The Unification Theological Seminary (UTS), founded in 1975 by the Reverend Sun Myung Moon, lies nestled in a quiet corner of upstate New York near the town of Barrytown. An impressive two-story brick structure—a central chapel with two dormitory wings—it sits at the hub of a 250-acre estate overlooking the Hudson River. Though originally constructed in the 1930s as a Catholic boys school, by the early 1970s the buildings had fallen into disuse. And so, on January 21, 1974, the entire estate was sold to Moon, who saw the school as an ideal setting for carrying out the next phase of his grand vision: the wholesale conversion of the United States to his quasi-Christian teachings, which he calls the Divine Principle.
The school's founding coincided with an outpouring of frightening media stories about cults deceiving thousands into adopting bizarre practices and deviant lifestyles. Newspapers were filled with lurid accounts of young people who had been transformed overnight into unrecognizable counterfeits of themselves after joining such groups as Swami Prabhupada's Hare Krishna movement and David Berg's Children of God.
Panicked parents took Moon's Unification Church to be the same sort of cult. Young adults were kidnapped off the streets, bundled into vans, and spirited away to hotel rooms or secret hideaways for deprogramming from the “brainwashing” they had received. While all this was going on, Sun Myung Moon gleefully announced to his followers during a Sunday sermon that “I am your brain,” and the mother of a prominent Moon follower told the press that her son's brain had needed a good washing anyway.
Into this maelstrom, I—an intensely shy twenty-three-year-old Canadian—blundered in the fall of 1976. In those days, I was much more responsive to the rhetoric of science and psychology than to Scripture and theology. But on the second day of a visit to San Francisco, I encountered two members of Moon's Unification Church on Fisherman's Wharf, and my resistance to religious-sounding messages was neatly circumvented. The strangers told me of a free dinner sponsored by the “Creative Community Project” where, supposedly, I could meet people from all backgrounds and dispositions. Having no other plans, I went.
At the dinner, I was invited to a weekend on a farm in northern California, near the town of Boonville. Although they told me there would be discussions about their ideals, as well as games and recreation, my hosts made no mention of the Unification Church or Moon. (In fact, as I later learned, they went out of their way to conceal this connection). I agreed to go to Boonville, where I ended up staying for four eventful weeks, during which I was lectured relentlessly on the basic ideas of the Divine Principle before my hosts finally told me the name of the founder and revealed that the Bay Area group was in fact part of a worldwide movement.
By then I had arrived at a wary acquiescence to their ideas. Several times during the first two weeks, I had resolved to leave the Boonville farm; each time, I was convinced to stay. My unease with religious rhetoric was mollified by the fact that the Divine Principle appeared to offer solutions both to my fears for the future and to my personal problems—though it did so through messianic religion rather than through psychological therapy. At first hesitantly, and then with relief, I converted.
And so it was that I came to the Unification Theological Seminary in upstate New York. Since I had a university degree, I met the basic qualifications for a student at the seminary, but, when I first traveled there in September 1977, I was one of several candidates rejected. Moon—the man we revered as “True Father”—entered the room flanked by seminary president David Kim and began inspecting the candidates in turn like a general inspecting the troops. When they reached me, I knew right away I was unlikely to get in. In fact, I had been rejected for being too inexperienced; in particular, I had not yet passed through Moon's much dreaded trial by fire: the Mobile Fundraising Teams.
So, instead of starting my first year at the seminary in 1977, I went to work in Maryland, Delaware, Washington, D.C., and West Virginia. While with the fundraising teams, I was expected to work from dawn to late at night nearly every day selling flowers, candy, or costume jewelry for substantial profits while keeping none of the proceeds. I was dropped off in supermarket parking lots, housing districts, and business strips, and was instructed to run, run, run—day in and day out—and to sell my wares with the desperation of one on whom humanity's salvation depended.
Summoning my determination, I did exactly this. In 1978, I was again considered for the seminary; this time I was accepted, one of fifty-five students entering the two-year program that autumn. Though unaccredited, the curriculum was styled as a Master of Religious Education program. The seminary was regarded as a training ground for future church officials. (Unification Church leaders were then described as “central figures,” “state leaders,” or “regional commanders,” instead of as ministers or priests.)
My two years at UTS were fairly pleasant; though its lifestyle was frenetic, bizarre, and often contradictory, it was nevertheless a refuge from the even more frenetic and bizarre lifestyle of the average Unification Church member. For two years—from September 1978 to June 1980—I was shielded from the worst excesses of Moon's church. Moon told his followers they were America's only hope of being spared a communist takeover followed by an unimaginable bloodbath. While I was studying theology, church history, and the Bible—taught by an eclectic faculty that included a rabbi, a Jesuit priest, and a Methodist minister—most of my young coreligionists were standing on street corners in San Francisco, Boston, and Miami urging strangers to attend a vaguely described dinner. While I was dragging myself out of bed at six o'clock in the morning for worship service, my friends on the Mobile Fundraising Teams were only just returning from all-night “fundraising conditions.”
