In 2013, my friends Jeff and Veronica sat me down and asked if I would do them the honor of officiating their wedding. Jeff was my college roommate and had been a groomsman when I got married a few years prior. I agreed immediately and quickly went into logistics mode: I'd have to plan the ceremony, write a speech, and do some kind of registration to transform myself from a dude in jean shorts drinking beers in Jeff and Veronica's living room into someone the state of Texas deemed worthy of performing a ceremony uniting two people in holy matrimony.
I thought back to my own wedding. It was officiated by a close family friend, someone my parents had known since before I was born. She did a great job; by the end of her speech, there wasn't a dry eye in the room. I called her up and asked for advice. Recounting the process she went through preparing for the ceremony, one of the steps caught my ear — going online and becoming ordained as an official minister of the Universal Life Church. It was quick, painless, and only cost a few bucks.
I first heard of the Universal Life Church over a decade prior. In high school, a friend of mine had stumbled across its website. As a sophomoric 15-year-old, the idea that one of my idiot buddies could become an officially licensed clergymen in an actual religion — with a printed-out certificate thumbtacked to his bedroom wall to prove it — was just about the funniest thing imaginable. I wanted to sign up myself, but I made the mistake of telling my parents first. They freaked out that I was signing up for a cult and would end up with my name on "some government list." My plan of joining the Universal Life Church stopped there; I couldn't do anything without access to their credit card.
In retrospect, they had little reason to worry. While hard numbers are difficult to come by, one branch of the church estimates that the religion has ordained some 20 million people as ministers since its founding in the late 1950s. Another says it inducts about 35,000 new people into the fold each year.
By 1969, the church was ordaining over 100,000 ministers a month.
The Universal Life Church is possibly the most quintessentially American religion of the internet age. It's one based on equal parts sincere religious devotion, shameless hucksterism, and a radical belief in near total openness.
It's also fraught with controversy. As much as the Universal Life Church is a story about religion, it's also a story about SEO.
Dawn of a new religion
"It's a thin line dividing genius and idiot," Universal Life Church founder Kirby Hensley was once quoted as saying. "I think I'm on the genius side."
The second of seven children, Hensley was born in the small town of Lowgap, North Carolina, in 1911, a few miles south of the Virginia border. He grew up Baptist and was ordained as a minister in the faith but quickly grew dissatisfied and started looking elsewhere for a pathway to God. He began attending a local Pentecostal church and met a woman named Nora. They soon married. Hensley converted to her religion and had three kids.
Now a Pentecostal minister, Hensley traveled the country. He preached in Oklahoma before settling in the dusty, agricultural town of Modesto in California's central valley. Functionally illiterate all his life, Hensley hired people to read the Bible to him and dictated his own thoughts for others to transcribe. But he was still unfulfilled.
"My dad became disillusioned with the hierarchies of these established churches he was a part of. [They were] preaching one thing to their congregations and then doing something entirely different themselves," explained Hensley's son Andre when I reached him on the phone earlier this year. "He wanted to create a place where people could worship whatever they wanted."
Hensley founded the Universal Life Church out of his garage in 1959 and started ordaining ministers into his fledgling religion a few years later. It was an offer that proved popular beyond his wildest dreams.
Most religions place strict requirements on their clergies. Officials typically have to believe in very similar things as the religious officials who came before them. At the very least, they are expected to believe in God. The Universal Life Church was different. Hensley's innovation was a religion with no official doctrine other than the vague, if admirable, "do only that which is right." If ministers accepted Jesus Christ as their lord and savior, that was fine. If they wanted to worship Satan, that was OK too. If they didn't have a spiritual bone in their bodies and simply found the thought of being a minister kind of funny, something I could relate to, more power to them.
It was an utterly egalitarian religion that required nothing more from its clergy than a small registration fee.
'Jesus was a good actor'
Even in its early days, the Universal Life Church didn't exist in a vacuum. It was the 1960s, and the era's swirl of political events suddenly made a lot of people think becoming a minister was a great idea. After the U.S. instituted the draft during the Vietnam War, rumors began circulating that becoming a Universal Life Church minister would get a young man out of service when his draft number came up.
In his iconic counterculture manual Steal This Book, radical anti-war leader Abbie Hoffman recommended readers — especially those who, much like future Vice President Dick Cheney, had "other priorities" than dying face-down in the muck — become Universal Life Church ministers. He called it, "unquestionably one of the best deals going."
By 1969, the church was ordaining over 100,000 ministers a month, which netted Hensley enough income to move his flock out of the garage and into the nearby building it still occupies today.
However, the deal wasn't quite as good as advertised. Becoming a minister didn't exempt anyone from being drafted, but it did raise the group's public profile. The church was featured in an article in a still-young Rolling Stone, and Hensley kicked off a long career of giving outlandish media interviews, which consistently generated a flow of amazing quotes. As compiled in a Modesto Bee profile of the church, Hensley has been quoted saying things like "Jesus was a good actor," "[The Bible] is full of lies from one end to the other," and "I always stand for freedom, food, and sex. That's all there is. It sets people free."
In the mid-1980s, Hensley proclaimed himself the sovereign of the Kingdom of Aqualandia and offered people citizenship, which came with a gratis Universal Life Church ministerial certificate, for the low, low price of $35.
Hensley ran for president of the United States twice, and governor of California once, on the platform of "civil treatment for visitors from other worlds." Needless to say, he lost, but he did get attention — both from the public and from the IRS.
Starting in the early 1970s, the IRS launched a full-scale assault on the church. The feds argued the Universal Life Church wasn't so much a church as it was a business selling ecumenical snake oil and revoked its tax-exempt status. Both parties eventually settled in 2000 — one year after Hensley passed away, leaving control of the organization to the remaining members of his immediate family. The church agreed to pay the government $1.5 million in back taxes.
It wasn't a bad deal for the Hensley's direct disciples, which now consisted for a few dozen people who shuffle into that same Modesto church house every Sunday morning, but the multi-decade ordeal had dashed the Universal Life Church's dreams of worldwide physical expansion.
But for better or for worse, what Hensley birthed was more than able to expand on its own.