During the Seventies and early Eighties, the cult claimed more than four million members in 120 countries. At one time young Moonies, well-scrubbed, enthusiastic and with the "blissed-out" look of true believers, were a familiar sight in many Western cities, hawking pictures or flowers to raise money for their church.
Moon, a South Korean multi-millionaire businessman, discovered his vocation as the "second Messiah" in 1936, when he claimed to have met Jesus Christ on a Korean hillside, recognising him from his picture. Jesus informed Moon that he had been unable to complete his mission on earth due to unforeseen circumstances, so Moon (Jesus went on) had been chosen to succeed him and to establish the Kingdom of Heaven upon earth,
In 1954 Moon founded the Tong-il Kyo (the Holy Spirit Association for the Unification of World Christianity), teaching a hybrid of Christianity, Confucianism, Shamanism and anti-communism. From its base in Seoul, the cult spread to the West in the Sixties and Seventies.
In his personal manifesto, Divine Principle (1957), Moon argued that, had He lived, Jesus would have married the ideal wife and begotten the perfect "pure" family. Moon would complete the task with the aim of unifying all religions and societies under his personal rule, liberating them from the sinful condition caused (Moon claimed) by Eve's illicit sex with Satan. To this end, an early marriage was put aside, and in 1960, aged 40, he took a second bride the 17-year-old Hak Ja Han, with whom he ruled his flock in the manner of a medieval monarch.
Moon gave every impression of believing his own sermons, and his blend of hard-sell Christianity and Eastern mysticism proved particularly appealing to the idealistic progeny of affluent Westerners, who were encouraged to hand over their worldly goods, reject their biological parents and accept the Moons as their "true parents".
Heaven on earth, Moon taught, could be established through individuals being spiritually transformed and creating God-centred family units. The ceremony of marriage was therefore of central importance, and Moon's followers were persuaded to take part in choreographed mass weddings to people they had never met before, hand-picked for them from photographs by Moon himself.
In 1988 Moon entered the Guinness Book of Records when, wearing a crown and robes of white and gold, he united 6,516 couples at Seoul's Olympic Stadium, before sending them out to restore moral virtue to a godless world and fight communism.
Moonie newly-weds were forbidden to sleep together for 40 days, "to get to know each other and prove that their marriage is on a higher plane". For this, a shared language and culture was not deemed necessary. In 2001, among many seemingly ill-assorted couplings, a 71-year-old African Catholic archbishop was paired off with a 43-year-old Korean acupuncturist.
Moon engendered widespread hostility among parents, alarmed at the changed personalities of their converted children. Some mounted law suits accusing Moon of practising brainwashing, and there were reports of cult members being kidnapped and de-programmed by "cult-busters".
Yet there was never any evidence that the Moonies incarcerated people or used mind-altering drugs; and there were many examples of people who had left the church voluntarily. The Moonies' recruitment methods - known as "love-bombing" - were designed to make lonely and disaffected young people feel part of a loving and supportive community. American civil liberties organisations regarded parental objections as unconstitutional interference with a person's rights of affiliation and freedom of religion. British governments' attempts to prevent Moon coming to Britain were twice overturned on appeal.
By the late 1970s Moon had become one of the most powerful religious leaders in the world - and also the richest. For while the first Messiah had been offered the kingdoms of the world and turned them down flat, his self-proclaimed successor acquired a vast international business empire of newspaper chains (including the Right-wing Washington Times), television stations, hotels, golf courses, universities, factories (including a Korean arms factory), vast tracts of real estate and even a ballet company.
While Moon's adoring followers were persuaded to part with their worldly goods and were sent out unpaid on fund-raising missions, Moon was ferried round in chauffeur-driven limousines, took fishing holidays on his 50ft luxury cabin cruiser and lived in a sumptuous New York property modelled on a Korean palace. The source of Moon's original capital remained a mystery, but the fact that the church's dedicated workers received no wages certainly contributed to his success. In 2008 one estimate put Moon's personal wealth at about $990 million.
Moon identified strongly with the American Right, and sought audiences with Right-wing political leaders around the world. In 1974 he organised "pray-ins" in Washington to deter the impeachment of President Nixon. He was admired by Ronald Reagan and by the Bushes (father and son). In January 2001 he sponsored President George W Bush's Inaugural Prayer Luncheon for Unity and Renewal. In South America, he was said to be close to Presidents Menem and Pinochet.
The Unification Church's wealth was used to finance a whole string of front organisations all involved in apparently worthy projects, from harmonising science and religion to promoting world peace. Through these, Moon was able to attract prominent (and usually well-remunerated) speakers, among them Edward Heath, General Al Haig and Mikhail Gorbachev.
Moon's critics often claimed that the Moonies were less a religious movement than a vehicle for Moon's own global ambitions. "God is living in me and I am the incarnation of Himself," he once told Time magazine. "The whole world is in my hand and I will conquer and subjugate the world."
Throughout his ministry, Moon's name was persistently linked with the efforts of the South Korean government to pressure Congressmen to support President Park Chung Hee's regime. In 1978 a committee of the American House of Representatives recommended action over allegations that there was a connection between Moon and the Korean CIA, but nothing was proved. And despite his fervent anti-communism, Moon was perfectly happy to negotiate business deals with the late North Korean dictator Kim Il sung in Pyongyang. After Kim's death in 1994, Moon claimed that on his deathbed the dictator had chosen him as the only man capable of reuniting the two Koreas.
Moon's mission began to become unstuck in 1982, when he was jailed for 18 months in America for tax evasion. The reputation of his church never really recovered from the scandal, and by the mid-1990s membership had plummeted. There were even reports that people were being shipped in from the Korean countryside to boost numbers at Moonie mass weddings.
