, 4) salvation by character, 5) the progress on mankind onward and upward forever (Holman, et al, 1986 in Sardjana, 1988).

The last ism had the strongest concept of preserving human power, authority, and dignity. According to Holman, et al (1986), the basic principles of Transcendentalism are; 1) it is important to live close to nature, 2) every person’s relation to God is a personal matter to be established directly by the individual rather than through formal religion, 3) human beings are divine in their own right, 4) self-trust and self-reliance are to be practised all times since to trust oneself was really to trust the voice of God speaking through us, 5) it is important to support reform movements which foster human potential such as the abolition of slavery and the enfranchisement of women (Sardjana, 1988).

The Authority of God and Individual Position

In the early development of American thought, Puritanism had its huge number of believer since the holy purpose on purifying Christianity as the religion of God. For these people, God has the biggest power and authority among all. Having the role to be the Creator, Supervisor, and the Judge in the day of Final Judgment, God is the One connected with every single line of life. In the most extreme idea, Puritans had a big dream to create a nation upon religion base or theocracy (for maintaining its law, government, and society) (Blau, 1965; Marty, 1988; Sardjana, 1988).

Individual position in the case of arguments (thoughts) distribution is not important due to the existence of clergies as the only justifiable people to interpret Bible. Different point of view in religion sectional is forbidden because of the doctrine believing in the Divine Unity. Moreover, every ‘different’ thinker considered have dangerous ideology such as Thomas Hooker, Roger Williams, and Anne Hutchinson were alienated and punished.

However, authority of God was decreased in the emergence of Deism. God is deemed only as the Creator. There is no authority of God to control or supervise human’s life. The destiny of man is determined by their deed. This thought diminished the role of God as the Elector of human’s future life; whether they are included as the chosen people of heaven or not (Blau, 1965; Foerster, 1980; Sardjana, 1988). God created the world, creatures, and a permanent system to control it before leaving it all works alone. Men are the ones responsible to control and drive their lives.

The face of God is painted in some emotive descriptions such as merciful and graceful (Amstrong, 2003; Suseno, 2006). This concept contradicted with Puritans belief on God as the ‘Executor’ and the One giving men the ‘origin of sin’ of Adam and Eve. The notion of excluding men from the story of Fallen Adam in this belief encourages people to live the life in an optimistic way. According to their basic principles number 3, it is not the doctrine of the church to measure one’s good deed, but something related with humanism (piety and virtue). Therefore, to get positive position in the eyes of God, man has to have good attitude with others.

Coming in the era of enlightenment, Deism gave big portion of human development in the form of freedom of thinking. It was the way far different with Puritanism which limited the access of knowledge. Deistic people considered human as the owner of high authority thus they have to explore it. In addition, they accept as true that the success of man is determined by the development of their brain, not by religious doctrine (Sardjana, 1988).

In the journey of Unitarian, this ism declines trinity system of God as one of Calvinism characteristic. There is only one God to be worshipped. They believe no in Holy Ghost and declare Jesus as a man gifted by great leadership skill. Unitarianism put human in a higher position and reduce the authority of God since they believe that God lies inside human. Accepting this kind of notion, Unitarians see God not as the Determinant of their destiny since they (man and God) both work ‘together’ –men do what God said to them.

God or Religion = New Identity

In the era of Puritanism, religion principles should be practiced under the dogma of church. Besides, as the representation of God in the earth, a nation should make its constitution based on Bible. Religion had strong collocation with activity and thought of group (congregation). Thus, individual identity should stand for group (congregation) identity. This condition leads to the important role of religion as the ‘bond’ of people grouped in certain congregation for constructing one’s identity. Hence, identity of people is determined by the belonging of certain group of religion, not merely by the essence belief of God.

Deism, however, disagree with the idea of religion rituals. They believe in God, but they put religion as an individual interest. They refuse the Puritan congregation system as form of collecting people to do some rituals in certain place. The term ‘essentials of religion’ in Deism’s basic principles shows that religion’ rituals have no strong role in this ism. For these people, religion is no more the only way for God to communicate with men. These people appreciate every individual to ‘customize’ their own religion based on their own understanding. Religious leadership should be separated with governmental issue. Therefore, religious institution has less authority to control society and personal thought is well acknowledged. At the end of the day, Deism put God as the parameter of identity, not by formalizing the belief into certain religion (rituals).


The changing of God’s authority upon American society during the era of Puritanism, Deism, Unitarianism, and Transcendentalism creates different characteristic of group of people. Since belief is strongly related with one’s identity, to frame American identity by portraying its religion means to identify each personal idea of God. The history of US religion shows process of religion development in particular of its way of seeing God and the application of principles answering His existence.

From the journey of Puritanism until Transcendentalism, I conclude the way of thinking of American as a ‘protestant’ to always re-considering their belief and fix it with the current condition. The existence of a religion is determined by its ability to confer with current condition; what the society needs (demand).

In term of religion identity, US society attached themselves to a group (congregation) identity in the era of Puritanism. Later on, Deism creates the sense of ‘religious essentialism’ which concerns more in the personal relation with God; therefore communal identity is no longer glorious. The two late beliefs (Unitarianism and Transcendentalism) are way more moderate by strengthen the concept of vertical relationship and put human in a highest position of authority and dignity. Those ideas create some notion of not obeying outer authority, one way to personally interpret and ‘customize’ their own religion.


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