Unification Church founder Sun Myung Moon dies at 92

The Rev. Sun Myung Moon with Prime Minister of Solomon Islands Danny Philip. Photo Borovv
The Rev. Sun Myung Moon with Prime Minister of Solomon Islands Danny Philip. Photo Borovv
Published September 4, 2012

The Rev. Sun Myung Moon, founder of the Unification Church and a man who blessed mass weddings, built a sprawling business empire and presided over a personality cult, died on September 3 in South Korea. He was 92.

His church said the cause of death was complications from pneumonia, including kidney failure, Religion News Service reports.

Moon was born in 1920 in what is now North Korea, and rose from a home in which five siblings starved to death to become an ambitious man who harbored a lifelong hatred of communism, craved respect from the rich and powerful and professed a divine mandate to restore a fallen world.

He claimed to have received revelations from Jesus, Confucius, the Buddha, Lao Tzu and Satan.

After founding the Unification Church in 1954, Moon gained fame by holding group weddings for arranged couples, many of whom had barely met before Moon matched them. Ceremonies at New York’s Madison Square Garden in 1982, Washington’s RFK Stadium in 1997 and Seoul’s Olympic Stadium in 1999, drew thousands of couples.

“From the time I was eight I was a well-known as a champion matchmaker,” Moon wrote in his biography, “As a Peace-loving Global Citizen.”

Moon taught that Jesus had died without fathering children, who, as the Messiah’s heirs, would have escaped the taint of Original Sin. Moon said Christ chose him to complete his mission by uniting humankind in a single sinless family. Many of Moon’s arranged marriages were thus interracial and international. Unificationists called Moon and his wife, Hak Ja Han, the “True Parents” of this spiritually pure lineage.

In the early 1970s, Moon moved to the United States and embarked on multi-city “Day of Hope” crusades, and later addressed thousands at Madison Square Garden, Congress, the Washington Monument and Yankee Stadium. At its height, the Unification Church counted nearly 30,000 members in the U.S.

But as Moon gained prominence in the United States, critics accused his church of deceiving converts and brainwashing members. Followers were inducted into “mobile fundraising teams” who sold candy and flowers. Others labored for the church’s many business interests, a practice that extended to Unification branches in Asia as well, said Ji-il Tark, a scholar at Busan Presbyterian University in South Korea who has studied Moon’s movement.

Moon himself resided for a time on an 22-acre estate in Tarrytown, New York. He served 13 months in federal prison in 1983-84 for tax evasion and conspiracy to obstruct justice.

During the mid-1970s and 1980s, U.S. membership sank as the “cult” accusations swelled. Scholars estimate that there are now 100,000 Unificationists worldwide and a few thousand in the U.S., far fewer than the multi-million membership the church claims.

Moon and his followers remained embittered that American Christians failed to embrace their church. The National Council of Churches, for example, refused to admit the Unification Church as a member. Most Christians called Moon’s messianic claims heretical.

Moon businesses prospered, even as his church faltered. Its Tongil Group is one of the largest conglomerates in South Korea. It also owns a gun manufacturer, sushi distributor and the New Yorker Hotel in Manhattan.

Moon’s media holding company, News World Communication, which owns the Washington Times and United Press International, is less profitable, but Moon boasted that it offered access to Washington power players and a venue for his conservative political views.

In recent years, Unificationists in the U.S. have tried to drum up interest in the church by touting studies that suggest arranged marriages may last longer than “love” nuptials. According to one church study, 70 percent of the couples Moon matched at a 1971 ceremony in New York remain wed. (The mass blessings are not legal weddings; couples have civil ceremonies before or afterward.)

Moon’s children have stepped into church leadership roles, but despite Moon’s intense focus on happy families, the handover to his heirs has been riven by strife. Some of his children have split from the church, abused drugs and fought bitterly for control of the church’s business empire. With Moon’s death, the fighting is expected to intensify.


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