Sun Myung Moon, 1920–2012

The super-rich ‘messiah’ who founded the Moonies

The Rev. Sun Myung Moon’s life was a welter of contradictions. While his church’s followers gave away their worldly belongings, Moon owned luxury mansions, fleets of limousines, and a 50-foot cruiser. While he claimed to be the “true parent of all humanity,” many of his own children lost their way: One son committed suicide in 1999, and another was accused of beating his pregnant wife while he was high on cocaine. And while the self-styled messiah married thousands of couples in mass weddings that he saw as the highest expression of his religious vision, Moon was divorced and considered himself not bound by the usual rules of sexual conduct.

Born in what would become North Korea, Moon had a “turbulent early life,” said The Economist. He claimed that when he was a teenager, Jesus Christ anointed him the “second messiah” and told him to complete the work Jesus had left unfinished. Moon built up a network of followers in Pyongyang, but was arrested and tortured for his beliefs. It was not until 1954 that he formally established the Unification Church in South Korea. The church’s organizing principle was the family, and in 1960 Moon took as his second wife a 17-year-old who “became known as ‘the true mother.’” She would go on to bear him 13 children.

As Moon built up his church, said The Wall Street Journal, he created a business empire in South Korea, building shipyards, newspapers, and arms manufacturers. “By some accounts, he was the country’s first billionaire.” In the early 1970s, he decided the U.S. was a “spiritual battleground” that needed conquering. He began “aggressive proselytizing” to reach new converts, renting Yankee Stadium in 1976 for a festival at which he announced that the country had been “invaded by Satan.”

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Moon soon became famous for “spectacularly staged mass rituals,” in which he would preside over thousands of couples being wed at the same time, said “Most had never met each other,” being matched by Moon himself on the basis of photographs and questionnaires. The unions were often bizarre; he famously paired a 71-year-old Catholic archbishop from Zambia with a 43-year-old Korean acupuncturist, a marriage that lasted barely four months. The converts were derisively nicknamed “Moonies,” and the religion was dismissed as a cult—but that didn’t stop thousands of Americans from signing up.

“Moon’s mission began to come unstuck in 1982,” said The Daily Telegraph (U.K.), when he was convicted in the U.S. of tax evasion and jailed for 13 months. Membership in his flock plummeted, and despite Moon’s extensive American business interests—including New York real estate and The Washington Times newspaper—he became an increasingly isolated figure. His so-called “perfect family” suffered a series of scandals and deaths, and “his claims of global influence became more and more bizarre.” During a Capitol Hill luncheon that he hosted in 2004, he told lawmakers that Hitler and Stalin, speaking to him from beyond the grave, had named him “humanity’s savior, messiah, returning Lord, and true parent.”

To his remaining followers, Moon promised he would one day reveal “a much greater area of truth.” Alas, “death intervened before he had found time to do so.”

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