Korea abounds in new religious movements (NRMs), and these have met with different degrees of success in the course of their history. In what follows, I shall examine the three contrasting NRMs that have become established in Korea and suggest possible reasons for their respective progress. The three that will be discussed here are Jehovah’s Witnesses, the Tongil-gyo (better known as the Unification Church or, more popularly, “the Moonies”),1 the Daesoon Jinrihoe. All three religions have a significant presence in Korea, all have taken their rise in the country in the twentieth century, and all of them look forward to a coming paradise of everlasting peace and harmony. The first differs from the others, being not indigenously Korean, but having Christian origins in the United States, and basing its teachings uncompromisingly on the Christian Bible, regarding all other forms of religion as false. The second – the Unification Church – originated in Korea, but combines elements of Korean religion and culture with Christianity; while the third, the Daesoon Jinrihoe, is indigenously Korean, drawing on many of the classical ideas of Korean spirituality. The fortunes of each religious organisation are different: the Daesoon Jinrihoe appears to be most successful, being Korea’s largest new religion; the Unification Church is in decline, while Jehovah’s Witnesses are in steady state. Only two of the three – Jehovah’s Witnesses and the Unification Church – are worldwide organisations; Daesoon Jinrihoe is almost totally confined to Korea.
It may be helpful, first, to provide brief outlines of the history, basic tenets, and practices of these organisations. The oldest of the three groups are Jehovah’s Witnesses: their official legally registered name is the Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society, and was founded by Charles Taze Russell (1852–1916) in Allegheny, Pennsylvania, in the United States. Russell’s movement took its rise within the Christian Protestant tradition, and was heavily influenced by nineteenth-century Adventism. Adventism was originally a movement, rather than a separate denomination, and it arose mainly within Baptist and Methodist circles; its principal beliefs included the inerrancy of the Christian scriptures, and in particular the promise of Jesus Christ’s immanent return, for which they typically proposed a firm date – initially 1843. Adventists were made to feel increasingly unwelcome in mainstream Protestant circles, and hence set up their own denominations, the best-known of which is the Seventh-day Adventist Church, founded in 1863 by Ellen G. White (1827-1915). Although Jehovah’s Witnesses tend to gain more public attention than Adventists, Seventh-day Adventism is over twice as strong numerically as Jehovah’s Witnesses (Stewart and Martinich 2020).
The type of Adventism from which Jehovah’s Witnesses originated was not in fact Seventh-day Adventism, which followed the Jewish practice of worshipping on Saturday (the Jewish sabbath and seventh day); the majority of Jehovah’s Witnesses meet on Sundays for worship, in common with most other mainstream Christians, including the Second Adventist tradition. Russell disagreed with mainstream Christianity on several key points of doctrine: he could not believe that a loving God would consign the wicked to everlasting torment in hell; and he could not accept the doctrine of predestination, held in certain Protestant circles, that God had elected in advance the “elect” who would aspire to the kingdom of heaven, and the “damned”, who would be consigned eternally to hell. Russell wanted to see a return to the form of the Christian faith that was practiced by Jesus’ original early disciples, who did not have a hierarchy of clergy and laity, and did not hold elaborate rituals or own opulent buildings with extravagant art and architecture.
In 1870, Russell formed a small group who met regularly to pray and study scripture. Coming from a fairly wealthy family, Russell was able to set up an organisation for printing and distributing Bibles and religious tracts, and he founded a journal titled Zion’s Watch Tower, now known as The Watchtower, and which can be commonly seen in public places where two or more Jehovah’s Witnesses stand beside one of their literature carts. Literature distribution began in 1881, and in 1884, Zion’s Watch Tower Society (as it was originally named) became legally incorporated in Pennsylvania. Russell organised a number of colporteurs – people who went around with some of Russell’s early writings, leaving them for interested members of the populace to read. Russell himself travelled widely, reaching as far as Japan and China, although not Korea (Zydek 2010, 317). A number of congregations, each of which was known as an ecclesia, met to study the Bible, together with Russell’s writings. Ecclesia means “congregation,” but etymologically it is derived from two Greek words – ek, meaning “out”, and kalein, “to call”. Originally, the allusion was to the Christian Church as a body whom God had called out of a sinful world, but Russell took a narrower view, and called upon his supporters not only to quit worldly allegiance, but to leave the mainstream churches, which he believed had become corrupt. Russell had defined various dates for Christ’s return – initially 1874, and subsequently 1878 and 1914 (Chryssides 2018, 49). The last of these dates remains significant for Jehovah’s Witnesses, which they reckon to be the time at which Jesus Christ entered his heavenly sanctuary and cast Satan down to earth. This belief was corroborated by the outbreak of World War I in that year, which involved tremendous atrocities, confirming that the present systems of world government are ruled by Satan.
After Russell died in 1916, Joseph Franklin Rutherford (1860-1942), a Missouri attorney, assumed the leadership. Rutherford organised the loose federation of ecclesias into a unified structured organisation. During Rutherford’s leadership, house-to-house evangelism became an expectation, and in 1931 gave his followers the name “Jehovah’s Witnesses” – the name by which they are most commonly recognised today. Russell had expected the faithful to be translated into heaven, but this did not happen in the years he defined. The Bible mentions 144,000 “saints” who would reign with Christ in heaven (Revelation 7:4); however, the membership of the Watch Tower Society far exceeded that number by the time Rutherford assumed office. Accordingly, in 1935 Rutherford announced a distinction, also suggested in the book of Revelation, between the 144,000 and a “great crowd” of followers who would remain on a renewed earth to worship Christ. Most Jehovah’s Witnesses today regard themselves as belonging to the great crowd; and only those who belong to the 144,000 are permitted to partake of the bread and wine at the annual Memorial service, which commemorates Jesus’ last meal with his disciples.
By regarding themselves as being “in the truth,” Jehovah’s Witnesses are exclusivist, believing themselves to be the one true form of religion, and regarding other religious organisations as “false religion” or “pagan.” Hence, they are careful to avoid importing any practices that come from other forms of spirituality, such as the observance of festivals such as Christmas, Easter, and saints’ days, which they regard as not belonging to the original practices of the early Church, but celebrations that are imported from other faiths, such as Graeco-Roman religion and pagan fertility rites (Watch Tower 2014, 219-20).
