NEW YORK — 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 Monday in South Korea. He was 92.
Rev. Moon died two weeks after being hospitalized with pneumonia, Ahn Ho-yeul, a spokesman for the Unification Church, his religious movement, told the Associated Press.
Rev. Moon courted world leaders, financed newspapers, and founded numerous innocuously named civic organizations. His critics believed he pursued those activities mainly to lend legitimacy to the Unification Church, although his methods were sometimes questionable.
Rev. Moon was a leading figure in what Eileen V. 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.’’
Rev. Moon, said Barker, an expert on new religious movements, was ‘‘very important in those days — as far as the general culture was concerned — in the fear of cults and sects.’’
Building a business empire in South Korea and Japan, Rev. Moon used his commercial interests to support nonprofit ventures, then kept control of them by placing key insiders within their hierarchies. 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, after financial losses, defections, and stagnant growth in the church’s membership, he turned on America, branding it a repository of immorality.
As Rev. Moon approached 90, not long after he survived a helicopter crash in 2008, three of his sons and a daughter began assuming more responsibility for running the church and his holdings.
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. Such weddings were the activity most associated with Rev. Moon in the United States.
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. 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.
Marriage was a key part of achieving salvation, and for a couple the marriage was as much a commitment to the church as it was to each other. Often the couples had met only weeks earlier or could speak to each other only through an interpreter.
Rev. Moon struggled against bad publicity. He was sent to prison on tax evasion charges and accused of influence-buying and maintaining ties to the Korean Central Intelligence Agency. He denied both allegations. In the late 1970s he was caught up in a congressional investigation into attempts by South Korea to influence American policy. There were battles with local officials over zoning for church buildings and tax-exempt status.
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 an estimate by David G. Bromley, a professor of sociology at Virginia Commonwealth University and an expert on Rev. Moon. The church denied that it had brainwashed its followers, saying members joined and stayed of their own free will.
Rev. Moon said he was the victim of religious oppression and ethnic bias because of his Korean heritage. Established churches were angered, he said, because they felt threatened by his movement.
‘‘I don’t blame those people who call us heretics,’’ he was quoted as saying in ‘‘Sun Myung Moon and the Unification Church’’ (1977), a sympathetic account 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.’’
Personal setbacks marked Rev. Moon’s later years. In 1984 his second son, Heung Jin, died at 17 from injuries sustained in a car crash. Another son, Young Jin Moon, who was 21, committed suicide in 1999 by jumping from a 17th-story balcony at Harrah’s hotel in Reno. In 1995, Nansook Hong, the wife of his eldest son, Hyo Jin Moon, who at one time was Rev. Moon’s heir apparent, broke from the family and wrote a book characterizing her husband as a womanizing cocaine user who watched pornographic movies and beat her. Hong portrayed the entire Moon family as dysfunctional, spoiled, and divided by intrigue and hypocrisy.
From early on, Rev. Moon was revered by his followers as the messiah, and in 1992 he conferred that title on himself. He also declared that he and his second wife, Hak Ja Han, were the ‘‘true parents of all humanity.’’
Rev. Moon founded the Unification Church in South Korea in 1954 and began organizing it on a large scale in the United States in the early 1970s. It eventually claimed up to 3 million members worldwide, but historians of religion dispute that number, estimating a membership of 50,000 at the church’s height in the late 1970s, with only a few thousand in the United States.
The extent of his business holdings was somewhat of a mystery, but one figure gives a clue: Rev. Moon acknowledged that in the two decades since the founding of The Washington Times in 1982, he pumped in more than $1 billion in subsidies to keep it going. The church said its various operations earned tens of millions of dollars a year worldwide.
Sun Myung Moon was born on Jan. 6, 1920, in a small rural town in what is now North Korea, according to his official biography. When he was 10, his family joined the Presbyterian Church. When he was a teenager, around Easter 1935, according to Unification Church lore, Jesus appeared to him and anointed him God’s choice to establish the kingdom of heaven on earth.
Despite the centrality of marriage in his developing theology, Rev. Moon divorced his first wife in 1952 (something that was glossed over in the official biography) and the following year moved to Seoul, where he founded the Unification Church in 1954. Within a year, about 30 church centers had sprung up.
Before the decade was out he published ‘‘The Divine Principle,’’ a dense exposition of his theology that has been revised several times; his daughter-in-law Hong, in her book, said it was written by an early disciple based on Rev. Moon’s notes and conversation. He sent his first church emissaries to Japan, the source of early growth, and the United States, and began building his Korean business empire.
Rumors of sexual activities with disciples, which the church denied, dogged the young evangelist, and he fathered an illegitimate child born in 1954. In 1960, Rev. Moon married the 17-year-old Hak Ja Han, who would bear him 13 children and be anointed ‘‘true parent.’’
In the late 1970s, Rev. Moon came under scrutiny by federal authorities, mainly over allegations that he was involved in efforts by the South Korean government to bribe members of Congress to support President Park Chung Hee.
Then, in October 1981, Rev. Moon was named in a 12-count federal indictment. He was accused of failing to report $150,000 in income from 1973 to 1975.
Rev. Moon called the case a government conspiracy to force him out of the country. He was convicted the next year of tax fraud and conspiracy to obstruct justice and sentenced to 18 months in prison.
One of the more bizarre moments in Rev. Moon’s later years came on March 23, 2004, at what was described as a peace awards banquet held at the Dirksen Senate Office Building in Washington. Members of Congress were among the guests. At one point, Representative Danny K. Davis, an Illinois Democrat, wearing white gloves, carried in on a pillow one of two gold crowns, which were placed on the heads of Rev. Moon and his wife.
At the banquet, Rev. Moon stated that emperors, kings, and presidents had ‘‘declared to all heaven and earth that Rev. Sun Myung Moon is none other than humanity’s savior, messiah, returning lord and true parent.’’