TOPEKA, Kan. – The Rev. Fred Phelps, the virulently anti-gay preacher who drew wide, scornful attention for staging demonstrations at military funerals as a way to proclaim his belief that God was punishing America for its tolerance of homosexuality, died here late Wednesday. He was 84.
The Westboro Baptist Church confirmed the death, declaring on one of its websites, “Fred W. Phelps Sr. has gone the way of all flesh.” The church did not give a cause of death, but Phelps had been living under hospice care.
Phelps, who founded and led Westboro, a small nondenominational church in Topeka, was a much-loathed figure at the fringe of the U.S. religious scene, denounced across the theological and political spectrum for his beliefs, his language and his tactics.
His congregation, which claims to have staged tens of thousands of demonstrations, is made up almost entirely of his family members, many of whom lived together in a small Topeka compound, although in recent years some of his children and grandchildren had broken with the group.
A disbarred civil rights lawyer who had once been honored by the NAACP and who ran for office repeatedly, and unsuccessfully, as a Democrat, Phelps seemed to accept the criticism if not relish it.
He believed that the United States was beyond saving, and he devoted his life to traveling with a small band of protesters to highlight what he saw as America’s sinfulness and damnation. His church’s website maintains a running tally of “people whom God has cast into hell since you loaded this page.”
Fred Waldron Phelps was born Nov. 13, 1929, in Meridian, Miss. He said that he had been admitted to the U.S. Military Academy at West Point but that after high school he had what his official biography called “a profound religious experience” and decided instead to pursue a Christian higher education, first at Bob Jones College in Tennessee and then, when the institution moved, at Bob Jones University in South Carolina. He did not graduate.
He devoted himself to evangelism, and in 1951, when he was 21, he was profiled in Time magazine because his denunciations of “promiscuous petting” and “teachers’ filthy jokes in classrooms” on a California college campus had brought him into conflict with the administration.
He married Margie Marie Simms in 1952, and in 1954 the couple moved to Topeka. They had 13 children, 54 grandchildren and seven great-grandchildren, according to the church’s website. Phelps established Westboro Baptist in 1955.
Phelps believed any misfortune, most infamously the deaths of American soldiers killed in Iraq and Afghanistan, was God’s punishment for society’s tolerance of homosexuality. He and his followers carried forward their message bluntly, holding held signs at funerals and public events that used ugly slurs and read “Thank God for dead soldiers.” The group has appeared in Western New York, including at a memorial service for Flight 3407 victims.
God, Phelps preached, had nothing but anger and bile for the moral miscreants of his creation.
“Can you preach the Bible without preaching the hatred of God?” Phelps asked in a 2006 interview with The Associated Press. “The answer is absolutely not. And these preachers that muddle that and use that deliberately, ambiguously to prey on the follies and the fallacious notions of their people, that’s a great sin.”
For those who didn’t like the message or the tactics, Phelps and his family had only disdain. “They need to drink a frosty mug of shut-the-hell-up and avert their eyes,” his daughter, Shirley Phelps-Roper, once told a group of Kansas lawmakers.
The activities of Phelps’ church, unaffiliated with any larger denomination, inspired a federal law and laws in more than 40 states limiting protests and picketing at funerals. He and a daughter were even barred from entering Britain for inciting hatred.
But in a major free-speech ruling in 2011, the U.S. Supreme Court held that the church and its members were protected by the U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment and could not be sued for monetary damages for inflicting pain on grieving families.
Yet despite that legal victory, some gay rights advocates believe all the attention Phelps generated served to advance their cause.
In Phelps’ later years, the protests themselves were largely ignored or led to counter demonstrations that easily shouted down Westboro’s message. A motorcycle group known as the Patriot Guard arose to shield mourners at military funerals from Westboro’s notorious signs. At the University of Missouri in 2014, hundreds of students gathered to surround the handful of church members who traveled to the campus after football player Michael Sam came out as gay.
– News wire services