Subsequent Watch Tower leaders introduced their own innovations. In 1971 a Governing Body was created, and which continues to be the ultimate human source of authority within the Society. Jehovah’s Witnesses have proved particularly controversial for the teachings about blood, regarding it as the life force, and hence something that should not be transmitted from one human to another, as in blood transfusion (Knox 2018, 149-201).
Sun Myung Moon’s Unification Movement
Turning to Sun Myung Moon’s Unification Movement, there are three main schisms at the time of writing, following the death of its founder leader Sun Myung Moon (1920-2012), and disputes about the leadership and the organisation’s assets. The largest strand, headed by his widow Hak Ja Han Moon and their eldest son Hyun Jin Moon, and which has been known since 1996 as the Family Federation for World Peace and Unification (FFWPU) (Chryssides 2009, 364), is the one that will be discussed here, and I shall henceforth refer to it by its better-known name as the Unification Church.
Christianity made inroads into Korea mainly after the country established relationships with the rest of the world in 1882. Protestantism was more successful than Roman Catholicism, and the late nineteenth century saw the arrival of Presbyterians and Methodists, followed closely by the Church of England. Seventh-day Adventists arrived in 1905. Some of the early missionary work was done by colporteurs, who moved on after their literature had been distributed, leaving these new readers of Christian literature without more mature Christian teachers who could answer questions and explain the Christian faith more fully and accurately. As a consequence, idiosyncratic interpretations of the Christian message arose, often combining the faith with indigenous Korean religion, frequently folk shamanism, and thus a number of new religious movements arose. Although Moon’s parents evidently belonged to a mainstream Presbyterian congregation, having converted when Sun Myung Moon was aged nine, strong elements of Korean folk shamanism can be perceived in the teachings of Moon’s Unification Church (Chryssides 1991, 72-73).
Apparently Moon used to pray a great deal as a youth, going to remote spots on a Korean mountainside to deepen his spiritual life. His decisive experience was around Easter in 1935 when he claimed to have received a vision of Jesus, who commissioned him to complete his unfinished work. Jesus revealed that he had not come to be crucified for the world’s sins: on the contrary, this was a mistake made by the religious leaders of that time. Instead, God had intended Jesus to marry, and for the couple to become the parents of sinless children, thus changing humanity’s “blood lineage”. Subsequent revelations purportedly brought Moon into contact with other members of the spirit world, including Satan himself, who revealed that Eve’s sin in the Garden of Eden was being seduced into a sexual relationship with him. As a consequence, Adam and Eve’s offspring forfeited their divine lineage, as God originally intended, causing their progeny to become tainted, and their lineage satanic rather than divine.
Humanity’s salvation therefore requires the restoration of this blood lineage. According to Unificationist teaching, this can only be done through the sending of a messiah, and in this regard Unificationism is in accord with mainstream Christian teaching. However, the Messiah’s coming requires the fulfilment of number of conditions, the most important of which is the arrival of a “central figure” who would attest to the Messiah’s status and enable humanity to recognise him as such. Various successive figures in the Old Testament narrative were assigned this role – Noah, Abraham, Jacob, and Moses – but each of them failed in some respect to obey God. Between each central figure, a designated passage of time must elapse; the calculation of these time periods is complex, but it is sufficient to say that the next central figure after Moses could not arrive until the coming of John the Baptist, who was intended to be Jesus Christ’s herald. John at first was faithful to Jesus and testified in his favour, but subsequently came to have doubts and, as a consequence, Jesus was only partially able to fulfil his mission. What Jesus accomplished was the offering of “spiritual salvation”:he opened up Paradise, as is evidenced by his words to one of the dying thieves who were crucified with him (Luke 23:43). According to Moon’s worldview, there are various levels of existence: the “unprincipled realm” (the level at which the most undeveloped spirits dwell), and three further levels of “formation”, “growth”, and “completion”. Those on earth were at the formation stage, awaiting Jesus’ opening of Paradise (the “growth” level), which should have been a prelude to the opening of the Kingdom of Heaven (the “completion” level). The necessary time period which must elapse after Jesus is calculated by noting sections of Christian history and perceiving parallels with those of the Old Testament period – again a complex calculation, but one which evidently suggests that the messiah of the “Completed Testament Era” will be born between 1917 and 1930. Moon was born in 1920, and further line of argument purports to show that the new messiah will be born in in Korea (Kwak 1980, 306). Korea is important to Unificationists, not only because it is the movement’s country of origin, but because the division between the North and the South highlights the conflict between two ideologies of communism and democracy. The Unification Church regards communism as a great evil that will be defeated in a final conflict, after which humanity will be brought to acknowledge Moon as the Messiah, the “Lord of the Second Coming” (Kwak 1980, 289-291).
Moon’s public ministry began in 1945. We know that Moon was twice arrested, and spent some three years in a prison camp in Hungnam in the North, although the precise charges are unclear. He appears to have had contact with various Korean new Christian-derived religious groups during his imprisonment. The accounts given by the Unification Church probably relate more to their theological thinking and their favourable disposition towards their founder-leader than to verifiable facts. It seems certain, however, that he joined a small religious community known as the Israel Monastery (now known as the Cheongsugyo, which means “Pure Water Church”), where he had hopes of being acclaimed as the new messiah, with leader Kim Baek Moon as the “central figure” – the modern John the Baptist – who would testify to his status. Kim Baek Moon had written two theological treatises, Theology of the Holy Ghost (Sunghin Shinhak) and The Basic Principle of Christianity(Kidokkyo Keunbon Wolli). If Kim Baek Moon had complied, the Israel Monastery would have provided a ready-made platform for Sun Myung Moon’s preaching, but this did not happen, and Moon was forced to leave, seeking his own set of disciples (Chryssides 1991, 99-100). Moon constructed a small shack on the outskirts of Seoul in 1954, which served as the first physical location of the Holy Spirit Association for the Unification of World Christianity (HSA-UWC 1996), which was the original name of the organisation, and which remains its official name in law. This theology is explained in a somewhat complex theological work entitled Exposition of Divine Principle (HSA-UWC 1996). This latest version appeared in 1996, and is the culmination of ideas that Moon and his followers developed over the years.
