Skip to main content

Westboro church founder Fred Phelps dies

By Daniel Burke, CNN
updated 2:06 AM EDT, Tue March 25, 2014
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Church spokesman says Phelps died late Wednesday of natural causes
  • Phelps founded Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka, Kansas
  • The church is known for its virulently anti-gay protests, including at military funerals

(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."

Photojournalist Anthony S. Karen gained rare access to the Westboro Baptist Church in 2008 and 2011. Here Pastor Fred Phelps is seen in his home office in 2011. Phelps founded the Phelps Chartered Law Firm in 1964 and had several notable civil rights cases. He was disbarred in Kansas in 1979. Photojournalist Anthony S. Karen gained rare access to the Westboro Baptist Church in 2008 and 2011. Here Pastor Fred Phelps is seen in his home office in 2011. Phelps founded the Phelps Chartered Law Firm in 1964 and had several notable civil rights cases. He was disbarred in Kansas in 1979.
Pastor Fred Phelps
HIDE CAPTION
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
>
>>
Photos: Pastor Fred Phelps Photos: Pastor Fred Phelps
2003: Phelps on Matthew Shepard statue
Click through to see people who passed away in 2014. Click through to see people who passed away in 2014.
People we lost in 2014
HIDE CAPTION
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
11
12
13
14
15
16
17
18
19
20
>
>>
Photos: People we lost in 2014 Photos: People we lost in 2014

"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.

Phelps began his anti-gay protests in Wichita in 1991 after complaining that the city refused to stop gay activities in a public park. He rose to national notoriety in 1998, when Westboro members picketed 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.

The Southern Poverty Law Center calls Westboro Baptist Church "arguably the most obnoxious and rabid hate group in America."

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."

Anti-gay preacher once fought for civil rights

Born in Meridian, Mississippi, on November 29, 1929, Phelps had his sights set on West Point before he attended a Methodist revival. He said the sermon inspired him to enter the ministry.

"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."

Despite its "Baptist" name, Westboro is not affiliated with any larger church denomination. Most Christians criticize the congregation's harsh anti-gay rhetoric and penchant for pursuing the limelight at inappropriate moments.

Phelps married his wife, Marge, who survives him, in 1952. The couple moved to Topeka on May 14, 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.

Video: Phelps' daughter takes part in WBC protest same day he died

A church statement issued on March 16 said 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.' "

But Shirley Phelps-Roper, Phelps' daughter, said Westboro will not hold a funeral for its patriarch.

"We do not worship the dead," Phelps-Roper told CNN.

CNN's John Blake and Katherine Wojtecki contributed to this report.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 1:33 PM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
Click through our gallery to remember those we lost this year.
updated 2:17 PM EDT, Sun October 19, 2014
Singer and model Joanne Borgella, an "American Idol" contestant in 2008, died at age 32 after a battle with cancer.
updated 1:12 PM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
"August: Osage County" actress Misty Upham was declared dead by a Washington coroner after her body was found along a river in suburban Seattle.
updated 10:01 AM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
Actress Elizabeth Peña has died of natural causes after a brief illness. She was 55.
updated 8:19 AM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Isaiah "Ikey" Owens, the keyboardist in Jack White's backing band, has died at age 38. The musician also played with bands such as Mars Volta and Free Moral Agents.
updated 9:13 AM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Mark Bell, who founded the highly influential techno music duo LFO and later collaborated with Bjork on several iconic albums, has died.
updated 10:09 AM EDT, Mon October 13, 2014
Actress and comedian Jan Hooks died in New York. She was 57
updated 7:29 AM EDT, Tue October 7, 2014
Geoffrey Holder, a versatile artist known for his ability as a dancer, actor and -- most famously to most of America -- a pitchman for 7Up, has died at age 84.
updated 10:58 PM EDT, Sun October 5, 2014
Paul Revere, leader of the 1960s rock band Paul Revere and the Raiders, has died at age 76.
updated 8:03 PM EDT, Sat October 4, 2014
Former Haitian dictator Jean-Claude Duvalier died of a heart attack in Port-au-Prince at the age of 63, a family member told CNN.
updated 11:42 AM EDT, Sun September 28, 2014
Former U.S. Rep. James Traficant of Ohio died after suffering injuries in an earlier accident on his farm.
updated 11:36 AM EDT, Tue September 23, 2014
Eric "The Actor" Lynch, who became a celebrity among celebrities by calling in to Howard Stern's radio show, died at age 39.
updated 11:38 AM EDT, Sun September 21, 2014
Emmy-winning actress Polly Bergen, whose TV and movie career spanned more than six decades, has died at age 84.
updated 5:01 PM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
Singer George Hamilton IV died at a Nashville hospital following a heart attack. He was 77.
updated 11:30 AM EDT, Fri September 12, 2014
Northern Ireland's former first minister and former Democratic Unionist Party leader Ian Paisley has died. He was 88.
updated 9:04 AM EDT, Fri September 12, 2014
Richard Kiel, the actor best known for playing the James Bond villain "Jaws," died at age 74 in a California hospital.
updated 4:56 PM EDT, Tue September 9, 2014
Actress Molly Glynn, who played an emergency room doctor on several "Chicago Fire" episodes, died from injuries after a tree fell on her during a storm.
S. Truett Cathy, the fast-food entrepreneur who turned a single restaurant into the multibillion-dollar Chick-fil-A empire, has died at age 93.
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT