UNIVERSAL LIFE CHURCH MONASTERY TIMELINE
1962: The Universal Life Church (ULC) was incorporated by Kirby J. Hensley.
1977: Hensley established the Universal Life Church Monastery (ULC Monastery) as part of the ULC.
1977: George Martin Freeman was ordained a minister in the ULC and created a venue called The Monastery in Seattle.
1985: Freeman’s Monastery was ordered shut down by local authorities.
1995: The ULC Monastery launched its first website.
1999: Kirby Hensley died and his wife, Lida Hensley, became president of the ULC.
2006: Lida Hensley died and their son, Andre Hensley, became president of the ULC.
2006: George Freeman took over control of the ULC Monastery and incorporated it independently as the Universal Life Church Monastery Storehouse.
2013: The ULC Monastery won a defamation lawsuit against the Universal Life Church World Headquarters.
The Universal Life Church Monastery, officially incorporated as the Universal Life Church Monastery Storehouse, was founded in 2006 by George Martin Freeman (b. 1938 or 1939) in Seattle, Washington. It is an independent offshoot of the Universal Life Church (ULC) and ordains more people online than any other religious organization. In Freeman’s view, he is continuing the mission of the original ULC and its founder, Kirby J. Hensley (1911-1999). [Image at right]
Hensley was born in 1911 in Low Gap, North Carolina. After serving as an itinerant minister in Baptist and Pentecostal churches, he created his own congregation, called Life Church, in Modesto, California, in 1959. Hensley incorporated the Universal Life Church in 1962 with fellow spiritual seeker Lewis Ashmore (Ashmore 1977). Hensley’s goal was to protect individual religious liberty from encroachments by governmental and religious authorities. Since its inception, the ULC has ordained anyone for free and for life with no creedal commitments or ministerial training required. Initially, ordinations took place via mail order, at church conventions, and at religious rallies on college campuses. The church posted advertisements in the classified sections of newspapers and magazines.
In 1977, Hensley established the Universal Life Church Monastery (ULC Monastery) to help process ordinations, administer honorary theological diploma courses, sell clerical items, correspond with ULC ministers, and produce content for the ULC newsletter. While the ULC Monastery was founded in Modesto, it soon relocated to Tucson, Arizona, where it was led by Daniel Ray Zimmerman, a ULC minister and administrative assistant to Hensley (Hoesly 2018). Zimmerman and the ULC Monastery forwarded ordination requests and other items to the ULC headquarters in Modesto for recordkeeping.
Also in 1977, George Freeman became a ULC minister and opened The Monastery, a nightclub for LGBTQ youths in Seattle that Freeman later claimed was a religious institution. Freeman was born in 1938 or 1939 in Spokane, Washington, where he played music and provided entertainment at several venues growing up. After serving in the U.S. Army and military police, Freeman operated gay nightclubs in New York City in the mid-1970s, including the famed Galaxy 21 (George Freeman website n.d. “Past”). Freeman moved to Seattle in 1977. The Monastery, also called The Sanctuary, was located in an abandoned Methodist church in the city center, where it also attracted homeless people and El Salvadoran refugees, for whom Freeman provided support and shelter. Freeman wrote, “To facilitate this aid program, the private club became affiliated with the Universal Life Church to document the legal use of funds for assisting the homeless” (George Freeman website n.d. “Past”). The Monastery became a chartered affiliate of the ULC on May 11, 1979.
In 1982, Freeman also operated The Waterworks, a ULC retreat, gay bathhouse, and dance venue in Spokane (Kienholz 1999). Spokane prohibited dancing after midnight but Freeman claimed that since The Waterworks was a church, “guests were allowed to perform the holy dance any day at any hour” (George Freeman website n.d. “Past”). The Waterworks closed in 1982 after complaints by the police department and state liquor control commission.
