The career of Sun Myung Moon, founder of the Unification Church (known by the general term of "Moonies") followed the classic trajectory forged by mystics and religious innovators or "prophets" in various religious traditions. He was born, the fifth of eight children, to a rural family in Pieyong-An, in north-western Korea, on 6 January 1920 according to the lunar calendar used then (25 February according to the Gregorian calendar). Although he appears not to have publicised it at the time, he later reported that at the age of 16 he experienced a supernatural visitation.
On Easter Sunday 1936, Jesus appeared and told him that God had chose him to establish the Kingdom of Heaven on earth. Over the next nine years Moon claims to have wrestled with the devil and to have received revelations from God as well as "spiritual communications" from Moses, Muhammad, Jesus and the Buddha. There are compelling parallels with the story of Joseph Smith, the Mormon prophet, whose First Vision also occurred during adolescence. As with Smith and Muhammad, Moon's revelations were preserved and written down in a holy book.
Moon's Koran, The Divine Principle, is the official scripture of the Unification Church. Its doctrine is suggestive of the Freudian struggles surmounted by Moon during his adolescence. The Fall of Man, he believed, was occasioned by Eve's seduction by Satan and the illicit sexual relations she had with Adam before receiving God's blessing. Their offspring were tainted by Satan's influence, and though God sent Jesus to restore a pure family on earth, he was executed before being able to marry and have children. Moon's own mission was to establish a "true family" untouched by Satan while teaching people to lead God-centred lives under his leadership. The theology is highly original: Moon's god suffered desperately from human waywardness. Moon's mission was to mend God's broken heart, to act as his devoted child and healer. Everyone should aspire to moral perfection in order to alleviate divine misery.
After graduating from high school in Seoul, Moon studied electrical engineering in Japan. In 1943 he returned to Korea, where he found work with a construction company. He married his first wife, Choi Sun-kil, a woman chosen by his parents, with whom he had one son. However, Sun-kil never fully accepted his messianic claims, and they were divorced in 1953 (she and her son, however, would remain members of the Unification Church).
Under the Japanese occupation Moon was briefly arrested on suspicion of being a communist and tortured using water laced with red pepper. After Korea's liberation in August 1945 he went public with his messianic mission and became a full-time preacher.
Korea in the 1940s was a time of religious fervour, with charismatic preachers and would-be messiahs attracting followings among people savaged by war and decades of Japanese occupation; according to one estimate around 70 messiahs appeared during this period. In Seoul, Moon attended a church whose pastor, Kim Baek-moon, announced that Korea was the "new Israel" and that the return of the messiah was imminent. Kim's recognition of Moon as the promised messiah gave a boost to his following in this fervent religious atmosphere.
Moon then received the "call" to visit Pyongyang in North Korea, which was coming under communist control, where he announced the imminent return of Jesus. This event, he explained, would not happen in the spiritual or supernatural way that most Christians had come to expect: the mission of Jesus had been passed to "another", who followers began to see as Moon himself.
On hearing his preaching about original sin, many of them, especially the women, stopped having sex with their spouses. Jealous husbands who saw that men and women mixed freely at Moon's services, contrary to Korean social customs, suspected he was seducing their wives and reported him to the communist authorities. There were accusations that he had sex with female converts in order to "purify" them – acts for which he claimed God's special permission. In court Moon was accused of spreading falsehoods, deceiving innocent people for their money. Charged with destroying family institutions and bringing disorder to society, he received a five-year sentence with hard labour.
In prison Moon claims he was severely tortured by beatings and sleep deprivation. Nevertheless, at the labour camp in Hungnam, where he and his fellow inmates worked in a fertiliser plant, he earned recognition for being conscientious and disciplined.
After the outbreak of the Korean war in 1950 the plant was destroyed in a massive US bombardment in which some 270 workers were killed. Moon attributed his escape to his contacts in the spirit world, claiming that no one standing within a 20-metre radius of him had been hurt.
After the South Korean army crossed the 38th parallel the North Koreans began shooting their prisoners; but just before Moon and his batch were due to be taken to the firing squad the compound housing the guards' families came under attack and they deserted their posts. Moon joined the stream of refugees fleeing south. The story that he carried a wounded companion for 200 miles has doubtless been heavily embroidered: the grainy photograph used by the Unification Church in its propaganda was later proved to be a picture of someone else.
