“Imagine this is earth,” says Samuel, using the lid of a Pringles tube to illustrate his point, “and here’s heaven. The most valuable thing you can imagine on earth is less valuable than the least valuable thing in heaven. God sees this planet as a speck of dust.”
At the age of 24, Samuel has left his home in London to live with members of a little-known church in Manchester. Pleasant, inquisitive and well-educated, he is far from the type of person you might imagine to join such an organisation, and yet he is utterly consumed by his new-found faith.
The somewhat cumbersomely-named World Mission Society Church of God has accumulated 1.7 million members worldwide in its fifty year history. Whilst some of the basic tenets of the church’s teachings are in common with the more established branches of Christianity, it only takes a fleeting discussion with one of their members to realise that there is plenty that sets it apart; a leader revered as the Second Coming of Christ, a rejection of worship on Sundays, and a fervent belief that we are living in the ‘end times.’
Founded in South Korea in 1964, its leader, Ahn Sahng-Hong, proclaimed himself to be the reincarnation of Jesus Christ during his lifetime, joining a less than illustrious list of Messianic claimants including Charles Manson and the former BBC Sport presenter David Icke. Upon his death in 1985, Ahn’s ‘spiritual wife’, Zahng Gil-Jah, assumed leadership of the church. To believers, they are God the Mother and God the Father; the female aspect of God being a vital component of their faith.
WMSCOG has gained quite a following in Manchester and the group has become increasingly prominent in recent times. After members of the group visited his house in Fallowfield, Religion and Political Life postgraduate student James Jackson brought the group to The Mancunion’s attention, telling us of reports that the church have been going door to door in student areas in an attempt to recruit new members.
“When they came to my house they said they were theology students giving a presentation. Having studied theology for three years, I said I wasn’t interested in what they had to say, but they were extremely insistent,” James explained. “Once inside they opened straight up on the book of Revelation and started talking about Satan. It became clear that they were trying to convince me that the Roman Catholic Church was Satanic. At one point when I protested, I was accused of being in league with the Catholics and therefore, implicitly, Satan.”
He continued: “I was alarmed to find out that one of the members had only joined a month ago and was already living communally with them and acting as an evangelist.”
As suspected, James is not alone in having been visited by the group. Indeed, it appears that WMSCOG members are actively targeting student areas in their attempt to recruit new members. Reverend Dr Terry Biddington, the University of Manchester’s Chaplain to Higher Education, expressed concerns about the group’s tactics. “We are aware that this group goes ‘cold calling’ door to door and tries to pressurise students to attend meetings. Apparently one student dropped out of university having joined,” he told us.
Though we have been unable to confirm these reports, we have spoken to several students who have encountered members of the church. Jonnie Breen, a second year History student, was perhaps more polite than most when the church’s followers pitched up on his doorstep in early September.
Having lived in South Korea for much of his childhood, Jonnie was amenable to the Korean trio who came to his house. “There were three of them, and they basically asked if they could come in and show me a presentation,” he recalls. “I got talking to them about Korea so we struck up a bit of a rapport, but before long they were pressing – fairly hard – for me to be, in their words, baptised by them. They weren’t intimidating, and I didn’t want to tell them to fuck off, but they kept coming back to this baptism.”
Jonnie was told in no uncertain terms that his prospects were bleak unless he accepted the church’s teachings. “They said, ‘unless everyone recognises what we recognise, and formally accept it, you’re going to go to hell; but we can save you by baptising you, we can do it in your shower.’ That’s the point when I remember starting to get freaked out. They kept repeating themselves; ‘we can do it really easily in your shower, right here.’ They repeated it maybe three or four times and I said, look, I really don’t want to do that, but I’d be happy to come and see you at your church.”
A month later, Jonnie made good on his promise. “They picked me up from my house, and this time there were some local Mancunians who had joined the church. As we drove in I realised that I wasn’t just there to have some food with a bunch of Korean guys. They showed me a half hour long film they had made about their church all around the world.”
Though he didn’t feel physically threatened, the rhetorical bombardment made Jonnie feel “uncomfortable.” It was the last time he spoke to anyone from the church, but not for the want of trying on their part. “Perhaps stupidly, I gave them my phone number. They kept calling me – probably about four times a week for a month after I had visited the church. They’ve stopped calling now but it shows how incredibly persistent they are.”
Gemma Reed, who has just completed a Masters degree in History of Science, Technology and Medicine, is another student who was recently visited by members of the World Mission Society Church of God. No mentions of shower baptisms here, but much of her experience tallies with those of James and Jonnie.