Readers will no doubt be familiar with the origins, teachings, and practices of the Daesoon Jinrihoe, but I have given them exposition here for completeness. Its origins can be traced to the Donghak movement: the name means “Eastern learning”, in contrast to the Western learning that had been brought by Christian missionaries in the nineteenth century. Daesoon Jinrihoe believes in the supreme deity, Gucheon Sangje, who is the Supreme God of the Ninth Heaven, and the world’s creator. In the course of time, human civilisation had deteriorated, and the buddhas, bodhisattvas and great sages petitioned Sangje to intervene. In response, he began a “Great Itineration” through the universe, visiting the earthly, heavenly, and human realms to re-establish order and harmony. During the Great Itineration, Sangje journeyed to the East, and then to Korea, where he entered the golden statue of Maitreya Buddha in the Geumsansa Temple at the Moak Mountain, North Jeolla Province, and resided there for 30 years (Introvigne 2018, 35).
Sangje revealed his teachings to Choi Je-Wu (1824–1864), who was one of the best-known Korean visionaries, and who claimed to receive a vision in 1860, subsequently establishing the Donghak religion. Choi Je-Wu’s dominant influence was Confucian, but he had some leanings towards theism, which, together with his attempts at social reform, brought him into conflict with the authorities. He was executed in 1864, but his movement lived on, and was a major contributor to the famous Donghak Rebellion of 1894, in which the peasants engaged in armed revolt. In the meantime, Daesoon Jinrihoe followers believe that Sangje was born in Jeolla Province as a human belonging to the Kang family, and is incarnation became known as Sangje Kang Jeungsan (1871-1909). Kang supported the peasants’ cause and the fight against Western imperialism, but predicted the failure of the Donghak rebellion, advising his followers not to participate in the conflict. Kang is accredited with visions and remarkable miracles; he is held to have proclaimed unprecedented truth to the world, reordering heaven and earth, and opening a new world, after which he returned to heaven, reclaiming his throne as the Supreme God, and as the true object of worship. During his earthly life, he was concerned to improve society, teaching an end to social discrimination, the resolution of grievances, and the end of dominance of men over women. In 1894, he established a village school, and in 1908 founded the Donggok Clinic, before ascending back to heaven in 1909 (DIRC 2016, 199–216.).
Kang’s movement attracted considerable support, but eventually divided into a number of splinter groups. A subsequent leader, Jo Jeongsan (1895–1958), had never known Kang Jeungsan, but nonetheless claimed to be his successor, having purportedly received a revelation from Kang Jeungsan in 1917. In 1925 he founded the Mugeukdo spiritual group, but was forced to disband it in 1941, as a consequence of state opposition. After Japan was defeated in 1945, the group was re-established as the Taegeukdo, and a new headquarters was built three years later. Following Jo Jeongsan’s death in 1958, Park Han-Gyeong, (subsequently known as Park Wudang, 1918–1996) assumed the leadership. Park Wudang’s succession was disputed, however, and he left Busan, departing for Seoul, where he founded the Daesoon Jinrihoe in 1969 (Introvigne 2018, 29-31).
Daesoon Jinrihoe teaches Four Tenets: the virtuous concordance of yin and yang (eumyang-hapdeok); harmonious union of divine and human beings (sinin-johwa); resolution of grievances for mutual beneficence (haewon-sangsaeng); and the Perfected State of Unification with the Dao (dotong-jingyeong). There are Four Cardinal Mottos, or Precepts – quieting the mind (anshim); quieting the body (anshin); respect for Heaven (gyeongcheon), and observance of ritual practices (sudo) – and The Three Essential Attitudes: sincerity (seong), respectfulness (gyeong), and faithfulness (shin) (DIRC 2016, 199–216).
Some of the rituals practised at home, while others require attendance at one of the temples. Spiritual Training involves chanting the Tae-eul Mantra, and has no prescribed place and time. Prayer (gido) can be made either at home or in the context of the temple, where it is practised at prescribed times. Other practices, such as gongbu (holy works) involves the continuous recitation of incantations throughout the day and night, in relays, and occurs at the Yeoju Temple Complex: it is believed to hasten the coming of the Earthly Paradise. Special devotions are held to mark the birth and death of Kang Jeungsan, Jo Jeongsan, and Park Wudang, as well as key events in the movement’s history. Solstices and equinoxes are also marked devotionally.
Having given these basic expositions, I shall now examine their varying degrees of success in South Korea. Membership statistics are invariably problematic, for a variety of reasons. It is not always clear how membership should be defined, since there are varying degrees of allegiance within any organisation; and membership statistics can be gathered in different ways by different researchers. However, bearing in mind these caveats, it is possible to obtain a sufficiently adequate impression of the differences in uptake between the Unification Church, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and Daesoon Jinrihoe.
Membership statistics for the Unification Church are particularly problematic for a number of reasons. Transnational movements of members, which can happen on a substantial scale, have obvious effects on statistics. Members from abroad are often encouraged – possibly even required on occasions – to come to Korea to take part in seminars, to engage in ancestor liberation ceremonies, or to participate in the Blessing. There have also been various types of membership, including forms of associate membership, which merely involved no further commitment than signing a short statement committing oneself to family values and world peace. Members of the public, who were presented with such a document, could inadvertently become counted as belonging to the Unification Movement. One source reported as many as 50,000 in South Korea in 1990 (Long 1994, 158), while a Unification leader in Korea reported a membership figure of approximately 17,000 in 2008. More recently, Eileen Barker reported worship attendance in Korea in 2014 as 27,690 (Barker 2018, 21). The seemingly large numbers of Blessing couples are no guide to membership. In 1999 it was reported that Moon conducted weddings of 360 million couples, and that 400 million couples were blessed in 2000, these events having taken place at Seoul Olympic Stadium (FFWPU 2018). Such claims would obviously be absurd if they referred to the number of people who were physically present, but it has been well known for some time that most of these “couples” are simply names collected in various ways by other members, and presented at the ceremonies. The capacity of the Seoul Olympic Stadium is less than 70,000, and 400 million couples would be equivalent to around 15 times South Korea’s entire population! Recent newspaper reports give publicity to a Blessing ceremony held at the Cheong Shim Peace World Center in Gapyeong, a small town around 55 kilometers north-east of Seoul, in which 6000 “new couples” were allegedly blessed in Unification-style marriage, with a total audience of 30,000, notwithstanding the threat of the coronavirus (FFWPU-USA 2020). Such reports, however, have been disputed by reliable informants known to the author: it has been known for some time that recent Blessing ceremonies have in fact been re-dedications of existing couples, and in any case participation in the Blessing is not conditional on membership. Even if such media reports were reliable, it would reflect a temporary international gathering, rather than a Korean following.
