Mr. Moon, the son of Korean farmers, created a sprawling empire at the intersection of religion and business and became one of the world’s most enigmatic and polarizing public figures.
His stated ambition was to rule the world and replace Christianity with his own faith, which blended elements of Christianity, Confucianism and Korean folk religions. A leading symbol of the 1970s cult wars in America, he attracted a great deal of attention and ridicule for holding mass weddings for Unificationist couples whom he had paired, often without the prospective partners ever having met.
But his success in business and involvement in American politics “demanded that people who could care less about his peculiar doctrinal views pay attention to him,” said James Beverley, a professor at Tyndale University College and Seminary in Toronto who has studied Mr. Moon’s church since the late 1970s.
As a young man, Mr. Moon was twice jailed in the 1940s when his sermonizing attracted the attention of authorities in what is now North Korea. Emerging as a staunch anti-communist, he built the foundations of what became a global business network with labor provided by his devotees.
He made his most strident inroads into American culture in the 1970s. The Vietnam War-era counterculture was beginning to fade, but college students were still looking for an alternative to the conventional lives of their parents. Drawn by the promise of salvation through clean-living self-discipline, they flocked to the Unification Church despite the fact that Mr. Moon was known more for his sermons’ longwindedness than for public displays of charisma.
His critics described him as a frustrated megalomaniac who donated millions of dollars to political causes in exchange for the mainstream recognition and acceptance that he never enjoyed as a spiritual leader. Meanwhile, his supporters saw Mr. Moon as a prophet unfairly persecuted by xenophobic journalists and politicians.
To much of the outside world, Mr. Moon undercut his credibility with grandiose statements. “God is living in me and I am the incarnation of himself,” he said, according to sermon excerpts printed in Time magazine in 1976. “The whole world is in my hand, and I will conquer and subjugate the world.”
Such comments helped spur a panic among parents of young Unificationists, who accused Mr. Moon of running a cult and brainwashing their children. Unificationists often lived communally and were forced to sever ties with their families, trading biological mothers and fathers for their “True Parents,” Mr. Moon and his wife. They staked out street corners and airports and worked long hours selling flowers, peanuts and candles to raise money for the church. Alarmed parents hired professional deprogrammers to bring their children home.