“They’ve actually been round a couple of times,” Gemma tells me. “A young Korean girl came to my door the first time around. She said that she was doing a theology presentation and she wanted to practice it on us. I was shown a video about all of the work that the church does in the community, and whilst we were watching it she told us the Bible predicted nuclear Armageddon, and that we could save ourselves by joining the church. It didn’t really make any sense.”
“I was just really aware of how vulnerable she was,” Gemma continues. “What she was saying to me was obviously a script. It was basically a load of small shreds of evidence which were picked from here, there and everywhere and put together to form this kind of mosaic which fits their narrative. But they really believe it, and I respect them for that.”
Having not been visited by any members of the church myself, James and I arranged to meet with two members of the church to discuss their faith. The aforementioned former student, Samuel, is here with his friend Lot, a South Korean student who has moved to Manchester to spread the word of the church. Whilst Lot was born into the church, I am intrigued as to why Samuel elected to join of his own volition.
“I was interested in learning about the truth, because there are a lot of lies out there,” he tells us. On the evening that we meet, white smoke emerges from the chimney of the Vatican to signal the election of a new Pope. How do Samuel and Lot feel about Catholicism?
“Unknowingly, the Catholics worship a Sun God, because God never instituted Sunday as a day or worship,” Samuel explains. It’s a claim which would doubtless offend many Christians, and possibly some of the students whom the church are attempting to recruit. With that in mind, I ask how students tend to react them. “People are mostly quite nice, but sometimes they just say ‘go away’. It depends,” Lot tells me.
Over the course of the next hour, the pair going into great detail in an attempt to explain to me why they are convinced that their leader, Ahn Sahng-Hong, was the Second Coming of Christ. Lot retrieves a heavily highlighted Bible from his bag, along with a huge tome embossed with the words ‘EVIDENCE BOOK’. I am shown numerous passages from the Bible which mention Christ’s Second Coming emerging ‘in the east’ or ‘from the farthest corner of the earth.’ With the help of a map, a hastily drawn timeline and a host of nonsensical charts, he is attempting to convince me that the Bible prophesised that the reincarnated Christ would come from South Korea.
I am keen to delve deeper into their belief that we are living in the ‘end times’. The World Mission Society Church of God is adamant that Armageddon will be visited upon the Earth in our lifetime – does the thought not consume them with fear? “No, it makes me happy,” Samuel tells me cheerily. “We don’t have to be scared, because if we receive salvation we can go to heaven.”
Frankly, I am quite terrified at the thought of the imminent destruction of the earth, and no less concerned by the fact that Samuel and Lot believe it to be the case. However, my overwhelming feeling is one of sympathy towards two young men who, to my mind, harbour such a bleak outlook. James Jackson echoes my thoughts shortly after we leave the pair.
“I don’t think that the church is sinister,” he says, thinking aloud. “They seem to have a degree of freedom lacking in some other new religious movements. In a pluralistic society like ours everyone has a right to their beliefs, however intolerant or strange.”
James is, however, concerned by the church’s determined pursuit of new student members. “I worry about the reports of a student dropping out of university, and their posing as theology students to enter student houses. Students are at a vulnerable time in their life and evangelistic groups can take advantage of that.”
Ian Haworth succumbed to such an organisation in the late ‘70s. Having been “brainwashed” by a woman who stopped him in the street to tell him about her organisation, he resigned from his job and gave the church $1,500 – all the money he had. Though he quickly left, it took him many years to recover from the experience. He now runs Cult Information Centre, an organisation which monitors the activity of mysterious religious and political movements.
Haworth is reluctant to use the ‘c word’ – cult, that is – but suggests that there are legitimate grounds for concern about the group. “We have had a couple of calls from people who are concerned about the World Mission Society Church of God. We have taken these calls seriously and it is a group about which we are concerned,” he told The Mancunion.
“People who become involved in groups such as this one tend to be people who have changed and, according to family and friends, changed for the worse. Personality changes are a very common phenomenon in the field, and certainly in the two cases we’ve dealt with that is the claim of the families.”
Haworth believes he has an explanation for the church’s focus on recruiting University of Manchester students as new members. “The easiest people to recruit are usually described as people with average to above average intelligence, well-educated people, people who come from an economically advantaged family background, and they’re usually people who are described as caring.”
“Whilst they can be of any age, the average person who is recruited has probably been in higher education in the past if they are not already in it. Students are easy targets, and because students are smart, they assume that it is people who are lacking in some way who get involved; and that it could never happen to them, because they think that strength of mind and intelligence are things that would perhaps safeguard them. But that’s a complete and utter myth.”
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