The more realistic statistic of less than 30,000 may seem surprising in view of the Unification Church’s high profile, but the organisation has attracted a much higher level of publicity and its numbers suggest: worldwide estimates have varied from one to three million. However, in recent years its focus has been on organising Blessing ceremonies rather than attracting new members, since the criterion for entry into the Kingdom of Heaven is the Blessing, not formal membership.
Determining Daesoon Jinrihoe’s numerical strength is also problematic, although to a lesser degree. According to John Jorgensen, the organisation estimated 100,000 followers in 1975, while other sources reported 219,176 in 1978, 3,615,437 in 1991, and an astonishing 8 million in 1997 (Jorgensen 2001, 1). The lower estimates may be due to members checking “Other” as an affiliation when the organisation was not specifically indicated, while the estimate of 8 million is no doubt due to excessive enthusiasm in self-reporting. The organisation’s current claim of 6 million seems reasonable.
Jehovah’s Witnesses’ allegiance can be much more readily ascertained. From its early years, it has encouraged its colporteurs to keep precise records, and it continues to publish statistical information by country, giving precise indications of Memorial attendees, numbers of “publishers” (their term for active members who evangelise), and numbers of baptisms, based on information supplied by congregations and branch offices. In 2019, the Society reported 102,456 members reporting on their evangelism, 136,891 Memorial attendees, and 1800 baptisms (JW.org 2020).
The analysis of these membership statistics indicates that the Daesoon Jinrihoe appears to be the most successful, having a following of around one million adherents; some sources even regard this figure as modest, asserting that some six million members exist. This compares with 102,456 Jehovah’s Witness “publishers” (their name for the active members that undertake evangelising work), and possibly just under 28,000 active Unification Church members (Barker 2018, .21).
The most obvious factor in determining the success of a religious organisation is its evangelisation strategy. The background of converts does not necessarily reflect the demographics spread of the country, but relates to a number of factors – whether particular sectors of society are targeted, whether evangelism is done systematically or by chance encounters, and whether potential converts are available to take up the responsibilities that are expected of them. Although we do not have precise demographic details of those who joined the organisation, accounts of Unificationist proselytizing strongly suggest that the typical convert was someone who was single, young, and not in full-time employment; often, in the 1970s and early 1980s, a prospective college student who was taking a gap year. In 1955 in Korea the Unification Church established the student organisation CARP (Collegiate Association for Research into Principle), which aimed to interest members of the student population to study its teachings; this organisation subsequently spread to other countries (Chryssides 2009, 359). Many members and ex-members will recount being introduced to the organisation by a stranger at a coach terminal, or being personally invited to come to one of their centres. Since, at least initially, the standard mode of belonging was community living, relatively few individuals were in a position to abandon their conventional lifestyle to live in communities, and their mode of existence in these environments was fairly basic. Members slept in dormitories and, if they lived in a centre with families, they would be likely to be assigned one single room for husband, wife, and children. As the movement grew older, new members were typically second-generation; older members were those who had joined many years previously, and, although it is not impossible for members of all ages to join, the movement was not designed to take aboard older converts.
By contrast, Jehovah’s Witnesses have tended to attract a somewhat older generation than the youth culture. The house-to-house evangelism tends to ensure that the publisher talks initially to parents rather than their children; if a child opens a door, the typical response is to enquire whether parents are at home. It is adults or entire families who are specifically invited to Kingdom Hall meetings, where no special provision is made for children; children do not come alone, and if they come with an adult they are expected to sit through the programme, just as adults do. Further, although becoming an active Jehovah’s Witness is demanding, conversion does not require community living, and does not normally require the convert to abandon his or her employment, or to take up residence in some new location. It is true that there are some roles in the Watch Tower organisation then necessitate more radical changes in lifestyle: one might work in a Bethel, which is a regional headquarters in which members work full-time and live communally, or one might enlist as a pioneer – that is, a member who travels to some other geographical location to undertake publishing work. However, such roles are optional, and certainly not expectations of new converts.
The Jehovah’s Witnesses’ methods in Korea were typical of those employed elsewhere. Russell regarded Korea as a challenge, since Christian mission had only newly begun and hence the population were unfamiliar with the Christian Bible, on which Watch Tower teachings are based. However, in 1912 The Watch Tower magazine reported “that conditions in heathendom warranted the expenditure of some of the Society’s funds in proclaiming the Gospel of the Kingdom there”, and expressed the intention of printing literature in Japanese and Korean (Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society 1912, 5144). As in numerous other countries, the Watch Tower evangelists when encouraged by small beginnings, continuing to persist relentlessly, and grow steadily, with the financial backing of the Society in the US. Robert R. Hollister was the Association’s representative in the Orient, and he arranged for Russell’s first volume The Divine Plan of the Ages to be translated into Korean. It was printed in Japan and released in 1914. Hollister and his wife went to Korea, and spent some time evangelising there. Meanwhile, another pioneer, Fanny L. Mackenzie, came from the UK in 1915, and placed 281 of Russell’s books. In 1914 Russell received a letter from a Mr Kang, who had met Hollister, whom he credited with having saved him from “the dangerous currents of what I now see was Spiritism—Satanic teaching.” Kang undertook some translation work, and was made responsible for a printery for which the second president Joseph Franklin Rutherford and sent US$2000 for the printing of literature in Korean, Chinese and Japanese. However, to the Society’s dismay, Kang used the printery to produce his own secular books, and he eventually sold the printery without authorisation. Notwithstanding this setback, Kang was replaced by Park Min-Joon, a colporteur, who travelled the country on foot, organising public meetings and placing literature. Park was also able to do some translation work, including Rutherford’s books Reconciliation and Government, both of which were released in 1928 (Watch Tower 1988, 136–197; Rutherford 1928a, 1928b). The Society pressed on with its work, despite setbacks: it encountered opposition from mainstream Christian missionaries, and also from the government. In 1933 its offices in Tokyo and Seoul were raided and literature burnt. From 1933 to 1939 members could only use the Golden Age magazine at their meetings, being the only publication that was not banned by the government; now published as Awake!, it focuses on social and human interest topics to a greater extent than religious ones, so its use was less than satisfactory. The first congregation was formally established in 1949, and the following year full-time pioneers (missionaries from abroad) were appointed to conduct Bible studies. These are face-to-face meetings with interested inquirers, following a house-to-house visit, and systematically explain the Society’s favoured publication at the time: in 1950 this was Let God Be True (Watch Tower 1946). Despite disruptions due to the 1950–1953 Korean War, the Watch Tower organisation and Watchtower magazine were registered with the state authorities in 1952, and a Korean branch was established the following year. In 1954 the first District Convention was held: at that time congregations were organised into Districts, which were grouped into Circuits, and the first Circuit Assembly took place in 1955. The following year the third president Nathan H. Knorr visited Korea, a presidential visit being a sure sign that the organisation had gained a firm foothold (Watch Tower 1988, 136–197).
