Rev. Sun Myung Moon was a savvy South Korean businessman who built a global religious empire using political influence and his followers' willingness to live in poverty for his sake. The self-proclaimed messiah with thousands of disciples died this week at age 92.
Rev. Moon started the Unification Church in 1954, but it didn't rise to prominence in the United States until the 1970s. Rev. Moon courted controversy with his insistence that Jesus appeared to him in his youth and asked him to continue Christ's mission, in part, by encouraging the growth of "sinless families."
Rev. Moon began holding mass weddings of hundreds, sometimes thousands, of strangers in places such as New York's Madison Square Garden. His followers agreed to conduct their married lives according to principles laid out by Rev. Moon. Often, the newly married couples hadn't known each other for long and didn't speak the same language.
Rev. Moon's followers, called "moonies" by the press and the church's critics, flooded U.S. streets, proselytizing and selling flowers and church-related trinkets to raise money. Some families "kidnapped" their children from the church in desperate attempts to de-program them. Other disciples left after living in poverty while Rev. Moon and his family lived in palaces.
Despite Rev. Moon's generosity to conservative causes and his defense of President Richard Nixon, his church was widely considered a cult. It lost millions of followers in the 1980s and 1990s.
Rev. Moon invested millions of dollars in newspapers, real estate, the fishing industry, ski resorts, schools, and hospitals. Mainstream politicians and cultural figures said nice things about him at ceremonies in his honor, but he could never buy true respectability.
He spent 13 months in prison for tax evasion in the 1980s, but that didn't slow him down. In 2004, he had himself crowned "messiah" at a congressional office building, with elected officials on hand to fete him.
Rev. Moon ultimately succumbed to complications from pneumonia. Although he died rich, he left behind a dubious spiritual legacy.