Founder of church known for protesting military funerals has died

Fred Phelps

(CNN) — Fred Phelps — the founding pastor of a Kansas church known for its virulently anti-gay protests at public events, including military funerals — has died, the church said Thursday.

The 84-year-old died of natural causes at 11:15 p.m. Wednesday, according to church spokesman Steve Drain.

Phelps founded Westboro Baptist Church of Topeka, Kansas, in 1955 and molded it in his fire-and-brimstone image. Many members of the small congregation are related to Phelps through blood or marriage.

In a statement Thursday, the church chided the “world-wide media” for “gleefully anticipating the death.”

“God forbid, if every little soul at the Westboro Baptist Church were to die at this instant, or to turn from serving the true and living God, it would not change one thing about the judgments of God that await this deeply corrupted nation and world.”

According to Westboro, the church has picketed more than 53,000 events, ranging from Lady Gaga concerts to funerals for slain U.S. soldiers. Typically, a dozen or so church members — including small children — will brandish signs that say “God Hates Fags” and “Thank God for Dead Soldiers.”

Phelps was often called “the most hated man in America,” a label he seemed to relish.

“If I had nobody mad at me,” he told the Wichita Eagle in 2006, “what right would I have to claim that I was preaching the gospel?”

Under Phelps’ leadership, Westboro members have preached that every calamity, from natural disasters to the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in Newtown, Connecticut, is God’s punishment for the country’s acceptance of homosexuality. Phelps had advocated for gays and lesbians to be put to death.

“Fred Phelps will not be missed by the LGBT community, people with HIV/AIDS and the millions of decent people across the world who found what he and his followers do deeply hurtful and offensive,” the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force said in a statement.

“While it is hard to find anything good to say about his views or actions, we do give our condolences to his family members at what must be a painful time for them.”

Phelps began his anti-gay protests in Wichita in 1991 after complaining that the city refused to stop gay activities in a public park. His rise to national notoriety began in 1998, when Westboro members protested at the funeral of Matthew Shepard, a Wyoming man who was tortured and murdered because he was gay. Phelps and his church carried signs that said Shepard was rotting in hell.

In 2011, the Supreme Court upheld Westboro’s right to picket military funerals on free speech grounds. Congress and several states, though, have passed laws aimed at keeping church members at a distance from funerals.

In 2013, more than 367,000 petitioners called on the White House to legally recognize Westboro Baptist Church as a hate group. The White House called Westboro’s protests “reprehensible” but said that “as a matter of practice, the federal government doesn’t maintain a list of hate groups.”

Born in Meridian, Mississippi, on November 29, 1929, Phelps had his sights set on West Point before he heard the call to ministry at a Methodist revival.

“I felt the call, as they say, and it was powerful,” Phelps told the Topeka Capital-Journal in 1994. “The God of glory appeared.” Later, Phelps was ordained by a Southern Baptist church in Utah.

He bounced around several Christian colleges as his preaching and his theology took a hard right turn.

A Time magazine article from 1951 describes Phelps as a “craggy-faced engineering student” who harangued fellow students about the dangers of promiscuity and profanity.

Tim Miller, a professor of religious history at the University of Kansas who has studied Westboro Baptist Church, said Phelps liked to consider himself a “primitive Baptist preacher who held to the old ways.”

Phelps married his wife, Marge, who survives him, in 1952, and the couple moved to Topeka on May 4, 1954, the day the Supreme Court handed down its landmark decision Brown v. Board of Education, which desegregated public schools.

Phelps interpreted that as a sign and soon began a law career that centered on civil rights, winning awards for his work and praise from local leaders.

“Most blacks — that’s who they went to,” the Rev. Ben Scott, president of the NAACP’s Topeka branch, told CNN in 2010. “I don’t know if he was cheaper or if he had that stick-to-it-ness, but Fred didn’t lose many back then.”

Phelps was disbarred from practicing law in state courts, however, after being accused of badgering a witness and making false claims in court affidavits. The Kansas Supreme Court said that Phelps “has little regard for the ethics of his profession.”

Phelps surrendered his license to practice law in federal courts in 1989, according to the Topeka Capital-Journal, after nine U.S. District Court judges filed disciplinary complaints against him.

Most of the members of Phelps’ Westboro Baptist Church are members of his large family. Phelps has 13 children; 11 are attorneys. One son, Nathan, is estranged from his father and from organized religion. He is an atheist.

Nathan Phelps posted a Facebook message March 15 saying that his father had been excommunicated from the church. Later, though, Nathan Phelps said it was “unclear” whether his father had been expelled from Westboro.

Westboro declined to say whether Phelps has been excommunicated. A church statement said March 16 that “membership issues are private” and that eight unnamed elders lead the congregation.

On Thursday, the church added, “Listen carefully; there are no power struggles in the Westboro Baptist Church, and there is no human intercessor — we serve no man, and no hierarchy, only the Lord Jesus Christ.”

For years, Phelps joked about the possibility that his own funeral would draw protests. During a sermon in 2006, he said a CNN reporter once asked how he would feel if that occurred.

“I’d love it. I’d invite them,” Phelps told the reporter, according to the Wichita Eagle. “I said: ‘I’ll put in my will to pay your way. But not first class.’ “

CNN’s John Blake contributed to this report.

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