At The Monastery in Seattle, allegations of illegal drug use, underage drinking, pedophilia, prostitution, and noise complaints during the early 1980s led to multiple raids by local police, pressure by the city council to regulate youth nighttime activities, and tax assessments against Freeman and the ULC (Clarke 1988; Guilfoy 1982; Jacklet 1999; Kienholz 1999). Freeman was fined and jailed in 1981 and 1982. Zimmerman and the ULC helped represent Freeman and The Monastery in legal proceedings during this time, asserting that Freeman’s activities were religious in nature and that Freeman was targeted because of his race (he is African American) and homosexuality. Freeman claimed that the disco floor was a worship hall and the whirlpool a baptismal spa. He said that he could reach more people on Saturday night than Sunday morning, and that the ecstasy of the club reached the same peaks as ecstatic religious experiences (Sankin 2014). Regarding sex at The Monastery, Freeman stated that the age of consent at that time was sixteen, adding, “that emancipation was, according to the Hebrew text, at the age of Bar/Bat Mitzvah, and according to the Christian text, when Jesus was teaching between the age of 12 and 16 according to ancient tradition” (George Freeman website n.d. “Past”).
By 1985, Hensley and the ULC disavowed Freeman and The Monastery, removing its church charter (Johnston 1985). The Monastery was forced to close in 1985 after county prosecutors filed a civil lawsuit that resulted in a court-ordered permanent injunction against Freeman, barring him from operating any more nightclubs. The city council also passed a citywide Teen Dance Ordinance that closed all youth nighttime venues.
The ULC Monastery in Arizona created a website in 1995. The website served as the official internet presence for the ULC and made ordination widely accessible. Media reported how easy it was to get ordained online (Falsani 2001; Mazza 1999). After applicants submitted their name, email, and address on the ULC website, they soon received an email confirming their ordination. Zimmerman managed the website, referring ordinations and sales of diplomas, books, and clerical items to the ULC headquarters in Modesto. Zimmerman also emailed newsletters and church updates on behalf of the ULC. Freeman worked with Zimmerman to create a ULC Monastery fulfillment center in Seattle. In 1996, the ULC claimed to have ordained over 20,000,000 ministers (Lindelof 1996).
In 1999, Kirby Hensley died and his wife, Lida Hensley, became president of the ULC. Their son Andre Hensley became president upon Lida’s death in 2006. During these years, Freeman encouraged the ULC Monastery to create a stronger internet presence, including buying up domain names relevant to search queries for online ordination, instant ministers, and the ULC.
Zimmerman continued to run the ULC Monastery during this period, but in 2005 disputes arose regarding his leadership, including allegations of erratic behavior, misuse of funds, and criminal activity (Barrios 2006). In response, Freeman, who was vice president of the ULC Monastery and had helped run its website, worked with the church’s board of directors to take over the presidency and fire Zimmerman on August 4, 2006. On September 13, 2006, Freeman reincorporated the ULC Monastery fulfillment center in Seattle as the Universal Life Church Monastery Storehouse, Inc. Freeman took ownership over the ULC Monastery’s websites and online bookstore (Nowicki 2009). The conflict between Zimmerman and Freeman over leadership of the ULC Monastery sparked several lawsuits, which were ultimately dismissed.
With Freeman in control, the newly reincorporated ULC Monastery promoted easy ordinations online through its many websites, explicitly connecting this to the ability to perform weddings. It used search engine optimization and analytics to increase its web presence, ordain more ministers, and sell more products. Media coverage of instant ministers, celebrities ordained online, and personalized weddings grew dramatically (Hoesly 2018). Freeman’s ULC Monastery also used emerging social media to market itself and build community online. The ULC Monastery became best known for ordaining ministers who perform weddings for friends and relatives.
The ULC Monastery has publicized its celebrity ordinations, including Stephen Colbert, Lady Gaga, Russell Brand, Fran Drescher, and Adele (Sankin 2014; Universal Life Church Monastery 2018; Wolfson 2018). Connecting its interests in celebrities, weddings, and marriage equality, the ULC Monastery’s internet homepage features a video of Conan O’Brien showing off his ULC Monastery certificate and officiating a same-sex wedding on his late-night show in 2011.
Since 2006, the ULC Monastery has been a “vocal supporter of LGBT rights and marriage equality” (“Become Ordained to Perform Same Sex Weddings”). In 2009, for example, Freeman exchanged letters with President Obama regarding support for marriage equality (Universal Life Church Monastery 2011). In 2011, after New York legalized same-sex marriages, ULC Monastery ministers actively promoted the church as a means for same-sex couples to create personalized weddings (Boyle 2011). As a gay African American man, Freeman (Image at right) has steered the ULC Monastery toward taking explicit stands on issues of freedom, justice, and equality for historically marginalized groups.
As led by George Freeman, the ULC Monastery is both a continuation of Hensley’s vision of religious freedom, religious universalism, and easy ordination as well as a departure from the original church and its leaders. Freeman wrote of himself: “Continuing in the tradition started by founder Rev. Kirby Hensley in the 1950s, George Freeman promotes spiritual growth and equality through the ULC” (George Freeman website n.d. “Present”). Freeman said that he “founded and leads the largest and most active branch of the Universal Life Church” and that his “work in transforming the institution of the Universal Life Church has ushered a new kind of religion into the 21st century—a religion unburdened by lofty hierarchal authority” (Freeman 2015). Like the original ULC, the ULC Monastery is an innovative online religion that has democratized rights once only afforded to more traditional clergy (Clasquin-Johnson 2016; Hoesly 2018; Kerstetter 2015).
The ULC Monastery is one of the faster growing new religions in the U.S. It ordains hundreds of thousands of new ministers annually and has one of the largest sets of ordained clergy amongst all denominations (CBS News 2015; Freedman 2015; Gootman 2012; Hoesly 2018).
The ULC Monastery’s central belief is “We are all children of the same universe.” This statement is displayed prominently on its websites, social media, publications, and materials. The church also has two core tenets: (1) “Do only that which is right,” and (2) “Every individual is free to practice their religion in the manner of their choosing, as mandated by the First Amendment, so long as that expression does not impinge upon the rights or freedoms of others and is in accordance with the government’s laws” (Universal Life Church Monastery website n.d. “About Us”). These tenets demonstrate the church’s concern for Golden Rule ethics, egalitarianism, anti-authoritarianism, religious individualism, universalism, and religious freedom. The church claims that it actualizes these tenets by empowering millions of ministers to fulfill their individual spiritual needs.
Another of the church’s “fundamental tasks” is promoting freedom of religion (Universal Life Church Monestary website n.d.). The ULC Monastery defends its ministers by providing (at a cost) certificates of ordination, ministerial credentials, and certified letters of good standing for clergy to present to government agents, such as county clerks. These are meant to ensure that its ministers can perform weddings or receive other privileges provided for clergy in law. The church also defends its ordinations and weddings performed by its ministers in legal proceedings.
The church’s mission includes supporting “religious freedom, social justice and spiritual expression” (Universal Life Church Monestary n.d. “About Us”). To achieve these goals, the ULC Monastery ordains everyone who applies, defends its ministers through legal actions, and promotes gender, racial, and LGBTQ equality. The ULC Monastery views itself and its ministers as “champions of society’s underdogs and [the] oppressed” (Universal Life Church Monestary website n.d. “About Us”). Beginning in 2006, George Freeman and ULC Monastery actively championed the legalization of same-sex marriage (Universal Life Church Monastery 2011). In 2007, the church’s board of directors approved an “Ecclesiastical Proclamation” stating that all people have religious and constitutional rights to marry, regardless of sexual orientation (Universal Life Church Monastery 2007).
The church claims that all belief systems are equally valid, and it does not prescribe any particular religious belief for its members. Members can believe (or not believe) anything they want. At times, the church has suggested that all religions (including atheism) are expressions of one universal faith. However, the church is critical of fundamentalisms (The Universal Life Ministries Guide to Divinity 2016). [Image at right]
The primary activity of the ULC Monastery is ordaining people through its website. Applicants enter their name, email, and address onto a webform, after which they receive an email notification nearly instantly of their ordination in the church. Ordination is free, though applicants may choose to send a free will offering. Those interested can also purchase clerical items such as a certificate of ordination, other credentials, clerical garb, ministerial paraphernalia, and guidebooks for performing weddings. These items fulfill the church’s goal to provide access to products, services, and networking for its ministers to fulfill their spiritual needs. The ULC Monastery states that its ordinations grant its ministers all the rights and privileges afforded to clerics of other faiths.
Most people are ordained through the ULC Monastery in order to officiate weddings for friends or family. [Image at right] These ceremonies can take nearly unlimited forms and are typically tailored to the couple getting married. Manuals published by the ULC Monastery provide guidance to ministers and templates for structuring ceremonies (e.g., Freeman 2015). One webpage features a “Wedding Ceremony Script Generator” to help ministers create ceremonies (Universal Life Church Monestary website n.d. “Minister Training”). Through its websites, the church also instructs ministers about state marriage solemnization laws and encourages ministers to inquire with local county clerks to ensure the legal validity of their weddings. The ULC Monastery actively promotes its ordinations as avenues for anyone to officiate weddings.
