Fred Phelps Sr., the founder of a Kansas sect known for its anti-homosexuality picketing at military funerals, has died. He was 84.
The former figurehead of Westboro Baptist Church was hospice-bound in Topeka, Kan., and had stopped eating and drinking at the time of his death on Wednesday night, his estranged son Nathan told the Associated Press on Sunday. Nathan Phelps said a new board of eight elders excommunicated his father last summer after a power struggle, possibly contributing to the decline in his health. “I’m not sure how I feel about this,” he wrote on Facebook. “Terribly ironic that his devotion to his god ends this way. Destroyed by the monster he made.” Nathan Phelps left the sect 37 years ago and is now a religious skeptic and gay-rights advocate.
The church Phelps founded in Topeka in 1955 carries on without him, planning protests at concerts and churches in the coming weeks. “For a very long time, we haven’t been organized in the way you think,” new church spokesman Steve Drain told The Topeka Capital-Journal, claiming Jesus was the church’s only figurehead.
The exclusive sect will be Phelps’ legacy, but those closer to him know the whole man. Much of what is known about him comes from his son Nathan Phelps, who has given extensive interviews since leaving Westboro Baptist Church. Nathan Phelps told The Telegraph that his father was born Nov. 13, 1929 in Meridian, Miss., to a railroad worker. His mother died when he was 5. Fred Phelps said he had a religious experience at age 16 and bounced around Bible colleges before obtaining a degree from John Muir College, where he preached against necking and petting.
Phelps moved to Topeka with his new wife, Margie, in the early 1950s and founded Westboro Baptist Church. It was during desegregation, and a 1964 Washburn University law degree turned him into a civil rights lawyer honored by the NAACP. But his antics earned him repeated complaints and infractions. The Kansas Supreme Court disbarred him in 1979 for an “abusive” and “irrelevant” cross-examination of a witness, and federal courts took away his license in 1989, according to the Capitol-Journal. He ran for public office later and won 31 percent of Democratic vote in the 1992 U.S. Senate primary.
Phelps’ most public era began in 1991 after alleged homosexual activityin a local Kansas park brought on his first protests. Taking his crusade national, he thrust himself into the spotlight for picketing after the 1998 murder of gay college student Matthew Shepard.
Westboro Baptist picketed at the funerals of victims of everything from tornadoes to AIDS to school bus crashes, declaring the deaths retribution for society’s acceptance of homosexuality. The familysays it spends $250,000 a year on travel, and the church’s website now claims to have staged more than 53,000 pickets.
The church inspired a federal law and numerous state laws limiting picketing at funerals. In 2011, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the church and its members couldn’t be sued for damages for inflicting pain on grieving families. The parents of Lance Cpl. Matthew Snyder had won $5 million in damages after Phelps’ sect held signs reading “Matt in hell” and “Thank God for dead soldiers” at his 2006 funeral.
Phelps ultimately puzzled and angered people around the world. The late Jerry Falwell, himself picketed, called Phelps a “loon.” It’s not clear if Phelps will even have a funeral. “We don't worship the dead in this church,” a church member tweeted about funerals in general in February, “so there'd be no public memorial or funeral to picket if any member died.” What’s next for Westboro Baptist isn’t clear. An FAQ-style press release from the church attempted to address Phelps’ illness. What does Phelps’ absence mean to the church? “Nothing. … God still hates fags.”
Fred Phelps is survived by his wife of 61 years, Margie Marie Phelps. The couple had 13 adult children, nine of whom remain in the church and four of whom have left the church, according to the Topeka Capital-Journal. Roughly 20 of the couple's 54 grandchildren also have left the church.