The story of the Unification Church’s inception is not entirely clear. Before establishing his small church in Seoul, Moon had begun to assemble an early of his Divine Principle text. Exactly how it originated is uncertain; the Unification Church claims that Moon dictated the content to an early disciple, Hyo Won Eu, at such amazing speed that Eu had difficulty in keeping enough pencils sharp (Yoo, Kwang Wol 1974; Chryssides 1991, 22). Although this account seems unlikely, hagiographical tales like this serve a legitimating purpose and enhance the status of the text for Moon’s followers. Whatever happened, the small shack in Seoul provided a base for Moon to expound his understanding of the Bible’s teachings. Early attempts were made, both in Korea and abroad, to enlist the support of other Christian denominations; Moon hoped that they might endorse his teachings but, predictably, his attempts failed (Lofland 1966; Chryssides 2017, 87-100).
Of key importance in the dissemination of Divine Principle was one early convert, Young Oon Kim, who was a professor at Ewha University, and has often been hailed by members as the church’s theologian. Kim was one of the early missionaries to the US, and she and an army colonel by the name of Bo Hi Pak set up small groups there. In his Doomsday Cult, sociologist John Lofland(1966), who undertook covert research on Young Oon Kim’s group, recounts how she translated this early version into English, under the title The Divine Principles. Initially this group had little success, and interest in the Unification Movement only began substantially when Sun Myung Moon himself came to the states to deliver public lectures in 1972 (Lofland 1966) Moon had visited members in the US on two previous occasions, but these visits were low-key. (Chryssides 2009, 358).
With the leader now resident in the United States, it was not only easier to attract a small community led by the proclaimed new messiah, but Moon was now able to give directions concerning the organisation of his movement in the West. Three interrelated aims had to be realised: the message had to be proclaimed publicly and in a more personal way than the large public gatherings; a community of followers had to be established; and these two methods of growth required financing. In order to finance the young organisation, mobile fundraising teams (MFTs) were established: this commonly involved commissioning members to sell flowers and candles to the public, and often members were transported in vans in order to target fresh areas which were distant from the centres. Early members worked long hours, for which the organisation has frequently been criticised: a working day could be as long as 18 hours, with little time for food and sleep. Methods of propagating the message included street preaching, and striking up one-to-one conversations, often with young adults at public places such as bus stations. Those who expressed an interest were invited to one of the community’s centres, where they could reside for the duration of the initial seminar. The first of these was a two-day seminar, in which the contents of Divine Principle were expounded by a lecturer – one of the early converts who had come to understand Moon’s teachings. Those who wished to progress further could attend a seven-day seminar, and subsequently a 21-day seminar. Each of these events consisted of sequential exposition of Divine Principle, in progressively more detail. Divine Principle does not state explicitly that Sun Myung Moon is the Lord of the Second Advent, and this is not explicitly taught at these seminars. Attendees who asked directly whether Moon was the messiah were given slightly evasive answers, which at the same time provided strong hints that he was. The seeker might be asked to pray about whether Moon had this role; since it was unlikely that an attendee would return to say that God had answered in the negative, the positive conclusion not only confirmed Moon’s status, but could be taken to indicate deep spiritual awareness of on the seeker’s part, since he or she had demonstrated ability to recognise such an important divine truth (Barker 1984, 60–61).
In contrast to the Unification Church, Daesoon Jinrihoe does not rely on cold calling on doorsteps, or chance encounters with strangers. It teaches the importance of three basic “works”: edification, cultivation, and propagation. The third of these relates to evangelisation. Daesoon Jinrihoe does not employ professional missionaries, but rather recommends that others are brought into the organisation by word of mouth. First, one should encourage one’s family to experience the benefits of belonging; second, one should promote the virtues of Daesoon Jinrihoe among one’s friends. Universities are places where the younger population are likely to be open to fresh ideas, but until recently that has been no systematic evangelism among students. Instead, various projects that are organised by the movement have brought in volunteers from outside. Less frequently, Daesoon Jinrihoe members have taken to the streets for evangelisation; however, the public reaction to this tended to be unfavourable, and the organisation made the decision to forbid missionary work of this kind. Propagation is carried out at branch level, principally through the movement’s various activities.2
Missionary strategy in itself is insufficient to secure converts. To be persuasive, a religion must have something to offer its seekers. There has to be something that strikes a chord with the listener, usually some message that addresses a concern, or furthers some cause to which he or she is sympathetic. As Don Baker (2016, 2–58) suggests, three aspects are needed: it must identify a problem that concerns its inquirers; it must offer an explanation; and, most importantly, it must claim to provide a solution. In addition, for a religion to gain momentum it must offer some kind of guidance for life, enabling its followers to become better human beings, and offer them some object of worship which they can revere. Baker argues that Daesoon Jinrihoe adds new meaning to traditional concepts drawn from Confucianism, Buddhism and Daoism (he itemises Dao, li, Qi, and dharma), allowing it to offer innovative explanations and solutions to traditional problems. Confucianism and Buddhism both reject what Baker calls anthropomorphic theism, focusing on the human rather than on interactions between the human and the divine, and hence can be described as anthropocentric, emphasising human betterment. Korean folk shamanism, by contrast, emphasises the supernatural, invoking gods and spirits to address human problems, endowing them with anthropomorphic characteristics; in doing so it lacks an explicit moral code. Daesoon Jinrihoe’s originality lies, he believes, in combining anthropocentrism and anthropomorphism, focusing simultaneously on the divine and human, acknowledging both human efforts to solve humanity’s problems, while simultaneously invoking the aid of divine power.
