The Robin Hood of American religion goes online

You can order a dizzying array of goods and services over the Internet today. Books, music, computers, dating services, stocks, automobiles — it’s all a click away. Religion is no different than any other aspect of human life in this respect.

Everyone — from the largest established churches to the most exotic emergent religions — offers various ministries right over the Internet. But one unique church takes Internet ministry to the most radical extreme. The Universal Life Church ( will ordain anyone to the ministry for free, for life and with no regard to race, gender, sexual orientation, nationality or theological position. And they’ll do it online.

It doesn’t matter whether you are a Christian, Satanist, Kabbalist, Wiccan, atheist, or a creator of your own “homemade” religion. The ULC, from its international headquarters in Modesto, Calif., and its monastery in Tucson, Ariz., welcomes all.

It’s no joke. ULC ministers have the legal authority to perform weddings and funerals, to start their own congregations, and to take advantage of many of the fringe benefits that priests, rabbis and ministers of other religious organizations enjoy.

The ULC actually pre-dates the cyber-era. This unique denomination was established in 1962 by Kirby J. Hensley, an illiterate former Baptist from North Carolina.

Fed up with the hypocrisy and dogmatism of the mainstream churches, Hensley began ordaining anybody — without question — for free. Full page articles about him in Time (21 Feb. 1969) and Newsweek (5 May 1969) added to his status as the Robin Hood of American religion.

Hensley’s church has spent nearly four decades fighting those who have challenged its legitimacy. Supported by the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, however, the ULC has far more victories than defeats under its belt.

The ULC’s success has, unfortunately, enticed some unethical individuals to seek ordination. Some have attempted to use their ULC credentials for such illegal activities as setting up phony tax shelters. But mainstream churches are not immune to such abuses, either.

I think it’s unfair to condemn the ULC as a whole for the misdeeds of a few. In fact, the worldwide community of ULC ministers and congregations is probably the most diverse and interesting religious body I have ever encountered.

This church includes ministers like Anton de Beer of ULC of South Africa, whose church is a progressive voice in a country where mainstream religion was once complicit in the horrors of apartheid.

The ULC also includes ministers like Vance Williams of Texas, a committed Christian who lives with lupus and mixed connective tissue disease. The ULC seems to have opened up a unique ministry opportunity for this disabled man.

This denomination also provides home for Pagans, Wiccans, and other religious minorities who have no home in “mainstream” churches. The Rev. Cristiana Gaudet of the ULC of Putnam, Connecticut offered me the following insight on this aspect of the ULC:

“As a Wiccan/Pagan, our ordinations and initiations are not legal credentials. While it has taken me years to achieve the knowledge I have, I need to be legally recognized as a minister, and therefore need the ULC ordination.”

Other ULC ministers are on the cutting edge of the ongoing fight for First Amendment rights. Consider Charles Oren Anderson, an incarcerated ULC minister at the Southern Desert Correctional Center in Nevada. In 1993, he sued prison director Ron Angelone for the right to lead services.

The ULC even provides a home for college students and others who want to set up their own idiosyncratic or “joke” religions. One of my favorite such churches is “The Church of the Almighty Revealed in Biotechnology,” founded by Ram Samudrala.

Ram is doing research in computational genetics at Stanford University. Since he is a “staunch atheist,” his religion is grounded in computers and science.

Maybe Ram’s church is just a joke to you. But as Brother Daniel Zimmerman of the ULC monastery in Tucson wrote me, “All religion is a joke until one believes it.”

The ULC reached a turning point in its colorful history in March of this year, when founder Hensley died. His passing inspired Wren Walker, of the Wiccan site, to eulogize Bishop Hensley as “a visionary and truly a man ahead of his time.”

I agree with Walker, and I have no doubt that the church that Hensley built will continue to grow and prosper as the new millennium approaches. And who knows, maybe I’ll apply for ordination one of these days. When I do, you’re all invited to join my congregation.

Michael Mazza supports your right to freedom of religion, and hopes that you will be so kind as to return the favor.


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Religion News Blog posted this on Wednesday September 1, 1999.
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