Fred Phelps, the founding pastor of the Westboro Baptist Church, best known for picketing funerals of soldiers with hateful signs reading “GOD HATES FAGS,” is dead. Family members confirmed to the Topeka (Kan.) Capital-Journal and WIBW Kansas City that the pastor-turned-hatemonger died Wedesday night after entering hospice care at age 84. His exact cause of death is currently unknown
Phelps is dead now, but who was the man behind the hate? And what drove him?
Phelps’ fundamentalist anti-gay ideology was so odious that, when in his later years he expressed the wish that his children and followers (who are largely the same people) simply be “kinder” to one another, he was excommunicated from the church he founded. When false reports emerged that surviving WBC members would protest their patriarch’s funeral, many people were fooled, not doubting for a second that they would turn on each other so viciously.
By all accounts, Phelps had a terrible childhood. Born in Mississippi in 1929, he spent his formative years in poverty during the Great Depression, and when he was five, his mother died of cancer. After her death, he went to live with his great-aunt, who died later in 1950. By his mid-20s, Phelps was estranged from his father and stepmother, and reportedly sent back their letters unopened. During this time, Phelps, who began preaching in college, was profiled in Time magazine for preaching against “promiscuous petting,” “profanity,” “cheating” and “pandering to the lusts of the flesh” at John Muir College in Pasadena, Calif. Clearly, the religious convictions he became famous for ran deep in Phelps’ psyche.
Yet, surprisingly for a man known across the world for spreading bigotry and hate, Phelps’ public life didn’t begin that way. Though he was always known as a very conservative man -- attending the fundamentalist Bob Jones University in South Carolina for a time -- Phelps made a name for himself as a civil rights lawyer in the 1960s. After earning a law degree in 1964, he sued business after business in Kansas for discriminating against black customers. Phelps made a killing and, as he claimed to Mother Jones in 1999, “systematically brought down the Jim Crow laws of this town.”
Despite the good Phelps may have done with his legal career, however, his estranged son said his heart was never in the right place. Nathan Phelps, who escaped the church decades ago, told the Telegraph that his father routinely used racial slurs to describe his black clients and that he was only practicing law for the money.
“We would all call black people ‘DNs’ at home. It stood for dumb n------ and was our private language,” Nathan Phelps said. “We thought it was clever to call them that in front of them. He was deeply prejudiced, and he believed the Bible said they were cursed.”
Ultimately, Phelps’ legal career came to a halt in 1979 when he was disbarred by the Kansas Supreme Court for having "little regard for the ethics of his profession” after he called a target of one of his lawsuits a “slut” and drove her to tears in the courtroom. He continued to practice law at the federal level until 1989, when he agreed to stop so that his children, 11 of whom became lawyers, could practice in federal courts.
After Phelps was disbarred, he seems to have put his energy full-time into the Westboro Baptist Church. He founded the small Topeka church in 1955, but the church did not begin its campaign against homosexuals until 1991, when Phelps and his family picketed a Topeka city park, alleging that it was a “Sodomite rats nest” for hosting gay activity at night.
Phelps and his church became nationally known a few years later, when the Westboro Baptist Church protested the funeral of Matthew Shepard, a young gay man who was murdered in Wyoming in 1998. Since then, the group has gone on to picket the funerals of slain American soldiers with signs reading “Thank God for Dead Soldiers.” Other targets of Westboro's funeral pickets included Michael Jackson, heavy metal singer Ronnie James Dio and Christina Green, a 9-year-old girl killed in the 2011 Tucson shooting that injured Rep. Gabrielle Giffords.
Phelps was as hateful a man in his private life as in his public one. Nathan Phelps and his brother Mark, who also escaped the church, have both testified that their father would routinely beat them senseless, usually for minor “crimes” like buying lights for Christmas, a holiday that Phelps refused to celebrate for its pagan roots.
“He had this old barber’s strap and used it so much that the last six inches were frayed, kind of like a cat-o-nine-tails, and he’d hit you with it and it’d wrap around your hips and rip the skin,” Nathan Phelps told the Telegraph. “By the time I turned eight I remember he had started using a mattock handle instead. Similar to a pickaxe handle, it was about 4 feet long and bigger than a baseball bat.”
Mark Phelps even alleges that at one point, his father shot a dog to death with a shotgun, seemingly for no reason, in an episode that seems to cement Phelps' legacy of hate: “One of my earliest memories was the big ol' German shepherd that belonged to our neighbors,” he said in an interview. “One day it was in our yard, and my father went out and blew it apart with his shotgun.”