Baker develops his argument by referring to the Three Essential Attitudes – sincerity, respect for less, and faithfulness — and the Four Fundamental Principles – “Quieting the heart-mind”, “Quieting the body”, “Reverence for Heaven”, and “Cultivation” (observing ritual practice). He notes that the Three Fundamental Attitudes are states of mind that would be acknowledged by any upright Korean person, and have inner and outer aspects: they are simultaneously internal states of mind, while involving external interactions with others. However, as Baker argues, Daesoon Jinrihoe’s innovation regarding these three is that its philosophy also regards them as relating to an external Supreme God, and hence combines the anthropocentric with the spiritual. Again, the idea of quieting mind and body, and perceiving an intertwined relationship between the two is traditional; yet what is innovative in Daesoon philosophy is linking these first two Principles with the Supreme Being, Sangje. Similarly, the Four Goals have a clear resonance with Korean thought: the harmonisation of yin (Korean um or eum) and yang (Eumyang-hapdeok) are of course distinctively Daoist; the interaction between humans and gods (Sinin-johwa) reflects a typical Korean understanding that there is constant interaction between the two realms, rather than a distancing of God that is more typical of Western religious thought. Baker points out that resolution of grievances (Haewonsangsaeng) is a novel form of expression, but one which reflects both the physical conflicts experienced by Koreans at personal and political levels, as well as the unrest among spirits, which folk shamanism addresses. Finally, the “realisation of the Do” (Dotong-Jingyeong) reinforces a typical Korean hope in the coming paradise.
The Unification Church makes little explicit mention of ethics. None of the versions of Divine Principle have a section on the topic, and it is not taught at the Principle seminars. A small number of the UC’s theological texts address the topic, but mainly in the form of critique of ethical theories, such as utilitarianism, Kantianism, and moral relativism, and, as one might expect, Marxism receives particularly unfavourable discussion (Unification Thought Institute 1981, 231–242; 1973, 225-243; Kim 1976, 171–196). The distinctively Unificationist ethic is bound up with its philosophical-religious teachings, principally the relationship between God and the human family, which is the ideal of creation. The belief that God’s purpose for Adam and Eve was to marry and form a sinless family in God’s lineage results in an ethic that combines Eastern and Western ideas: the relationship between God and humanity, and between husband and wife draws on Daoist complementary opposites of yin and yang, as well as the Confucian “right and harmonious relationships,” which include a proper relationship between husband and wife. The Unification Church, however, couches this relationship in the Christian ideal of “unconditional love” (Unification Thought Institute 1973, 226).
What emerges from the Unificationist analysis of divine-human relationships is a sexual morality, based on the sanctity of marriage. Sexual relationships, according to Unificationist teaching, should be confined to husband and wife within the context of a marriage union. This entails that premarital sex and adultery are sins – reemphasised by the fact that Eve’s adulterous pre-marital sexual relationship with Satan, her unfaithfulness to Adam, and Adam and Eve’s sexual union before undergoing marriage, are inherently bound up with the entry of sin into the world. Further, sexual relationships should be between a man and a woman, and hence the Unification Church expresses strong disapproval to homosexual relationships of any kind.
For Jehovah’s Witnesses, guidance for life comes exclusively from the Christian Bible, as interpreted by the Watch Tower Society. Humanity’s predicament is a world ruled by Satan, and which is characterised by natural calamities – such as famine, war, earthquakes, disease – and human wickedness. Only Jesus Christ can save the world from Satan’s domination, and this will happen at the final spiritual battle of Armageddon, in which Christ will prevail over Satan. There is nothing that humans can do either to speed up or slow down this final conflict, and they will not themselves be part of the battle, which will be spiritual rather than physical. However, Armageddon will have human casualties, and hence members have the task of ensuring that not only they survive, but that as many men and women as possible avoid destruction, to have a hope of entering the earthly Paradise that will ensue. In the meantime, they should follow Jehovah’s standards, as set out in the Bible. These include standards of honesty and integrity that would be expected universally, and (although they would not particularly welcome the comparison) a conservative view of sexual morality almost akin to that of the Unificationists – avoidance of premarital and extramarital sex, and strong prohibitions on homosexual relationships (Watch Tower 2012: 3–9; 2019, 21-25).
Societal and Educational Work
In seeking to better the world, religions – old and new – typically seek ways of bettering society, often engaging in social, educational, and cultural activities. This is certainly true of the Unification Church, and the Daesoon Jinrihoe, although less so in the case of Jehovah’s Witnesses. Daesoon Jinrihoe’s contribution to the welfare of society includes the Bundang Jesaeng Hospital, which was opened in 1998, Daesoon Jinrihoe Welfare Foundation, established in 2007, and Daejin University, which opened in 1992 (AADDJ 2017, 65–77).
The Unification Movement attaches relatively little importance to social activity outside its own organisation. A brief glance at its website indicates that its main interests are in teaching Divine Principle through conferences and summer camps, the Blessing ceremonies, and the blessing of ancestors with a view to enabling them to enter the Kingdom of Heaven. Indeed, the organisation’s mission statement is “to guide America back to God through the teachings and Marriage Blessing of True Parents” (FFWPU 2018). Humanitarian work tends to be relatively small-scale; for example, at the time of writing the New Yorker Hotel, which was owned by the Rev Moon, was opened up to 800 nurses who were working to combat the coronavirus epidemic. To make this point is not to disparage the organisation’s work, but to place it in perspective.
Jehovah’s Witnesses have been less inclined to engage in humanitarian work. Indeed, even from the inception they were criticised for not helping the poor, unlike other religious organisations who were operating schools, hostels, and soup kitchens. While claiming to offer help in times of disaster, such relief tends to further their own work, ensuring, for example, that damage Kingdom Halls are brought back to serviceable condition in order to further their activities. Since Jehovah’s Witnesses believe that the world is controlled by Satan, the remedy is not social or political activity, which are viewed merely as temporary attempts to patch up parts of society. The goal of a perfect paradise on earth is achieved, not by such partial solutions, but rather by bringing men and women into “the truth”, which is the passport to everlasting life after Armageddon.
