By Bob Allen
Fred Phelps, founding pastor of Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka, Kan., is dead at age 84, family members confirmed to local media.
Phelps’ son, Timothy, told Topeka television station WIBW that his father died late Wednesday night. Daughter Shirley Phelps-Roper confirmed the death at Midland Care Hospice to the Topeka Capital-Journal.
Reports circulated in recent days that Phelps, known around the world for anti-gay protests by the small independent congregation he started in 1955, was dying. During that coverage, additional reports surfaced that Phelps was recently voted out of membership after calling for a kinder approach among church members as a male board of elders defeated his daughter in a power struggle.
Phelps, a disbarred lawyer who specialized in civil rights cases challenging Jim Crow laws in the 1960s, was ordained as a Southern Baptist minister in 1947, but the church he started isn’t affiliated with any religious denomination.
As the church’s notoriety grew for its “God Hates Fags” anti-homosexuality slogan at public protests, however, leaders of religious bodies as diverse as American Baptist Churches USA, Cooperative Baptist Fellowship and the Southern Baptist Convention all denounced the group as giving Baptists a bad name.
The congregation, comprised almost entirely of the patriarch’s extended family, claims to have engaged in 52,335 pickets in 922 cities in what church members call their “outreach ministry.”
The protests began with a 1991 demonstration at a Topeka park known to be frequented by gays. The group first gained national attention by appearing at the funeral of Matthew Shepard, a University of Wyoming student whose 1998 murder prompted hate-crime legislation in many states.
For years the church remained relatively obscure picketing events like religious conventions, including the Southern Baptist Convention, and performances of the The Laramie Project, a play based on Shepard’s life.
That changed in 2005 when church members started showing up at funerals of fallen American soldiers proclaiming that casualties in Iraq and Afghanistan are the result of God’s wrath against America for tolerating homosexuality. A number of states responded with laws regulating protests near funerals.
A BBC documentary in 2008 profiled the Phelps clan as The Most Hated Family in America.
In recent months the church has gotten attention for defections. Lauren Drain, kicked out for questioning church doctrine just before her 22nd birthday, told her story in a 2013 book titled Banished: Surviving My Years in the Westboro Baptist Church.
Megan Phelps-Roper, a Phelps granddaughter who handled the church’s social media, left Westboro at age 27 early in 2013, followed by her 19-year-old sister, Grace.
Word of his impending death prompted speculation about whether Phelps’ own funeral might attract pickets, but church member Margie Phelps told the Huffington Post that memorials are not in line with the church’s beliefs. “We don’t worship the dead in this church, so there’d be no public memorial or funeral to picket if any member died,” she explained.
Widely denounced as hate speech, Westboro Baptist Church chose its infamous “God Hates Fags” slogan carefully. The word “faggot,” according to an FAQ page on the Westboro website, refers to a bundle of sticks or twigs bound together as kindling to start a fire. Westboro says it’s symbolic of God’s judgment on Sodom and Gomorrah as described in Amos 4:11.
The church also rejects the “hate the sin but love the sinner” approach espoused by many evangelicals. The congregation subscribes to a strict Calvinism which teaches that “God so loved the world” in John 3:16 means not every human being but only those who are part of the “elect.”
Members use “Jacob have I loved, but Esau have I hated” in Romans 9:13 to illustrate God’s respective attitudes toward the elect and reprobate. They also cite Leviticus 20:13-24, which declares that God “abhors” customs of nations including when “a man lies with a man as one lies with a woman.”