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)
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)
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)
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)
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, 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 (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)
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)
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)
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)
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).
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.