The Rev. Sun Myung Moon, the Korean evangelist, businessman and self-proclaimed messiah who built a religious movement notable for its mass weddings, fresh-faced proselytizers and links to vast commercial interests, died today (Sept. 3, 2012) in Gapyeong, South Korea. He was 92.
His death was announced on the website of his Unification Church, which said he had been battling complications from pneumonia.
The Rev. Moon courted world leaders, financed newspapers and founded civic organizations. To his critics, he pursued those activities mainly to lend legitimacy to the Unification Church.
He was a leading figure in what Eileen Barker, a professor emeritus of sociology at the London School of Economics, called "the great wave of new religious movements and alternative religiosity in the 1960s and 1970s in the West."
Building a business empire in South Korea and Japan, the Rev. Moon used his commercial interests to support nonprofit ventures. He avidly backed right-wing causes, turning the Washington Times into a respected newspaper in conservative circles.
An ardent anticommunist who had been imprisoned by the communist authorities in northern Korea in the 1940s, he saw the United States as the world's salvation. But in the late 1990s, he turned on America, branding it a repository of immorality.
In its early years in the United States, the Unification Church was widely viewed as little more than a cult, one whose members, known derisively as Moonies, married in mass weddings. In the church's view, Jesus had failed in his mission to purify mankind because he was crucified before being able to marry and have children. The Rev. Moon saw himself as completing the unfulfilled task of Jesus: to restore humankind to a state of perfection by producing sinless children, and by blessing couples who would produce them.
The Rev. Moon struggled against bad publicity. He served 13 months in a U.S. prison in the mid 1980s after a tax-evasion conviction. He also was accused of influence-buying and maintaining ties to Korean intelligence. As his church grew more prominent in the 1970s and '80s, it became embroiled in numerous lawsuits over soliciting funds, acquiring property and recruiting followers. Defectors wrote damaging books. From 1973 to 1986 at least 400 of the church's flock were abducted by their family members to undergo "deprogramming," according to David Bromley, a professor of sociology at Virginia Commonwealth University.
The Rev. Moon said he was the victim of religious oppression and ethnic bias.
"I don't blame those people who call us heretics," he was quoted as saying in the 1977 book Sun Myung Moon and the Unification Church by Frederick Sontag. "We are indeed heretics in their eyes because the concept of our way of life is revolutionary: We are going to liberate God."