One method of enhancing one’s status as a new religion is to involve the academic community, as has been done by the Unification Movement and more recently by the Daesoon Jinrihoe. The New Ecumenical Research Association (New ERA) was set up at Moon’s instigation, and academics and clergy were invited. The programs took various forms: in the early 1980s a number of Introductory Seminars, held in various parts of the world, introduced the Principle to scholars, at which a number of their own young up-and-coming leaders, who were undertaking postgraduate work, gave presentations on various aspects of Unificationist doctrines. Their first “God Conference” was held in 1981, and a Youth Seminar on World Religions in 1982 (Chryssides 1991, 167). These seminars were not exclusively on Unificationist doctrines, although there were usually contributions that provided a Unificationist perspective on the selected theme. Their aims, which were never explicitly articulated, were no doubt various: no doubt the Confucian tradition of valuing scholarship was a driving force, but the satellite organisations helped to put Unificationism on the academic map as a religion worthy of serious scholarly consideration. Also, the fact that attendees came from different religious backgrounds had an ecumenical purpose, the unification of all religions being one of Moon’s prime goals. While some contributors felt constrained to make favourable comments about the founder-leader, the conferences tended to facilitate interesting exchanges of ideas, but did little to accomplish ecumenism either at a Christian or at an interfaith level.
At the time of writing, Daesoon Jinrihoe’s attempts to attract the interest of worldwide scholars is at an early stage. CESNUR (the Center for Studies on New Religions) held its annual conference at Daejin University in 2016, and the World SangSaeng Forum International Conferences began the following year. Both conferences have enabled presentations on new religions generally, but increasingly, and understandably, the World SangSaeng Forum favours contributions dealing with the Daesoon religion (DAOS 2020).
By contrast, Jehovah’s Witnesses have tended to discourage higher education, believing that universities have the ability to corrupt students spiritually and morally, and entice them away from the faith. Seeking career advancement through obtaining academic qualifications is perceived as materialistic, and in any case pointless if Armageddon is indeed near. Occupations such as doctors, dentists, and lawyers will not be needed in an imminent perfect paradise (Chryssides 2016, 176). However, a very small number of Jehovah’s Witnesses hold academic posts, and the study of foreign languages appears to be favoured, no doubt because this helps with evangelisation work. A few of them work as lawyers, although exclusively for the Society, since the organisation has been involved in considerable litigation. The Society’s work also requires musicians and specialists in computing. In some cases, I am told, those who work in such areas for the organisation have obtained relevant qualifications before conversion, and Jehovah’s Witnesses have no problems about using external expertise. The Hebrew prophet Isaiah predicted that Jehovah’s followers would “drink the milk of nations” (Isaiah 60:16), by which he meant that they would enjoy what those outside the faith had worked to produce.
Brief mention should also be made of the arts and architecture. Of all three organisations under consideration, undoubtedly the artistic and architectural achievements of the Daesoon Jinrihoe temples are the most impressive. Unification premises tend to be functional rather than ornate, one notable exception being the Cheongpeyong Palace, which opened in 1999, and to which members come for spiritual workshops and ancestor liberation. It is now the place where Sun Myung Moon lies buried. Jehovah’s Witnesses, having emerged from the Christian Protestant tradition, have simple buildings, the vast majority of which have no symbols or pictures. The second of the Jewish-Christian Ten Commandments states, “You must not make for yourself a carved image or a form like anything that is in the heavens above or on the earth below or in the waters under the earth” (Exodus 20:4). The Jewish religion, from which Christianity is derived, has always been opposed to the use of “idols”, regarding them as characteristic of the other neighbouring faiths, which they believe to be false. Jehovah’s Witnesses are not opposed to using illustrations in their literature, and have an art department for this purpose, but images are considered inappropriate in worship.
Attitudes to Peace
Most, if not all, religions want peace; however, there are marked differences as to how they believe such a goal can be achieved. On this issue we can see a marked contrast between the three religious organisations under discussion. The Unification Church has always had a strong political message, and of the three religious organisations it is the one with the most aggressive attitude to military conflict. Moon was no pacifist: indeed he owned the Divine Principle views Korea as having a key role in the divine plan because of the division between North and South, which is reflected in the conflict between democracy and communism. Sun Myung Moon aligns these ideologies with a battle between God and Satan; not only did he offer a firm expectation that democracy, which he believed to be on God’s side, would triumph, but sectors of his organisation continue to be specifically political, and at times have actively endeavoured to suppress communism. The organisation CAUSA, founded by Moon in 1980 in New York, has the objective of providing anti-communist education for academics, clergy, and politicians. It has operated in 21 countries, and aroused particular controversy for its work in Nicaragua, where is supported the Contras (an abbreviation of la contrarrevolución) – right-wing rebels who actively opposed the Sandinista Junta of National Reconstruction Government in that country. News reports suggested that CAUSA went as far as to supply arms to the rebels. In 2003 the Unification Church established a political party in South Korea, known as “The Party for God, Peace, Unification, and Home.” Moon’s ultimate aim for Korea was to unite North and South Korea, creating a society of peace, harmony, and unity.
Jehovah’s Witnesses stand in marked contrast in their attitude to armed conflict. Because of their belief that the world is currently ruled by Satan, Jehovah’s Witnesses do not support national governments. Although they will obey the law of the land, they do not participate in acts of allegiance to the state, such as saluting national flags, and they do not take part in war, or accept conscription to the armed forces, since Jesus is regarded as the “Prince of Peace” (Isaiah 9:6). They do not take part in political affairs, stand for governmental office, or vote in elections. Regarding themselves as members of Jehovah’s kingdom rather than any earthly society, they adopt a stance of strict neutrality by not supporting any particular political party or any one country when armed conflict occurs. The solution to humankind’s problems, they believe, is not social or political action, but rather bringing everyone to “the truth”, accepting Jehovah as the world’s true ruler, and supporting Christ’s kingdom. As for Armageddon, this will not be a human war, but a spiritual battle between Christ and Satan, as described in the Book of Revelation, in which Christ will prevail. This will be followed by a thousand-year period of peace, in which the dead will be brought back to life, and the earth will be progressively restored to a perfect paradise.
Jehovah’s Witnesses’ attitude to military service has frequently brought them into conflict with national governments, who have viewed them as being unpatriotic, despite the fact that Jehovah’s Witnesses have contended that, in situations such as war, their members exist on both sides of the conflict, and hence are equally uncooperative with the enemy’s regime. Witnesses have been prepared to undergo punishment, even torture, for their stance, and since 1953 in South Korea, over 19,300 of their members have undergone prison sentences on account of their convictions. (In 2018, however, the Constitutional Court required the South Korean government to provide alternative service for conscientious objectors, and on 31 December 2019, 1879 Jehovah’s Witnesses conscientious objectors were given a special amnesty, lifting civil restrictions) (JW.org 2018)
Daesoon Jinrihoe presents a mean between taking part in military conflict and non-participation in war. Daesoon literature has little to say about war, preferring to emphasise the final outcome of a peaceful earthly paradise. However, the first of its Ethical Rules is, “You should obey national laws and observe moral standards for the benefit of your country and happiness of the citizenry” (AADDJ 2017, 39). While desirous of peace, members of the Daesoon Jinrihoe, like Jehovah’s Witnesses, would regard national law as having priority over non-violence, but, if required to do so, would participate in military service and accept conscription. In common with Jehovah’s Witnesses, the coming paradise to which they look forward is one of peace, and will follow a resolution of grievances.
