Late 20th Century Conversions: How the Moonies Did It

UW Sociology Professor Rodney Stark was one of the first social scientists to go out and watch people convert to a new religion. Instead of theorizing, as social scientists had done in the past, Stark and fellow researcher John Lofland actually sought out a "deviant religious group" to study in the early 1960s. They found a new group in San Francisco led by Young Oon Kim, a woman from Korea who had recently come to the United States to launch the American mission of a new religion, the Unification Church, more commonly known as the "Moonies."

Kim tried to attract followers through press releases and advertising, but this produced no results. Instead, what made for new converts was personal relationships. If a person had a friend or family member who was a Moonie, the prospects for conversion increased dramatically.

"Conversion is not about seeking or embracing an ideology; it is about bringing one's religious behavior into alignment with that of one's family and friends," Stark says.

Reverend and Mrs. Sun Myung Moon.

Stark and Lofland learned that potential converts with strong attachments to people who disapproved of the Moonies never joined, even if they were very interested. Newcomers to San Francisco, and people whose friends and family lived far away, were more likely to convert.

Stark explains, "Conversion to new, deviant religious groups occurs when, other things being equal, people have or develop stronger attachments to members of the group than they have to non-members."

The Moonies quickly learned that seeking converts at interdenominational religious centers and church socials was a failure, Stark says. They had a lot better luck among people who came from backgrounds that weren't religious at all.

"New religious movements mainly draw their converts from the ranks of the religiously inactive and discontented, and those affiliated with the most accommodated (mainstream) religious communities," he says.-Julie Garner

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