40th Anniversary Forum: The Unification Church in America

Forty years have passed since the first Unification missionaries landed on American soil: Dr. Young Oon Kim on January 4, 1959, David S.C. Kim on September 18, 1959, and Col. Bo Hi Pak on March 14, 1961. The movement that these notable Korean elders planted in America has grown and developed, recording notable accomplishments and worrisome setbacks as it responded to the challenging leadership of its founder. Whether willingly or not, it has had to adjust to demographic changes in its membership and to the circumstances of an American culture alien to its Korean origins.

It is appropriate that this issue of the Journal of Unification Studies features four articles addressing this theme. Each of them raises questions about how the movement has fared in America’s past and recommends how it may better adjust to an American future. Michael L. Mickler engages the historian’s task of putting the 40 years of the movement’s history in America into a meaningful perspective. He offers a framework with which to understand its twists and turns, sifting out the most essential “turning points” from other events.

The other three papers each raise the question, “Whither the Unification Church?” from different vantage points. Robert M. Price applies his wide knowledge of historical messianic movements to examine the dynamics that inevitably accompany a messiah’s passing and his movement’s accommodation to stubborn worldly realities. While judging the Unification Church, due to the strength of its theology and its thoroughly modern approach, to be better prepared than most to weather these changes, he lays out several choices that will inevitably confront the Church in years to come.

Federick Sontag has been an observer of the Unification Church for longer than most. He raises important questions about how the movement can hope to expand in the United States without accommodating to American culture and transcending the sometimes-constricting cultural attitudes of its Korean leadership. His critical yet sympathetic assessment ends with a heart-felt call for reform.

While some might dismiss Prof. Sontag’s remarks as the “unspiritual” opinion of an outsider, the same cannot be said for Tyler Hendricks, former President of the Unification Church. Yet, echoing Sontag, Hendricks also suggests new approaches for the sake of church growth—central to which is relating with the religious spirit of Protestant America. He looks at the history of America’s most vital Christian movements and the practices of its most successful Protestant churches for background, and then notes that some of their best practices have already been utilized by the Unification movement’s most successful ventures, past and present, and are in fact implementations of Rev. Moon’s teachings.

All in all, the papers in this 40th anniversary forum paint the picture of a living movement that is confronting tensions in the twin desiderata of remaining faithful to its original founding impulse and working effectively in the surrounding culture. In the midst of these tensions, the church can be expected to spawn creative new initiatives for years to come.