The "perfect family" too was beginning to show signs of wear. There were allegations about Moon's relations with women in the early part of his ministry and a string of scandals involving the lavish lifestyles and unruly behaviour of his 13 children. In 1998 his eldest son, Hyo Jin, was denounced as a violent cocaine addict by his wife (he would die of a heart attack in 2008, aged 45). In 1999 another of Moon's sons, Younjin Phillip Moon, committed suicide aged 21.
Moon promised his followers that he would one day reveal a "much greater area of truth" that he had received but was reserving for the future. Death intervened before he had found time to do so.
He was born Mun Yong-myeong on January 6 1920, the younger of two sons in a peasant family of eight children from the Pyungan Bukedo province in what is now North Korea. His birthday would be celebrated at Christmas by his followers. When he was 10 years old his parents joined the Presbyterian church, following a trend in Korea to embrace Christianity and reject the Shinto faith propagated by the country's Japanese rulers.
Moon first glimpsed the importance of his mission while attending high school in Seoul. He followed up his meeting with Jesus Christ with conversations with God the Father, Buddha and Moses.
In 1938 Moon went to Tokyo to study Engineering at Waseda University. Though there were claims that he spent some time there in prison for subversion, his activities between 1938 and 1945 are obscure. Towards the end of the war he returned to Korea, and at about this time he married Choi Sun-kil; shortly afterwards, however, he left his pregnant wife in Seoul while he preached in the north. He would divorce her in 1955 on the ground that she was "unfamiliar with my religion".
In 1946 Moon set up his first church, the Kang Hei ("Broad Sea") church in the northern city of Pyongyang, and changed his name to Sun Myung Moon. In later years early members of his church would claim that Moon's early ministry focused on the belief that the human race had to be purified through sex. Followers, it was alleged, were taught that sex with Moon himself would cleanse both body and soul and that marriages with other cultists were invalid until the wives had slept with Moon. Moon, though, always strenuously denied these charges.
In August 1946 he was arrested, and claimed to have been tortured and left for dead by the new communist authorities in Pyongyang. Fifteen months later he was rearrested and sentenced to five years' hard labour in Hungnam. In October 1950 UN forces released him from prison and he fled south to Pusan, where he found employment as a dock worker.
In Pusan, Moon recruited a small band of believers and wrote an exposition of his views in Divine Principle, which was eventually published in 1957. At some time during these early years of his ministry, he became involved in business, and assembled a marginally profitable group of concerns to finance his church and provide employment for its members.
At the same time he began to look for recruits abroad. The first missionaries to Britain arrived from Korea in 1968. At first progress was slow, but in 1969 the establishment in America of a Right-wing arm of the church called the Freedom Leadership Foundation helped to boost numbers and laid the foundations for the arrival in America of Moon himself in 1971.
Moon moved to Tarrytown, New York, where he established his world headquarters, and over the next few years he criss-crossed the country in a series of speaking tours. "Satan is becoming the master," he warned an ecstatic rally at the Yankee stadium. "The communists are ready to swallow this generation. God is looking for pure, genuine young people burning with a new righteous zeal." Other initiatives to spread his message included an abortive collaboration with Elvis Presley to film the life of Christ and an expensive but unsuccessful film, Inchon, about the Korean War.
By the late 1970s, as founder and chief shareholder of the Unification Church, Moon controlled a fortune estimated at hundreds of millions of dollars and had his finger in businesses making anything from cars to canned fish. Church membership boomed on the back of world tours built around the establishment of "holy grounds", mass weddings and vigorous recruitment drives.
Moon enjoyed a series of remarkable victories against his critics. He consistently fought off charges of brainwashing, and in 1978 successfully appealed against a Home Office decision to refuse his application to extend a stay in Britain beyond 14 days. The same year a Labour MP, Paul Rose, agreed to pay substantial libel damages over newspaper articles in which he alleged that the Unification Church brainwashed young people, promoted sexual promiscuity, exploited its converts and deceived the public.
But in 1981 Moon suffered the first of a series of reverses when the British High Court ordered the church to pay costs of £750,000 after it lost a libel action against the Daily Mail which alleged that it "broke up families".
In 1995 he was forbidden entry to Britain by the Home Secretary, Michael Howard, and although the High Court subsequently ruled the decision unlawful, no newspaper, politician or religious group spoke up in Moon's defence.
From 1995 the focus of Moon's activities shifted to a remote region on Brazil's sparsely-populated frontier with Paraguay and Bolivia, where he set about building the Garden of Eden at New Hope Ranch, a 78,000-acre campus for spiritual development complete with a school, university and research centre. In 2002, however, the Brazilian authorities were reported to be investigating the church for possible tax evasion and illegal currency transactions.
As Moon's flock dwindled, his claims of global influence became more and more bizarre. In 2004 he told an audience on Capitol Hill that emperors, kings and presidents - including Hitler and Stalin "from beyond the grave" - had "declared to all heaven and earth that Reverend Sun Myung Moon is none other than humanity's saviour, messiah, returning Lord and true parent". In 2005, however, Britain's Home Secretary Charles Clarke granted Moon a 24-hour visa on the ground that the Unification Church in the United Kingdom was extremely small and any visit from its founder was therefore considered unlikely to present any threat to public order.
In 2009 Moon handed over the reins of his church to his youngest son, the Rev Hyung Jin Moon.
Sun Myung Moon and his wife Hak Ja Han had 14 children. He also had a son by his first wife.