The ULC Monastery has helped to transform American wedding rituals by ordaining individuals to perform personalized and increasingly secularized weddings (Hoesly 2015; Hoesly 2017; Hoesly 2018). Weddings performed by a friend or family member are increasingly popular in the United States (Britto 2018; Stauffer 2019). According to wedding industry experts, couples value personalization in crafting their ceremony, choosing to alter or abandon some wedding traditions to fit their needs (Dybis 2019). In addition, as younger generations are growing more religiously unaffiliated, more couples want secular or spiritual-but-not-religious ceremonies. Rates of interfaith weddings are also rising, but many couples struggle to find a cleric who will officiate such unions. As the most popular site for online ordination, the ULC Monastery provides a way for anyone to be ordained and perform customized weddings (Freedman 2015; La Gorce 2018).
Beyond weddings, ministers can perform any other clerical functions they wish. The ULC Monastery provides specific training for rituals such as baptism, funerals, sermons, and pastoral counseling. Ministers can also start their own personal ministries or congregations. ULC Monastery ministers can also choose to do nothing with their ordination.
The ULC Monastery is a nondenominational religious organization that welcomes all individuals and faiths. [Image at right] George Freeman (aka Brother Martin) is the president of the ULC Monastery, but there is no church hierarchy or lines of clerical authority for members to follow. The physical location of the ULC Monastery is an office warehouse in Seattle’s industrial district, though George Freeman’s personal home is also considered a sanctuary by the church. Virtually everyone who interacts with the ULC Monastery does so via its websites and social media.
The ULC Monastery claims that it has ordained over 20,000,000 ministers (this number is a combined total, including all ordinations performed since 1962 by the original ULC and ULC Monastery) (Burke 2007; Nowicki 2009; Universal Life Church website n.d. “About Us”).
Membership is diffuse, with most ministers having no further interaction with the church after receiving their ordination. All members of the church are ordained ministers in the church. The church’s online presence also means that anyone in the world can become clergy of the ULC Monastery and use any religious nomenclature they prefer to refer to themselves.
Some members of the church participate in its online forums, such as the ULC Ministers Network website, for fellowship and debate. The ULC Monastery compares its Ministers Network to the social experience of in-person worship services (ULC Ministers Network website n.d. “About Us” ). The church claims that the “communication and fellowship of our scattered millions of ministers… is just as valid a form of worship as the weekly services held in some of the world’s more segregated and elitist religious institutions” (Universal Life Church Monastery website n.d. “About Us”).
The ULC Monastery is active on social media, especially Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter, where members can discuss current events and theological issues or share news of their ordination and weddings they perform. The church also publishes a weekly email newsletter called The Visionary. The Visionary includes links to topical stories from the ULC Monastery website that cover recent news events involving church-state issues, moral values, or general religion topics, plus an invitation for readers to state their opinions about these issues on the church’s social media or to buy ministerial supplies from its website.
The ULC Monastery generates income through the sale of ministry supplies, such as certificates of ordination, credentials of ministry, religious books, liturgical manuals, wedding ceremony how-to guidebooks, clerical garb, and other ministerial paraphernalia. While some ministers make financial contributions when getting ordained, most do not. The church does not tithe.
Some ministers in the church create their own congregations or groups. For example, in 2003 Randy Orso founded the Universal Life Church Monastery LGBTI Clergy Association (now called the Interfaith Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Intersex Clergy Association) (Interfaith LGBTI Clergy Association website n.d. “About”). It is an online community forum that supports affirming ministries and advocates for equal rights, such anti-discrimination and hate crimes legislation.
The ULC Monastery donates money to charitable organizations, such as groups that support victims of domestic violence, people with AIDS, and LGBTQ equality.
The main challenges for the ULC Monastery concern conflicts with related online ministries, legal battles over its legitimacy, and its advocacy for equality and justice.
