Rev. Moon’s disputed legacy and the divergent paths of Unificationism

Besides personal rivalries and disputes over the control of assets, divisions within the Unificationist movement after the death of its founder, Sun Myung Moon (1920–2012), are marked by the adoption of both different theologies and different views on the nature of the movement. This divergence was clearly expressed at a conference that took place on May 29–30 at the Faculty for Comparative Study of Religion and Humanism (FVG) in Antwerp (Belgium), which RW attended. Devoted to the life and legacy of Sun Myung Moon and the Unification movements, this gathering was an unusual kind of academic conference since most of the papers—besides a few by non-Unificationist scholars—were presented by representatives of the three main groups derived from the Unification movement, who met for the first time together in an academic settings to explain and debate their differences.

While the most members continue to follow the Family Federation for World Peace and Unification (FFWPU) led by Rev. Moon’s widow, Hak Ja Han (known as True Mother in the lingo of the movement), with more than 50,000 members, the two main schisms are also under the control of relatives of the founder. At different points in the history of the movement, two of his sons had indeed been put in the position of presumptive heir to the leadership. Hyun Jin (Preston) Moon had already parted ways with his father in the late 2000s but keeps control of some assets and leads the 2,000-member-strong Family Peace Association (FPA), along with its more secular subsidiary the Global Peace Foundation (GPF). As already reported in RW (October 2015), the founder’s youngest son Hyung Jin (Sean) Moon is the leader of the Sanctuary Church (World Peace and Unification Sanctuary), which claims 10,000 members. All groups continue practicing rituals established by Rev. Moon. But while the FPA understands itself as part of a post-religious era, with an emphasis on peace and cultural activities (even avoiding the use of the word “Unificationism”), the Sanctuary Church follows a clear church model.

The most significant divides, however, are not organizational. A key fault line regards the role claimed by Mrs. Moon and her moves away from a patriarchal model. Both competing groups denounce statements by the widow, which claim that she is the Only Begotten Daughter and was born without the original sin, in contrast with her husband, and that she understood the Divine Principle without having to be taught by her husband. In the eyes of her critics, she is thus putting herself above Rev. Moon and introducing “a new theology,” as stated by Richard Panzer (Unification Sanctuary). Moreover, the change from praying to Heavenly Father, now substituted with Heavenly Parent, linking the human True Parents with the duality of Heavenly Parents, is seen as bringing deep changes to Unificationist doctrines. In contrast, theologians from the FFWPU-controlled Unification Theological Seminary, such as Andrew Wilson, feel that Mrs. Moon is doing history a great service by challenging the age of patriarchy and opening the age of women.

There is also disagreement about what the sacred scriptures should be. Based on pronouncements by Rev. Moon that they are to be used for all eternity, both the FPA and Sanctuary Church cling to the Eight Textbooks. While Mrs. Moon uses them too—but also revises them, to the irritation of the two other groups—she has selected three books as the scriptures for the new era and has also given canonical value to some of her own discourses. The Antwerp conference made clear that each group is building on specific aspects of Moon’s legacy. By asserting her own authority and bringing doctrinal changes, Mrs. Mon is continuing in her own style the creative pattern of her late husband. At the same time, she seems to be paving the way for the institutionalization of the movement with the creation of a Supreme Council. With rivalry between Unificationist groups becoming increasingly theologized, the prospects for reunification of the divided branches seem dim.

(The proceedings of the conference will be published by the FVG – Massimo Introvigne published an overview of the Unification Movement schismatic groups in April on the WRSP website: