Top 10 Religious Figures and Religious Founders in History

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While political and military leaders come and go, religious figures seem to endure throughout the ages, which is why millions of people still venerate them hundreds or even thousands of years after they’ve died. What some people might find it enlightening to know, however, is that not everyone who was responsible for starting a religion set out to do so. In fact, most did not, and often the establishment of an organized faith structure based off their teachings came long after they had left the world stage, so they can hardly be held entirely responsible for what their followers ended up doing with their teachings. In any case, I thought it might be interesting to get some idea just who these people were and how a religion came about as a result of their teachings, if only so we might understand where these things come from.

The biggest problem I faced in putting together this list was in knowing how to rank these figures. Do I list them chronologically or by number of adherents? Do I include subgroups or keep it more general? And what of those faiths that appear to have no specific founder but possess tens of millions of followers? In the end I decided to rank each figure according to their impact on history and the role they continue to play today. Such a list is inevitably going to be somewhat subjective in nature, of course, and potentially capable of eliciting strong emotions from those who feel I’ve slighted or, worse, ignored, their particular hero. Therefore, I apologize up front if anyone finds my mini biographies too secular, too incomplete, or just too irreverent for their tastes, but I have done my best.

10. Mary Baker Eddy (1821-1910)

Mary Baker Eddy

Though the founder of Christian Science doesn’t have all that many followers any more (only around 30,000 or so as of late) her impact on American religious beliefs in the nineteenth century cannot be underestimated. Her controversial perspectives on everything from the illusory nature of the material world to her de facto rejection of a personal God and the concept of hell definitely put her somewhat outside of what is usually referred to as “orthodoxy”, though many of her ideas survive and can still be found in some New Age churches and other metaphysical and mystical traditions today. To be fair, much of Baker’s theology did not originate with her, but appears to be a rehash of the beliefs inherent to the ancient Gnostics, a mystical branch of Christianity that was all the rage during the first few centuries A.D. before being driven underground by the larger and more powerful church in Rome. She also reflects much of the theological bent of the famous fourteenth century theologian and mystic Meister Eckhart (1260-1327), who is today rapidly growing in popularity among many spiritually-inclined people. Today her followers are better known for refusing medical treatment in the belief that disease and illness—being part of the “illusory material world”—can be treated purely with prayer, resulting in a number of lawsuits over the years as Christian Science parents ran afoul of the authorities for refusing treatment to their children. All-in-all, however, she should be remembered for her willingness to challenge the traditional beliefs of her era and as something of an early feminist for her views on woman’s suffrage.

9. Joseph Smith, Jr. (1805-1844)

Joseph Smith, Jr.

Easily one of the most controversial figures from the first half of the nineteenth century, it is difficult to imagine how one man, persuaded that he was a prophet of God, could start a religion—the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (officially the LDS but commonly referred to as the Mormon church)—practically single-handedly, that would one day grow to over fourteen million worldwide followers. Not bad for a man with limited education, a fairly short ministry, and a penchant for violence. A controversial figure in his own right, his polygamy (no longer practiced by most modern Mormons) and insistence that he was a prophet sent to restore the church from the apostacy it had, according to God, fallen into, often put him at odds with his non-Mormon neighbors—an enmity which frequently resulted in violence and ultimately ended in his own unwanted martyrdom at the hands of his less enlightened fellow citizens during a shootout in an Illinois prison in 1844. Of course, his lieutenant, Brigham Young, is better known as the man who, in the aftermath of Smith’s death, led the few hundred Mormons that remained on an arduous trek to present day Utah and largely establishing the church we know today, but it was Smith who laid the foundation by writing (or, more accurately, “translating”) the Book of Mormon from golden plates given to him by the angel Moroni. He also penned several other “inspired” texts that were to serve as the basis of Mormonism, making him  the driving force behind the fledgling denomination. Clearly, without his literary bent, the LDS church would have had little basis upon which to build after his death, making him in many ways as important to western Protestantism as Luther (see number 7 below) was to Roman Catholicism. As such, he is venerated by Mormons around the world and is today considered its chief prophet whose status is only likely to expand as the church continues to grow at an exponential rate.

8. Moses (circa 1391-1271 BCE)

Moses

While the history of Judaism is filled with famous prophets and leaders-from Kings David and Solomon to the prophets Elijah and Ezekiel—no one man had more impact than did Moses, without whose guidance and leadership the modern Jewish religion would not exist. Something of a political heavyweight as a young man (having grown up in the Pharoah’s house and even being considered a shoo-in to ascend the throne one day) Moses apparently forsook all that and, being a Hebrew himself, decided to champion his own people in a quest to possess their own nation. This took him on something of a forty year odyssey, during which time he led—by some estimates—as many as a half-million men, woman, and children (though those numbers may be mistranslated or overblown), in a brutal trek to not only survive the harsh life of the desert, but restore the Jews to the land of Canaan. Supposedly responsible for penning the Torah (the most venerated of all Jewish writings and the basis for the first five books of the Old Testament), while Moses died—at the ripe old age of 120, no less—before  he could set foot in the promised land, it was he who gave the Jews the moral and ethical underpinnings that would constitute the next thousand years of Jewish thought. By way of example of just how important he was—and to some extent remains today—to western religion and philosophy is that his ten commandments (there were actually many more than ten but who’s counting) remain the bedrock of western religious belief to this day.

7. Martin Luther (1483-1546)

Martin Luther

While Christianity is wrought with dozens of individuals who played a major role in shaping its doctrines and making it the faith structure it is today, few men had a greater impact upon the church in general than this fiery German theologian from Eisleben. Initially a dedicated Catholic priest, Luther eventually grew disenchanted with the abuses he saw going on within the Roman papacy and finally called the Church out on it by nailing his 95 thesis (points of doctrinal disputes) on the door of the Wittenberg church on October 31st, 1517. In doing so he started a debate that eventually evolved into the reformation movement that split the church in two and initiated four centuries of religious strife and, at times, armed conflict, that continues to reverberate throughout Christianity to this day. His biggest contribution to modern Christianity came in his insistence that salvation came from faith in Christ rather than through obedience to the Pope, which changed everything and made salvation more obtainable, thereby initiating a period of unparalleled church growth. Though the movement he unwittingly started (Luther had not intended to create a schism in the church but to merely reform Catholicism) was itself to fracture into smaller groups—thus the preponderance of denominations we see today—it is difficult to argue that without Luther the church and the history of western civilization would look very different than it does today.

6. Zoroaster (Unknown. Anywhere between the 18th and 6th centuries BCE)

Zoroaster

): Zoroaster, also called Zarathustra, was an ancient Persian prophet who founded the first historically acknowledged world religion known, not surprisingly, as Zoroastrianism. According to the Zend Avesta, the sacred book of Zoroastrianism, Zoroaster was born in northern Persia, probably in the seventh century BC, although some scholars put the date for his birth much earlier. He is said to have received a vision in which he became aware that a great cosmic war was being fought between Ahura Mazda, the God of Light, and Ahriman, the principle of evil. According to the prophet, man had been given the power to choose between good and evil, and it was this dualism that became the driving force behind monotheism in the Middle East while Zoroaster’s teaching became the guiding light of Persian civilization. Additionally, elements of Zoroastrian philosophy entered the West through Judaism and Platonism and has even been identified as one of the key early events in the development of philosophy. (Among the great Greek philosophers, Heraclitus is often referred to as having been inspired by Zoroaster’s ideas.) The religion began to die out after Alexander the Great conquered Persia, but it survives to this day in India where it serves as the basis for the Parsi faith.

5. Confucius (551-479 BCE)

Confucius

Confucius (the Latinized version of his Chinese name, Kong Zi) was not a religious leader per se, but more of a philosopher whose teachings on personal and governmental morality, justice, and sincerity deeply influenced Chinese, Korean, Japanese and Vietnamese thought and life. His ideas eventually developed into a system of philosophy known as Confucianism, which was introduced to Europe by the Italian Jesuit Matteo Ricci in the sixteenth century, and has since become popularized in the West. Since none of the man’s writings survive—his teachings being recounted by his students many years after his death—scholars continue to debate whether there was a real flesh-and-blood person named Confucius or if Confucianism isn’t just a term for a collection of ancient teachings from multiple sources all brought together under a single philosophical construct. In either case, he was the first to express the well-known principle, “Do not do to others what you do not want done to yourself”—an early version of the Golden Rule—so whoever (or whatever) he was, he was onto something big.

4. Krishna (circa 3228-3102 BCE)

Krishna

Like the Buddha, it is sometimes difficult to distinguish between historical fact and metaphor when it comes to some of the most ancient religious figures. This is especially true of Krishna, who appears to be part man and part supernatural entity capable of all sorts of remarkable things (as would be expected from the most powerful incarnation of Vishnu, the Godhead of the Hindu Trinity of deities). What is generally accepted is that there appears to have been a real person behind the mythology—a nephew of the hated king Kamsa of Mathura (in northern India)—who lived, by most accounts, a somewhat care-free life (he was especially adept with the flute), though one marked by all sorts of extraordinary events.  For example, as a child he allegedly killed numerous demons and did things like purify the poisoned holy waters of the Yamuna River. Though he didn’t actually found the modern religion of Hinduism—it’s basic tenets already being in place prior to his arrival—among all of the Vishnu avatars, he is the most popular and the one closest to the heart of the people, which is why he remains so venerated five thousand years later.

3. Gautama Buddha (circa 563-483 BCE)

Gautama Buddha

We tend to use the term “Buddha” as a metaphor for spiritual enlightenment or wisdom, but there was a real flesh-and-blood person behind the mythology. Siddhartha Gautama (“Buddha” being a later acquired title) was a prince who spent the first 29 years of his life in opulent luxury before giving it all up and embarking on a quest for understanding. Becoming a hard-core ascetic who survived on a handful of nuts a day, after several years of living in complete destitution, he realized that too was futile as a means of coming into “awareness.” One day, while sitting beneath a bodhi tree considering his dilemma, he suddenly realized the key to enlightenment was the elimination of all desire, which is what made it possible for him to achieve enlightenment or, more precisely, a state of Nirvana. Quickly attracting a legion of disciples, his teachings laid the foundation for one of the world’s great eastern faith structures, Buddhism, which as of this writing claims nearly 400 million adherents worldwide.

2. Mohammed of Mecca (571-632 CE)

Mohammed of Mecca

It’s hard to underestimate the impact this middle-aged merchant turned mystic turned religious leader turned military commander has had on history and the role he continues to play in the lives of nearly a billion people around the planet. Considered by one sixth of the world’s population to have been the last and greatest of all the prophets, he is best remembered as the man who penned the Koran, one of the best known and most widely read sacred writings in the world. (Of course, he didn’t actually write it himself. According to legend, the writings were given to him by the angel Gabriel through a series of visions over a twenty year period, which eventually were recorded and codified into the book we know today.) In any case, in recording these mystical writings, he instituted one of the most stridently monotheistic religions in the world and set the stage for the rapid spread of Islam throughout the then known world.

1. Jesus of Nazareth (circa 7 BCE-36 CE)

Jesus of Nazareth

With more than a billion followers world-wide, Christianity remains the largest single religion on Earth, making this an easy pick. Even if it wasn’t the largest religion, however, it is beyond serious debate the impact this itinerant rabbi from Galilee has had on the planet. What is especially remarkable about this is that his public ministry lasted little more than two years, he never had more than a few thousand followers during his lifetime, he left no personal writings, and was even executed for sedition by the Roman authorities, all of which should have made him little more than a footnote in history. Instead, today he is venerated not only as a great prophet and moral teacher, but is believed by many to have been the literal, physical manifestation of God on Earth—a status he demonstrated by allegedly resurrecting from the dead three days after his death. It is also believed he later ascended to heaven, which is why hundreds of millions of Christians today anxiously await his promised return and the advent of a thousand-years of peace. (And you wondered why the Left Behind series of novels did so well.)
Honorable mentions: Lao-Tzu (great Chinese philosopher and writer of the Tao Te Ching), Isaiah (8th century BCE, important Old Testament prophet), Paul of Tarsus (circa 5-67 CE, driving force behind first century Christianity and author of much of the New Testament), Charles Taze Russell (1852-1916, founder of the Jehovah’s Witnesses), Helena Blavatsky (1831-1891, founder of the theosophy movement), L. Ron Hubbard (1911-1986, founder of Scientology), and Bahá’u’lláh (1817-1892, inspiration behind the Bahai Faith).

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Jeff Danelek is a Denver, Colorado author who writes on many subjects having to do with history, politics, the paranormal, spirituality and religion. To see more of his stuff, visit his website at www.ourcuriousworld.com.   


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32 Comments

  1. I dunno about putting mohammed and jesus before moses. If the first twp couldn’t have happened with out the latter. Seems he would be the more significant. by that logic I would put krishna before the buddha.

  2. yeah jesus . easily . atheist or not . belive that jesus exist or not . you cannot deny the fact that the bible and jesus impacted the world more than anything . and the whole bible . including the jewish bible . if you can compare the quran get most of its characters in the bible (moses,jesus,noah,goliathetc..)

  3. Actually christianity has nearly 2 billion followers and islam has sbout 1.7 billion but christianity’s sects are very split the biggest is catholic with about 1 billion ppl while sunni islam has bout 1.4 billion. Also to the guy who said that the quran has many of the same things that the bible contains if u have ever read them u would notice there r major differences in stories and principles.

  4. Can’t write a religion list without sparking a little controversy. 🙂

    Just wanted to point out that while most of these entries focused on the facts, the entry on Joseph Smith seemed to highlight the improbabilities of his stories. Though, as a member of the LDS church, I may just be sensitive about that. (also, it’s not “most” members aren’t polygamists. If someone practices polygamy, they’re not a Mormon. You’d get excommunicated for that.)

    I liked the one about Buddha. I didn’t know much about him before this.

  5. good list man, I think some other notables you could add to a later list could include John Frum, the poet-saint Kabir, Imhotep, Ankhenaten (single handedly changed the concept of God for his entire kingdom/reign)

  6. Wish Baha’u’llah had been on the main list. As for the number of Christians in the world, I doubt anybody even has a good idea. So many claim Christianity but do not actually practice it or know much about it. The same goes for many of the other faiths in the world. This list seemed to lean toward Christianity; I’d like to see a follow-up so we could list the ones that were left off here.

  7. How would a man who lived 2000 years ago, make what europe, and most of the world what it believes today, oh, yeah, and I doubt Sunni will be the biggest religious denomination in the world for long, as atheism, and the new found converts in communist regimes are getting some jesus put into their lives.

  8. Abdulaziz ALBADI on

    Yes Jeses is #1 by followers………and Islam is the fastest growing religion………(by converts)……………

    • Noooo! It’s because in the Middle East people are forced to follow Islam, in the west you can choose. It’s not conversation, it’s fundamentalism!

    • Actualy, i hate to be contentius, but the LDS faith is actualy the fastest growing religuion by percentuge in the world, i think the last two years we droped to the second? but regardless they have been at the top of that list for years now.

  9. S.R.Satyenarayanan on

    It is my childhood views that unseen force caused this present world accidetal way born birds animals/insects humans have to embrace one shape to other/ shapeless to shape stage again shapeless stage perhaps so called supernature suits this evenf shapeless to shape vice versa. if we are guest to this planet we have ti leave without saying even good bye we are created by super omnipresent power or we creat images of mud to metals and recite words to consecrate power to it then we become superior to almighty it is impossible. if smallest ant can cause death of elephant a bird hit causes modern plane to grounding we having human life game chance good and bad will swallow us in any way we cannot escape after misdeeds like shaddow it will follow us cruel acts will reap cruel end wbat we sow we reap planned murders /killing derted souls will be awaeded new locations easy life comforts are given to this souls let us pray for all souls if one time birth/death is real happening like minded souls you cannot see in this world at all.let us share the truth Real propheta land this polanet once in five hundred years moutain erupyion/valley formation we cannot see with our eyes we will be perished like ash/dust. no religion can wipe other religion out of sight no need to plan planned terror activities to do tit for tat born child dies so killing groun up is coveredly act must be stopped at all costs no nation should encouage/seeds should not fe sowed extend love and affection for healthy model life show to the fellow human race one race one human life pleasant journey.

    • Will you still be proud when someone supposedly does you wrong & you are told you have to avenge this by becoming a suicide bomber to eliminate them (along with a number of innocent people), because that’s what the supposedly great Allah teaches.

      • Dear brother Allah or islam never teaches to kill people like you said suicide bomb etc. most of the people have this kind of wrong information and thoughts .as I am a Muslim . brother you believe it or not Islam really teaches peace and humanity

  10. Just fyi, there where about five or six thousand mormons in the USA at the time of smiths death, more then half of them followed Young.

  11. Just wanted to say, that there’s no actual date that when Krishna was born, as the city of Dwarka is about 20,000 years old, one of the places he had created.. But it’s correct that he marked disappearance by 3102 BC, and a new age started, which is on going.

    Informative article.

  12. Rama predates Krishna in Hindu mythology, and would seriously like to contest your point that ” he (Krishna) is the most popular and the one closest to the heart of the people”

  13. Hindu religion is Greatest and Oldest religion in the Universe, and it has no specific founder also…
    I proud to be an Hindu..
    Jai Hindh…

  14. I read these comments because I was interested in learning if there were any other religious leaders who actually died for their followers, other than Jesus Christ. Interesting list. Also, Moses was shown the Promised Land but was not allowed to enter it because of his slip up at the waters of Meribah.

  15. Jesus is the lord of lords and king of kings.the one that no one dies for, but for his blood to be shed for your sins.the one who will judge the world.it is time to make a decision to follow christ,for there is no repentance after death.your prophet can not save you nor your parents but our lord jesus christ in him there is no succide bombing or marrying under age girls(below 10).may any one who seeks to know the truth ,ask God the creater for direction.He is not deaf nor blind keep seeking and you will know the truth and the truth will set you free.alot have seeked and have known .It is your time .Please, dont be a slave to religion ruled by fear,pretence and anger.

  16. Roger Metzger on

    I’m not a Calvinist. I think he went too far with his version of “predestination” but, if you listed John Calvin, I missed it. With the exception of Asia, most parts of the world have probably been influenced more by Jesus, Paul and Martin Luther than by Calvin but it seems to me that Calvin would be on a VERY short list of the most influential people with regard to religious beliefs, religious practices and religious prohibitions.

  17. its a great opportunity to comment, we all have one subprime call God but we have many directions to gets to him call religion believe BUT all this founders died and remains in their Graves but Jesus told his follower’s about his death he actually die and resurrected as he said so the power of grave could not Hold him aaaaaaa I will follow JESUS.

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