For us privileged seminarians to feel worthy of the relative ease and comfort of our situation, we came up with a variety of rationalizations. In the sermons we preached to one another during morning service, we claimed that we were the “cream of the crop” who would uncover the unifying theme that bound all religious teachings into one and thereby convert believers of all faiths to the one true church.
Inevitably, it didn't work. Before the end of the second year, some of us had become dissidents, opposed to the dominant Unificationist culture. Far from being the place where we could hone our faith and develop our proselytizing skills, the seminary turned out to be the place where we could begin slowly to unravel our original indoctrination. Gradually, we came to accept that we could not—indeed, that we would never—convert the entire nation to Moon's teachings. This deviation from the quixotic groupthink demanded by Unification Church leaders led to a number of defections, including, eventually, my own.
I visited the Unification Theological Seminary in May 2007, more than twenty-five years after my previous visit. It was a somnolent Sunday afternoon, coincidentally the same weekend that graduates of the 2007 class were celebrating their convocation and graduates of the first class of 1977 were returning for a thirty-year reunion.
Apart from the removal of the cross that had towered over the chapel block since it was built—and which had been left undisturbed during the two years I was a student there—the seminary seemed outwardly unchanged. Yet, on taking a closer look, I soon discovered that the seminary had changed profoundly. In the late 1970s, its penniless students were not expected to pay anything for their education, though they were required to go out fundraising during Christmas, Easter, and summer breaks. Today students are required to come up with their tuition fees in advance.
In my day, the student body was predominantly American, with only a smattering of students from Asia and Europe. Nowadays, the students are overwhelmingly Asian. On stairwells, I observed signs in English, Korean, and Japanese. A notice outside the library offered to help students who have difficulties with English grammar; they could place their term papers in a special box where they would be picked up, corrected, and returned.
A classroom where I recalled attending lectures on church history and the Bible had been converted into an exhibition room honoring Moon's 1980s anticommunist organization, CAUSA. The walls are lined with display cases documenting the fall of communism and implying that this change came about because of Moon's intervention.
Near the front entrance to the seminary, I discovered a similar display case enclosing the fishing nets that Moon once used to harvest carp and other fish from the tidal flats of the Hudson River. I recalled the many fishing expeditions from 1977 to 1980 in which I had participated. Large nets were set up at high tide so that slimy bottom fish could be plucked from the river basin at low tide. The fish certainly were not needed for food, but the messy labor of harvesting them was regarded as an important test of character. The overall impression I gained from seeing these two memorials was that the seminary has become little more than a museum to Moon's movement, while the movement itself has faded away.
That the Unification Church is now largely forgotten in America is remarkable when one remembers the cult hysteria of the 1970s. The church had predecessor movements: the Flower Power hippie culture, for instance, and the radical New Left, exemplified by Students for a Democratic Society. Though very different in their rhetoric and goals, those movements shared a common theme: a rejection of conventional American society and a demand for sweeping change. Both, for different reasons, lost focus and began to fragment by the early 1970s.
Yet the forces demanding social transformation were not exhausted; instead, a new wave of rebellion arose as new religions seized the public's attention in the 1970s. As the sociologist Stephen A. Kent notes , many of the leaders of the radical left later became devotees of the Guru Maharaj Ji (founder of the Divine Light Mission) or even of the ultra-right-wing Sun Myung Moon.
Nonetheless, this second wave of rebellion began to fade in the 1980s. Nowadays, hardly anyone under thirty even remembers Moon or his controversial church. Those older than thirty often ask me, “Is he still around?” when I mention my former affiliation. This despite the fact that Moon—now eighty-eight years old—still owns the Washington Times newspaper and still wields some influence in government circles. As recently as March 23, 2004, Moon was involved in a bizarre coronation at the Dirksen Senate Office Building in Washington, D.C., which was attended by congressmen, senators, and other dignitaries. At the end of an awards ceremony, a bejeweled crown was placed on Moon's head and he was proclaimed the King of Peace.
Such incidents might seem proof that life persists in the corpse of American Unificationism, but, in fact, these indicators are merely vestigial. Even at its peak, Moon's movement never exceeded five thousand core members in the United States, and what remains are mostly the families born to those weary parents who once pounded the streets so tirelessly selling Moon's wares. If it were not for the periodic speaking tours of Moon and his wife (for which members are often called on to contribute more than they can afford), his movement would have already become nothing more than the answer to an obscure 1970s trivia question.
On the day I visited the Unification Theological Seminary, the graduation ceremonies were over and the campus was quiet. I was able to stroll around the grounds and take a quick look at the library and chapel without being questioned. Away from the buildings and close to a long-empty grotto, I discovered a labyrinth, where one might take a meditative walk, following a path outlined by small flat stones. As I set out along the path, I encountered a man who had just completed the labyrinth and who showed me his notebook. He had checked off the various right and left turns required to arrive at the heart of the maze. “Thirty-four left turns and thirty-four right turns!” he informed me with some satisfaction.
I proceeded along the path anyway, musing as I did so about how easily I could step outside the boundaries marked by the stones, and yet how necessary it had seemed, all those years ago, to continue plodding through the ever tightening curves and twists until at last I reached the center.
K. Gordon Neufeld is the author of Heartbreak and Rage: Ten Years Under Sun Myung Moon.