Since 2006, when George Freeman founded the Universal Life Church Monastery Storehouse independently from the original Universal Life Church and the Tucson-based ULC Monastery, there have been disputes about the legitimacy of Freeman’s church and its ordinations, causing confusion for people seeking to be ordained online (Barrios 2006; Nowicki 2009; Sankin 2014). Andre Hensley, president of the original ULC headquartered in Modesto, California, accused Freeman of stealing the Tucson-based ULC Monastery’s website in a hostile takeover (Hensley 2011; Nowicki 2009). Hensley adds that because Freeman’s church is not affiliated with the original ULC, its ordinations are not valid as ULC ordinations. Freeman claims that he rescued the ULC Monastery from corrupt leadership and renewed Kirby Hensley’s vision. Freeman counts his ordinations as consistent with previous ULC ordinations. The Freeman-run ULC Monastery states, “This new Universal Life Church has discarded the deceptive and illegal practices of the old Modesto ULC and it has since proudly assumed the leadership mantle of that institution and improved upon its design — transforming the ULC into an ethical and inspiring beacon of freedom and justice around the world” (Universal Life Church Monastery website n.d. “About Us”). The Universal Life Church Monastery Storehouse typically calls itself simply the Universal Life Church (without the words “Monastery” or, even more rarely, “Storehouse”) on its websites and other materials.
Since 2006, several internet-based churches offering online ordinations have grown out of the ULC Monastery, often run by its former employees. These spin-offs include the ULC Seminary, ULC World Headquarters (now called Universal One Church), and American Marriage Ministries. The ULC Monastery has sued each of these online churches claiming infringement on its trademarks, brand confusion, and defamation.
The ULC Monastery protects its brand identity through controlling most web domains and search terms related to online ordination and by trademarking its name (Hoesly 2018). The church owns hundreds of web domains, including ulc.org, themonastery.org, and getordained.org. It has won three trademarks for its name, though more applications have been denied. This drive has led to conflicts with other churches, such as with the ULC Seminary. In 2017, the Universal Church, an affiliate of the Kingdom of God, a Brazilian Pentecostal church founded in 1977, sued the ULC Monastery for trademark infringement. A federal court found that the ULC Monastery had bought many similar internet domain names which would redirect to the ULC Monastery’s website; that “Universal Church” is too generic to trademark; and that few would mistake the two churches as identical. This ruling was upheld on appeal.
In addition to disputes over the legitimacy of the ULC Monastery vis-à-vis other online churches, the ULC Monastery has filed lawsuits to defend the ability of its ministers to perform weddings that are recognized by local governments as legally valid. The original ULC has faced similar issues. Due to state court rulings and attorneys general opinions, weddings performed by ULC ministers are not valid in Virginia, North Carolina, parts of Pennsylvania, and parts of New York (Burke 2007; Grossman 2011a; Grossman 2011b; Rains 2010). Three examples of the ULC Monastery’s continued legal challenges include lawsuits in Virginia, Nevada, and Tennessee.
A final issue for the ULC Monastery concerns demands for justice and equality, especially regarding LGBTQ equality. The ULC Monastery states, “Our ministry will continue to address same-sex marriage and fight for the rights of people to marry any individual they choose. Obergefell v Hodges was a major victory, but as we’ve seen in the past year, there are many people who want to chip away at the freedoms that were won” (Universal Life Church Monastery website n.d. “About Us”).
The ULC Monastery supports exemptions from military service for atheists and secularists based on their secular moral views (Universal Life Church Monastery 2013a) and supports the rights of humanists to serve as military chaplains (Universal Life Church Monastery 2013b). On ordaining atheists, the ULC Monastery states, “Since its inception, the Universal Life Church has been viewed in a demeaning light because of the decision to ordain persons who are non-religious, even anti-religious. This is done out of necessity; to prevent the erosion of all religious civil rights” (The Real Universal Life Church website n.d.)
The ULC Monastery also supports legalizing medical marijuana, though it has not yet expressed an official view regarding sacramental uses of marijuana in so-called “cannabis churches” (Universal Life Church Monastery 2012; Universal Life Church Monastery 2015).
Image #1: Kirby J. Hensley.
Image #2: George Martin Freeman.
Image #3: ULCM’s central doctrinal tenet.
Image #4: ULCM’s Guide to Divinity.
Image #5: ULCM membership card.
Image #6: ULCM logo.
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Barrios, Joseph. 2006. “Holy Split: The Tucson Home of an Internet ‘Monastery,’ a Popular Web Site That Ordains Ministers for Free, and $129,000 in Cash are the Stakes.” Arizona Daily Star, December 3. Accessed from https://tucson.com/business/local/holy-split/article_df801077-45da-564c-bed6-758c29fc52a8.html on 20 July 2020.
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