GAPYEONG, South Korea (BP) -- Sun Myung Moon, founder and leader of the Unification Church and self-proclaimed messiah, died Sept. 3 in Gapyeong, South Korea, following complications from pneumonia. He was 92.
With his health fading in recent years, Moon began delegating responsibilities in his church and church-run businesses to several of his children.
In 2008, Moon appointed his youngest son Hyung Jin Moon as the international president of the church, while his daughter In Jin Moon was named president of the Unification Church of the United States.
Earlier, his son Kook Jin Moon was appointed as chairman of the Tongil Group, an umbrella organization controlling various church-associated businesses.
The complete transfer of power from Moon to other family members could provide a way for the church to embrace more orthodox Christian theology, according to Tal Davis, an expert on interfaith witnessing.
"I'm very curious to see what will happen now that Sun Myung Moon has died," Davis, executive vice president of MarketFaith Ministries, told Baptist Press. "You can never tell the direction cults will go after their founder dies."
Christians, Davis said, should pray for the new church leaders with the hope that they will turn from Moon's teachings and toward orthodoxy, as past groups have done.
The Unification Church's influence on the American religious community has been weak for the last 20 years, Davis, a former interfaith evangelism coordinator for the North American Mission Board, said.
"They had a heavy impact in the '70s," he said, "but since the end of the '80s not much has been happening with them."
While the Unification Church stalled numerically, Moon and the church maintained influence through other ventures, including The Washington Times newspaper, United Press International (UPI) news agency and other for-profit businesses.
The church also runs the University of Bridgeport in Connecticut and other nonprofit organizations.
Moon officially began the Unification Church in 1954 in Seoul, South Korea. He claimed that decades earlier Jesus appeared to him and asked him to finish the work Jesus' crucifixion had prevented.
While trying to maintain a connection to orthodox Christianity, Moon began to teach more explicitly that he was a modern-day messiah who would bring global peace.
In a 2004 ceremony at the Dirksen Senate Office Building in Washington, D.C., Moon crowned himself with the "Crown of Peace" and declared himself "none other than humanity's Savior, Messiah, Returning Lord and True Parent."
This step was one that made Moon somewhat unique among cult leaders. "Most cult leaders have new books to add to the Bible, as Moon does with his 'Divine Principle,'" Davis said, "but most only claim to be a prophet or divinely inspired leader. They don't usually make the claim to actually be the messiah, as Moon did."
The Unification Church teaches that Jesus only was able to bring spiritual salvation, with His death prohibiting Him from bringing physical salvation that would have been attained through marriage and subsequent children.
Moon and his second wife Hak Ja Han claimed to be the "True Parents," the ones who would provide physical salvation through themselves and their children, collectively known as the "True Family."
Moon's claims began to lose sway in the United States after several events undercut his claims of starting the perfect family that would bring peace and salvation.
In 1982, he was convicted of tax evasion and spent 18 months in a U.S. federal prison. One son was killed in a car accident in 1988 and another son committed suicide in 1999.
Several prominent members of the Unification Church left and wrote devastating exposes about the church and the Moon family, including Nansook Hong, who was the wife of Moon's oldest son.
Only a few hundred members of the Unification Church remain in the United States today, but if a Christian encounters a member of the church, Davis said the best way to share the Gospel is through developing a relationship.
"If a Christian knows a member of the Unification Church, they should spend time with them," Davis said. "Then, knowing what they believe, point them to Jesus and His being all that was needed for complete salvation."
Aaron Earls is a writer in Wake Forest, N.C. Get Baptist Press headlines and breaking news on Twitter (@BaptistPress
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