This story was edited after posting to correct an error in the seventh paragraph.
By Bob Allen
Baptists in South Africa denounced Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka, Kan., for comments reported around the world claiming the country’s recently deceased former president Nelson Mandela is in hell.
The small congregation, consisting mostly of family members of founding pastor Fred Phelps, is best known in the United States for picketing military funerals with placards claiming dead soldiers are signs of God’s judgment on the nation’s sins.
Amid global praise for the leader regarded as South Africa’s moral compass and symbol of the struggle against racial oppression, the Westboro Baptist Church website denounced Mandela’s “blasphemous and unrepented sins” including divorce of his first wife, Evelyn, and his subsequent marriages to Winnie Mandela and Graca Machel.
The sect also criticized Mandela, “a nominal Methodist at best,” for battling AIDS, a disease Westboro members claim is God’s just punishment for the sin of homosexuality.
Leaders of the Baptist Convention of South Africa issued a statement to the global community clarifying the independent congregation, affiliated with no known Baptist denomination, does not speak for them.
“We, the Baptist Convention of South Africa, as represented by its leadership, have noted with utmost disdain the insensitive, unbaptistic and unchristian statements issued by the Westboro Baptist Church in USA about our former President, Dr. Nelson Mandela,” said the statement released through the Baptist World Alliance, a network of 228 member bodies in 121 countries representing about 40 million Baptists worldwide.
The Baptist Conveniton of South Africa, numbering about 24,000 members in more than 150 churches, said the Westboro Baptist Church’s “statement and assertions are not at all representative, nor are they indicative, of the attitude and spirit of our brothers and sisters in the Baptist Convention of South Africa and indeed many other Baptists both here and elsewhere in the whole world.”
Leaders said the spirit and attitude of Westboro Baptist Church “has no resonance in the spirit and letter of the Holy Scriptures and our Baptist heritage and polity.”
BWA leaders earlier voiced respect and admiration for Mandela, who died Dec. 5 at age 95 and will be buried Sunday in his remote ancestral home village after lying in state for three days at the capital in Pretoria.
“Nelson Mandela stood out as a giant among us in his humble way because those values are so seldom exercised in the course of human affairs,” said BWA President John Upton, executive director of the Baptist General Association of Virginia and Virginia Baptist Mission Board. “He modeled understanding when retaliation was expected. He demonstrated peace when many wanted war. He extended a hand to his former enemies when disdain would have been easier. What a different world we would have if those commitments were common practices in human relationships.”
BWA General Secretary Neville Callam reflected on Mandela from his perspective as a citizen of Jamaica, the first country in the world to impose a trade embargo against apartheid South Africa in 1957.
“With the passing of this great man, the world has lost a remarkable emancipator,” Callam said. “Mandela blazed a trail of respect for human dignity and human rights. We cannot afford to forget the unbounded passion for freedom, the relentless striving for justice and the unshakeable commitment to peaceful human coexistence that Mandela exhibited.”
“Let us take time to ponder the legacy of this great world leader and let us be prepared, whatever the cost, to devote our lives to loving our neighbors, forgiving our enemies and pursuing all that makes for justice and peace in our communities,” Callam said.
Westboro Baptist Church, a hyper-Calvinist clan notorious for its “God Hates Fags” anti-homosexuality slogan, claims to have held 51,753 peaceful sidewalk demonstrations since June of 1991. The church has been featured in documentaries including The Most Hated Family in America, which aired on BCC television in 2008.
The congregation marked the recent anniversary of President Kennedy’s assassination on Nov. 22, 1963, in Dallas as a reminder “that John F. Kennedy has been in hell for 50 years.”
“The fact is, JFK was an adulterous pervert who treated the White House like his personal whore house,” said a flyer on the church website.
American Baptist Churches USA carries a statement on its website stating that Westboro Baptist Church “is in no way affiliated with American Baptist Churches USA.”
“Fred Phelps, pastor of Westboro Baptist Church, is not and never has been an American Baptist,” the statement says. “Phelps’ ordination is not in an American Baptist church, and his credentials have never been recognized by any region of ABCUSA. Westboro is an independent, non-affiliated church.”
“The hostile, angry confrontations created by Phelps and his followers are an embarrassment to the gospel and the church,” the statement continues. “Hopefully, American Baptists will distance themselves from ministers like Phelps, not only by words, but by deeds.”