Fred Phelps, a former street preacher who led a family ministry that raged against what he perceived as a morally bankrupt society, died Thursday. His legacy of picketing funerals of military veterans and disaster victims, promoting coarse language to condemn conduct he viewed as amoral, and waging legal battles that protected his actions under the First Amendment, earned him an international reputation of a man’s whose absolute conviction was never swayed in the face of widespread contempt.
“The level of his vitriol, the savageness of his comments, were just unmatched anywhere. His rhetoric was such he united people both on the far left to the far right in opposition to him and his message,” says Mark Potok, a senior fellow at the Southern Poverty Law Center in Montgomery, Ala.
Margie Phelps, a daughter and church member, told WIBW-AM in Topeka Thursday that there will be no funeral.
Phelps died in Topeka, Kan., the city that served as his home base for decades. The church, which followed a strictly fundamental interpretation of the Bible, was mainly comprised of family members, including nine of the 13 Phelps children, and a number of adult grandchildren.
One of those grandchildren, Megan Phelps-Roper, who left the church in 2012, said via Twitter Thursday that she was “so sorry for the harm he caused. That we all caused. But he could be so kind and wonderful. I wish you all could have seen that too.” In another tweet, Ms. Phelps added, “I understand those who don’t mourn his loss, but I’m thankful for those who see that ‘An eye for an eye leaves the whole world blind.’ ”
Phelps grew up in Meridian, Miss., and was groomed to attend the US Military Academy at West Point, N.Y., but he abandoned those plans soon after he attended a tent revival in the summer of 1947 and heard the calling to preach. That same year, while still a teenager, he was ordained a Southern Baptist minister and moved to Cleveland, Tenn., to attend Bob Jones University. A few years later, he ended up in Pasadena, Calif., where his life as a street preacher started with gusto, earning enough attention that he became the subject of a 1951 Time Magazine profile that detailed his religious fervor in condemning the sins of passers-by.
Phelps settled in Topeka in 1954 and, one year later, held his first church service. The Westboro Baptist Church is not affiliated with any mainstream strain of the Baptist faith, but is most aligned with Primitive Baptists, a much smaller, Scripture-based sect in which members believe they are selected by God to survive Judgment Day and their time on earth is meant to preach salvation.
Starting in the early 1990s, the Westboro Baptist Church began picketing funerals, attracting worldwide attention. The group traveled far and wide to show up with signs outside funeral services for military veterans, gay rights advocates, AIDS victims, celebrities, and others to spread the message that their deaths were the result of God’s hatred of America’s bankrupt values.
The controversy Phelps generated was not necessarily tied to his Baptist beliefs, or even his literal reading of the Bible, but more to his unwavering commitment to putting his beliefs into action, says Timothy Miller, a professor of religious studies at the University of Kansas in Lawrence.
“If you took away [Westboro’s] flamboyant style, you’d find that quite a lot of people share their point of view, to a fair extent. But of course what they did, their actions, offended so many people,” Professor Miller says.
Lawsuits hounded the church, but it managed to clear the legal hurdles, allowing members to continue picketing funerals. In a landmark 2011 ruling, the US Supreme Court held that grieving families and others cannot sue the church for damages due to the free speech protections of the First Amendment.
Phelps earned his law license in 1964 but was disbarred in Kansas in 1979 because of ethical violations. His family law firm is operated by five of his children, plus a daughter-in-law, who are also attorneys dedicated to both pushing through the church’s issues in court and protecting it from legal challenges.
“The family is thick with lawyers. Most of the kids who [were not ex-communicated] are lawyers. It costs them nothing and they are quite good with first amendment law and they manage to, by hook or by crook, win very complicated cases,” says Mr. Potok.
Citizens of Topeka, in particular, have grown use to the presence of Westboro members out picketing most weekends outside movie theaters, universities, government buildings, and more. The church operates out of the Phelps home in a compound surrounded by security gates, cameras, and a large banner advertising the church’s website.
“It’s really embarrassing for the city,” says Barry Crawford, a religion professor at Washburn University in Topeka. The notion that the picketing will pause now is bringing some relief to the community, but Professor Crawford predicts that will likely be “just momentary.”
“I can’t imagine the picketing stopping. The signs can be really nasty. There is some optimism that things might change, but I’m not too sure about that,” he says.
There are questions about whether Phelps will be replaced, and, if so, by whom. The church does not recognize women as leaders, which leaves a limited number of potential candidates, considering the church has fewer than 20 members. The strongest candidate, estranged son Nathan Phelps told the Topeka Capital-Journal, is his brother Tim Phelps or church spokesman Steve Drain.
Potok of the Southern Law Poverty Center compares the insular nature of the church “to small Klan groups,” which are often comprised of families, relatives, and neighbors. The charisma of leaders like Phelps is usually the glue that binds believers together, and the typical pattern is that, upon their death, followers tend to fall away.
“By all aspects we can see, the Westboro Baptist Church operated by a cult of personality. It was built around [Phelps’s] personal politics and personality,” he says. “We see that, very often, radical groups don’t survive the death of their founders. No doubt it will go on for weeks, or months, conceivably even years, but it’s perfectly possible it will collapse or fly apart at the seams.”
On Thursday, the church released a statement denying there was infighting among members, mocking media organizations for speculating in what it described as “an unprecedented, hypocritical, vitriolic explosion of words.”
“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. No red shoes, no goofy hat, and no white smoke for us; thank you very much,” the statement read.