Mail-Order Ministers

“Every man who feels a desire to preach is a preacher,” says Kirby James Hensley. ” And I never met anyone who wasn’t a preacher.” As president of the freewheeling Universal Life Church Inc., of Modesto, Calif., Hensley is a man of his word. Last week alone he appointed more than 1,000 new ministers in his church, and if a clergy head count is any index of growth, the Universal Life Church may well be the fastest-growing denomination in the U.S. There are already well over 18,000 ministers in Hensley’s church. If the present growth rate continues, it could have more ministers than the Roman Catholic Church has priests in the U.S. before the year is out.

Of course, it is somewhat easier to become a minister in Hensley’s church than to join the Catholic priesthood. All a candidate needs is a postage stamp. He will be ordained a minister by return mail. Any man, woman or child can become a minister in the Universal Life Church. The only thing that Hensley demands is a name and an address, so that he can fill out the certificate. After that, the new minister is on his own. In California, and according to Hensley, in many other states, he can perform marriages (if he is over 21), officiate at funerals, dedicate churches, baptize, take up collections and ordain other ministers. He can visit hospitals or jails any time—and some of Hens-ley’s ministers don’t have to go far to do that. Until officials of California’s penal system warned that Universal Life ministers would get no special privileges, Hensley was doing a brisk business in the state prisons.

A Good Membry

The man who has elevated so many people to the clergy cannot read or write, although he has a mail-order Ph.D. from the Hollywood University of Los Angeles and an honorary doctorate in metallurgy from a school in Nebraska. Hensley, 57, grew up in the mountains of North Carolina and attended a one-room schoolhouse for a few years where he “done everything but learn to read and write.” He hit the road at 13, first encountered religion during the Depression on his way to a youth camp. When he tried to emulate a street-corner preacher for his campmates, they roared with laughter. What he had thought was a red Bible was in fact a dictionary.

Eventually, he learned to tell the difference. With a new bride, he moved to Oklahoma, became a young people’s leader for the Church of God, soon felt the call to move on to California. There he organized churches of God in Bakersfield, San Jose and Sunnyvale. He also became a relatively successful contractor, prosperous enough to hire people to read to him from the Bible. “My wife and other people would read the verses to me, and I would mem-brize them,” he says. “I have a good membry, and sometimes I would stay up all night long just listnin’ to the Scriptures. I membrized the Bible from Genesis all the way through, and then I realized I was only helping Peter, Paul and John preach their story. I had my ideas to preach too.”

In 1962 he organized the Universal Life Church in order to propagate his rather idiosyncratic faith. “I believe heaven is when you have what you want and hell is when you don’t have it,” he explains. “I believe in reincarnation, an eternal beam in your body that moves from one body to another.

I believe that death is nothing more than a lapse of membry from one life to the next. I believe that Jesus Christ was a human being just like me and you with a little advanced knowledge. He was the Son of Man, git me?”

Hensley’s clergy need not get him at all. He requires no one to subscribe to his own eclectic creed because “every man has ideals of his own. We will ordain anybody without a question to their faith, religion, race, creed or anything.” He does it, moreover, for no fee at all, although he gratefully accepts any “love offerings” that come along. So far he estimates that the venture has cost him some $10,000, but he is on his way to getting some of it back. Recently he started awarding doctor of divinity degrees for $20, each degree accompanied by a ten-lesson crash course on how to be a preacher. Sample instruction (on outdoor baptisms): “The minister should be prepared with a large, folded handkerchief to place over the nose and mouth of the candidate as he lowers him into the water.”

The Silver Chalice.

Hensley grinds out his degrees from a garage in Modesto with the help of a few teen-age assistants. One of them is David Perry, 18, who got one of Hensley’s instant ordinations in the hopes that it could keep him out of the Army. Several California students had the same idea, but the few who have tried for a clerical exemption have been turned down by draft boards probably on the ground that they do not have regular congregations. Some candidates, though, do have genuine plans to set up a church of their own. Among those who journeyed out to Hensley’s ramshackle home last week to pick up their degrees in person were a grey-haired mother and her two long-haired teen-age sons, members of a religious-rock group called the Silver Chalice. They plan to start a church in the California hamlet of Ben Lomond to preach the Second Coming of Jesus and the need to stay off drugs.

Like any other ministers, Hensley’s or-dinees can get nonprofit and tax-exempt status if they go through the local procedures required: incorporation, a charter, an appearance before a local tax board. So far, California state officials have not challenged the validity of Hensley’s ordinations, but late last week they filed misdemeanor charges against him for illegally dispensing his doctorates. Apart from that, the major problem seems to be one that few churches in history have ever had to face. When every man is a preacher, where does he find a congregation?

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Religion News Blog posted this on Sunday February 21, 1999.
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