Westboro Baptist Church founder Fred Phelps Sr. died late Wednesday night after he was said to be “on the edge of death” over the weekend. He was 84 years old.
The widely hated WBC leader rose to national prominence by picketing the 1998 funeral of Matthew Shepard, a young gay man in Wyoming whose murder was widely viewed as a hate crime. WBC members held signs such as "Matt in Hell," “God Hates Fags” and “No Tears for Queers” to protest Shepard’s funeral.
While the protests raised the notoriety of the Westboro Baptist Church, Phelps’ organization had been around for decades. He founded the church in Topeka, Kan., in 1955, according to the World Religions & Spirituality Project at Virginia Commonwealth University. Although the group considers itself an unaffiliated Baptist church, many consider it a hate group and its activities are monitored by the Anti-Defamation League and the Southern Poverty Law Center.
Before founding WBC, Phelps attended the Arizona Bible Institute in 1951, where he met Margie Simms. The pair married a year later in Glendale, Ariz., and were together until Phelps’ death. An announcement of a private reception celebrating their 50th anniversary was posted in the Topeka Capital-Journal in 2002. The couple reportedly lived in the same building that houses the Westboro Baptist Church.
Although Phelps’ tactics have been highly controversial, he did have the support of his wife as his group picketed everything from funerals of soldiers and gay people to sporting events and concerts. The Topeka Capital-Journal announcement listed Margie Phelps as “a homemaker and support staff for her husband’s endeavors.”