In 1971, Moon decided to settle in the United States with his new wife, Hak Ja Han. Disillusioned with the idea of building the Kingdom of God in divided Korea, he decided (like Joseph Smith before him) that the Second Israel must be America. Hak Ja Han, who was 17 when they married, gave birth to 14 children. Within the Unification Church her family is known as the "true family" to distinguish it from the Church's much larger family created by conversions and the mass weddings between strangers chosen by himself, over which Moon and his wife would preside.
Moon arrived in America at a time when the Vietnam War was splitting the generations and he was able to attract a considerable number of young, well-educated recruits. In Britain, accusations of brainwashing by ex-Moonies were supported by a high court judgement in favour of the Daily Mail and in the US by professional "de-programmers" who charged families large sums of money to kidnap their children and bring them home for "treatment".
The brainwashing theory, however, has been challenged by academics who point out that actual conversion rates to the Unification Church are extremely low: the explanation for a person's conversion must be found in his or her religious orientation, aspirations or background.
Even more controversially, Moon used his church's wealth to create a multinational business empire in Asia and the Americas comprising a vast range of products, from ginseng and titanium production, to weapons, hotels, newspapers and fishing fleets. The empire's media interests include the United Press International news agency and the Washington Times.
In Congressional hearings Moon was accused of working with South Korean intelligence in order to buy influence with the US government, with some US officials regarding the Unification Church as a "front" for the Korean CIA. Moon was without question an ardent cold warrior and a supporter of right-wing causes. He believed North Korea had fallen under the rule of Satan (personified by the communist leader Kim Il-sung) and that communism was invented by the devil. "If South Korean collapses" he told Congress "no one in the Free World will be safe".
The Unification Church, however, was not a "front" for something else: like many millennial movements in history it was an attempt to build the Kingdom of God on earth. The Washington Times, which Moon founded in 1982, was intended as a conservative counterweight to the Washington Post, a leading critic of his anti-communist crusades. With only one-seventh of its rival's circulation, the Times had to be subsidised the tune of $40 million a year. The Times was President Ronald Reagan's paper of choice, and President George Bush the elder gave it a ringing public endorsement as "an independent voice." However, neither Moon's hotline to God nor the friendships he cultivated in Washington were sufficient to prevent him from having to serve a 16-month sentence on charges of tax evasion.
Furious at Reagan's refusal to grant him a pardon, he became disillusioned with the US. At first he sought to rebuild God's Kingdom in Uruguay, where he built a luxury hotel and bought a bank, and several radio and TV stations aimed at promoting "family values". When he encountered resistance he moved his operations to Brazil. The huge ranch he acquired in the Pantanal region was to be a new Garden of Eden, one of the "Earthly Gates to the Kingdom of Heaven." Here, honeymooning Moonies were expected to live in restored harmony with nature, engaged in fishing and prayer, and are encouraged to procreate a new generation of Moonies in small, air-conditioned cabins.
While Moon claimed to be restoring the human family to the condition that preceded the Fall, his later years were marred by trouble inside the "true family". In 1989 one of his teenage sons was killed in a road accident. He was posthumously "married" to the daughter of Moon's chief follower, Bo Hi Pak, and now resides in heaven, where he holds a superior position to Jesus. In 1999 Moon's sixth son, Yong Jin, fell to his death from the 17th floor of a hotel in Reno, Nevada. Police and the coroner officially reported the death as suicide. In 1993 one of his earliest disciples, Chung Hwa Pak, published a book in which he alleged that Moon conducted sexual rituals with six female disciples in order to prepare the way for the virgin who would marry Moon and become the True Mother.
Although Pak retracted these charges when he rejoined the church shortly before his death, further damage to Moon's reputation was done when Nansook Hong, the divorced wife of his eldest son, disclosed that both Moon and his wife had told her about his irregular liaisons. These were described as "providential affairs", including one that resulted in the birth of a boy who was raised by another church leader.
Hong – who left her husband, taking the children with her – also claimed that Hyo Jin Moon had been addicted to cocaine and pornography. In implicit acknowledgement of this charge, Moon passed over Hyo Jin. In April 2008 he appointed his youngest son Hyung Jin Moon, born in 1979, to be the new leader of the Unification Church and the worldwide Unification Movement.
The following July Moon, then 88, his wife and 14 others were slightly injured when their helicopter crashed and burst into flames during an emergency landing near Gapyeong, South Korea. It was not the first providential escape in the astonishing life of this extraordinary man.
Sun Myung Moon, founder of the Unification Church: born Pieyong-An, Korea 6 January 1920; married 1943 Sun Kil Choi (divorced 1953; one son), 1960 Hak Ja Han (14 children); died Gapyeong, South Korea 3 September 2012.