Moonies/Reverend Sun Myung Moon (1920—)

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Moonies/Reverend Sun Myung Moon (1920—)

An unlikely messiah to emerge from the youth movement of the mid-twentieth century was the Korean immigrant known as the Reverend Sun Myung Moon. Not an obviously charismatic personality, he addressed his American followers in rambling two-hour sermons, filtered through an interpreter. Although shadowed by a history of matrimonial troubles and conflicts with the law on two continents, Moon preached family values and obedience to authority. His teachings attracted millions of youth (exact figures were never verified) in over 140 countries. He made the United States his base of operations in the 1970s, and collected followers largely from among the advantaged sons and daughters of mainline Christian and Jewish families. By the end of the twentieth century, the Unification Church, which Moon founded, controlled a fortune in U.S. property, and Moonies, as his followers were known, could still be seen on American streets, selling their flowers and recruiting new members.

Much of Moon's background is shrouded in secrecy and controversy. He appears to have been born in a province that would later become part of North Korea. Though his parents were Presbyterian, he became identified with a charismatic sectarian group which taught that Korea was a promised land destined for apocalyptic events. At age 16 young Moon experienced his first vision, in which his own divine calling was revealed. Alert to his special status, he changed his first name from "Yong" to "Sun," so that his full name meant "Sun Shining Moon." As he rose to prominence, so did his problems with the North Korean government, resulting in part from his strong stand against Communism. But accusations of bigamy and draft evasion were also made. Later, in the United States, charges of tax evasion and immigration violations would continue to plague this teacher and prophet.

The doctrines of the Unification Church were outlined in The Divine Principle, the movement's basic scripture, credited to Moon but widely believed to have been written by one of his lieutenants. Unification theology was a blend of concepts from Christianity, Buddhism, and Taoism, echoing the eclectic Asian background of Moon himself. The stated goal of his church was the unification of humanity and its salvation in both body and soul.

In his publications and sermons Moon elevated marriage to a cosmic sacrament. Adam and Eve fell from divine favor, he taught, because of lustful self-indulgence, thus bringing forth their children in sin. Christ, he said, came as a second Adam, but although he enlightened the race spiritually, his crucifixion cut short his full mission of physical as well as spiritual redemption because he did not live to marry and beget perfect children. Thus, a Third Adam was essential to mankind, a savior who would probably be born in Korea, most likely in 1920. This new messiah would succeed precisely where Adam and Jesus had failed: he would marry a perfect woman. Together with God, the couple would form a divine trinity; through themselves and their progeny humanity would at last be fully redeemed. Though Moon, and the woman (apparently his fourth wife) always at his side, made no special claims for themselves, their followers were free to reach their own rather obvious conclusions about the fulfillment of Moon's prophecy. The most publicized feature of Moonie life was the mass marriage ceremonies the Reverend Moon conducted, first in Korea and later in the United States. In 1988 he rented Madison Square Garden in New York, where he officiated in the mass wedding of 6,500 couples. Many of the new spouses had just met at the altar, chosen for one another by church leaders. Races and nationalities were specifically blended in these mega-ceremonies.

It was not the religious teachings so much as the Moonie lifestyle that caused widespread social and parental concern. Though a disciplined life for otherwise disoriented young people had much to commend it, parents worried that Moonies were being exploited. Within the church, conduct was carefully controlled. Smoking and drinking were taboo and austere standards of sexual conduct were enforced. Members were encouraged to live communally in the church's urban centers, or on church-owned ranches. Fund-raising teams traveled about in vans, selling flowers on street corners or otherwise soliciting contributions, but even as the church itself became wealthy from these efforts, personal wealth was discouraged. There was high turnover in the church, with an estimated one-third of the newer members leaving each year. With a constant supply of postulants therefore required, additional Moonie groups were assigned to recruiting.

Recruiting techniques were refined and effective. Often to be found on college campuses, candidates for membership would be "love bombed"—showered with honor and affection. Invited to special seminars and retreats, during which they were never left alone, they were subjected to long sessions filled with sermons on how to create a better world. Accusations of food and sleep deprivation were made by critics of the group, who compared Moonie indoctrination to Asian prison camp brainwashing. A dire political agenda was often alleged, though never proved. Young people who joined the church usually distanced themselves from their families, and it was not surprising that a number of concerned parents hired "deprogrammers" to lure their sons and daughters away from the Unification Church.

By the end of the twentieth century, many observers felt that the Unification Church had lost its momentum, even as the cult movement itself seemed to be in decline. Yet Moonie efforts toward gaining full acceptance into American life had produced some results. Leading politicians, even ex-presidents, had accepted large sums of money to address Unification sponsored gatherings; and Sir Laurence Olivier had performed in Inchon (1981) , a movie financed by the church and a critical and box-office catastrophe which had General MacArthur affected by divine guidance in the Korean War. More significantly, Moonies had identified themselves as public advocates of marital fidelity and family values in the midst of a societal crisis, and the movement-sponsored newspaper, The Washington Times, had gained substantial circulation.

—Allene Phy-Olsen

Further Reading:

Cohen, Daniel. The New Believers; Young Religion in America. New York, Ballantine Books, 1976.

Mather, George A., and Larry A. Nichols. Dictionary of Cults, Sects, Religions, and the Occult. Grand Rapids, Zondervan, 1993.

Moon, Sun Myung. Divine Principle. New York, Holy Spirit Association for the Unification of World Christianity, 1976.

Sontag, Frederick. Sun Myung Moon. Nashville, Abingdon, 1977.