Finance and New Religions
Religions do not survive on spirituality and ethical principles, however: they need the financial resources to build premises, pay expenses, and finance any charitable work in which they engage. Because in the past scholars have focused on religious texts and the spiritual lives of religious adherents, such mundane topics have tended to be neglected. Yet they are crucial in a religious organisation’s trajectory. Either the founder-leader must have the necessary monetary assets, or else he or she must have sufficient charismatic qualities to inspire followers to provide the financial resources that give momentum to the movement.
The Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society was initially funded out of Charles Taze Russell’s personal fortune. There were some early benefactors, and some of the early pioneers sold possessions in order to finance their missions. In the early years it was customary for their evangelists to purchase literature for distribution from the Society, after which they were authorised to sell it with a mark-up and to retain the proceeds. The practice of selling Watch Tower publications was abandoned in 1990 on account of legal implications, and the Society’s policy now is that “spiritual food” should not be sold. The Society’s policy, right from Russell’s time, was never to take any collection during meetings, and this practice continues. However, there are donation boxes placed prominently within Kingdom Halls and other venues, and facilities for online donations are clearly displayed on the JW.org web site. Despite their belief that they live in a world ruled by Satan, Jehovah’s Witnesses nonetheless take the view that one should receive the maximum benefit to which one is legally entitled from the present systems of government. Accordingly, in the UK, members are encouraged to make use of Gift Aid, which is a scheme whereby tax can be recovered for donations to charitable organisations. Those who work full-time for the Society receive accommodation, meals, and a small stipend, and this applies at all levels, even to the Governing Body. Unlike large multinational business organisations, the Watch Tower Society does not believe in paying enormous salaries for high-ranking officials. Other sources of income come from investments, and the building and maintenance of Kingdom Halls is financed by volunteer labour and, when needed, loans from other congregations. In recent times, there has been rationalisation of premises, and individual Kingdom Halls are now owned by the central organisation. Proceeds from sales of superfluous premises, and recent sales of the Society’s former headquarters in Brooklyn, New York, have been used to assist the financing of their impressive new premises which have been built at Warwick and Patterson, New York.
The financing of the Unification Movement was originally due to Moon’s business acumen. He appears to have been born into a fairly poor family, but went on to study in Japan and, at the end of the Korean War made a modest amount of income by painting the pictures of US service men and their families (Fish 2012). The small hut that Moon built for the original HSA-UWC may have been a very modest edifice, but it was not untypical of many of the buildings after the devastation of the war. In 1963 Moon set up the Tongil Group, which undertook construction work and soon expanded into armaments; in 2010 its assets were reckoned to amount to US $1.5 billion. Subsequent business enterprises in the West included the purchase of the New Yorker Hotel in 1975, and acquiring control of various media outlets, including the founding of News World Communications the following year, subsidiaries of which were The New York City Tribune, and The Washington Times (founded in 1982, and subsequently sold in 2010). More controversially, the mobile fundraising teams (MFTs), mentioned above, provided most of the organisation’s income in the year 1974 (Barker 1984, 60–61). Additionally, members are asked to pay fees for participation in religious rites. Around 1990 the fee for undergoing the Blessing was 120,000 Korean won, plus a recommended additional donation. Members are invited – some sources say required – to perform ancestor liberation ceremonies: these can cost up to US$700. Furthermore, physical items must be bought for various spiritual ceremonies, some of which are only available from the organisation, for example wedding rings and holy robes. It should be noted, however, that after Moon’s death, disputes about succession continue to involve bitter litigation, and of course whichever faction is judged to be entitled to the financial assets will inevitably have a superior chance of furthering its agenda (Family Federation, HJ Heaven and Earth Training Center 2020).
Turning finally to the Daesoon Jinrihoe, some funding was available from the group’s inception. The organisation resulted from a split from the Taegeukdo, upon which Park Wudang departed for Seoul, where he was able to secure a substantial property in Junggok-dong (Introvigne 2017). In order to maintain the organisation’s work, donations were solicited, and members are encouraged to make monthly monetary offerings appropriate to their income but no higher than 100,000 won (roughly $80 USD) (Kim 2020, 291)
My discussion has covered a range of factors associated with the spread of these three new religions, and highlighted important points in common points of difference. Two of the organisations under discussion are international, Jehovah’s Witnesses spreading from the United States worldwide, and the Unification Church spanning out from Korea, while at the time of writing Daesoon Jinrihoe remains a distinctively Korean religious organisation, currently with no obvious aspirations of reaching beyond the country’s borders. In terms of the culture in which these organisations are found, Daesoon Jinrihoe is the most quintessentially Korean, while Jehovah’s Witnesses, by relying on literature produced in the United States, are propagating ideas that are less of a cultural fit, although with the passage of time a substantial proportion of the Korean nation (around 20 percent) is amenable to studying the Christian Bible. The Unification Church’s teachings are a hybrid of Christianity and Korean folk shamanism, and particularly the lack of rapport with the latter is inevitably a major factor in its slow progress internationally. Making itself “culturally appropriate” is an important facet of evangelisation, which these organisations have achieved in different degrees. Regarding evangelisation methods, as I have shown, Jehovah’s Witnesses and the Unification Church have sought to increase the following by sheer persistence, being amenable to approaching strangers and drawing them in. By contrast, Daesoon Jinrihoe have preferred to multiply through known contacts. Their different ways of approaching those outside the organisation have, as I have shown, resulted in a different demographic structure. Finally, the study of religion would benefit from more research on its methods of finance, although this is no doubt a daunting task for scholars of religion, who lack expertise in financial management and accountancy. Suffice it to say, however, that none of the three religions discussed here can justifiably be classified as “religions of the dispossessed,” as some detractors have suggested. All three are thriving, in different ways, and will no doubt continue to do so as long as financial viability allows.