The 84-year-old Fire and Brimstone former pastor of the Westboro Baptist Church of Topeka, Kansas, Fred Phelps, died of natural causes at 11:15 pm, according to church spokesman Steve Drain.
Phelp’s religious career began in 1954, when he was hired as an associate pastor of the East Side Baptist Church in Topeka. A new church was built by the Eastside church and Phelps was promoted as pastor of that new church in 1955. Soon after, Phelps broke all ties with the founding church.
The Westboro Baptist Church tweeted on Twitter after Phelps death, “Westboro Baptist Church thanks God for Fred Phelps Sr’s passing.”
The tweet also contained a link to a statement from the church that quoted scripture and admonished the press, saying, “The world-wide media has been in a frenzy during the last few days, gleefully anticipating the death of Fred Waldron Phelps Sr. It has been an unprecedented, hypocritical, vitriolic explosion of words.” another portion of the statement said, It’s like every journalist in the world simultaneously set aside what little journalistic integrity they have, so that they could wait breathlessly for a rumor to publish: in-fighting, succession plans, and power struggles, oh my! How shameful! You’re like a bunch of little girls on the playground waiting for some gossip!”
The full statement from the church can be read here.
The man who was known as “the most hated man in America,” along with the congregation of his church publicly picketed a myriad of events from funerals of U.S. soldiers to concerts. Members of the congregation, that many times included very small children carrying signs that read “Thank God for Dead Soldiers,” and anti-gay signs reading, “God Hates Fags,” offended many in the U.S. It is estimated that the religious group picketed as many as 53,000 events.
In addition to being the leader of the Westboro Baptist Church, Phelps was also a lawyer who earned his law degree at Washburn University in 1964. During his legal career, Phelps took on mainly civil rights cases, and at one time, filed suit against President Reagan for Reagan’s appointment of a U.S. Ambassador to the Vatican, claiming that it violated separation of church and state. The case was dismissed by the U.S. District Court.
Phelps practice of law was curtailed in Kansas when the state disbarred him after he knowingly made false statements to the court during a trial in which he was suing a court reporter named Caroline Brady. Although Phelps could no longer practice law in the state court, he continued practicing in federal court for a time. Then, in 1985, Phelps made false accusations against nine federal judges. By 1989, Phelps agreed to permanently quit practicing law in federal courts as well.
Phelps also ran in many of the state’s political primaries, including three times for the governor’s seat and once for the U.S. Senate. Phelps also ran for the mayor’s seat in Topeka twice. In all of his political attempts, Phelps would fail.
Phelps was also an early supporter of Al Gore, and even claimed that members of his church helped to run Gore’s campaign in Kansas in 1988. But, by 1997, Phelp’s view of Gore had changed after Gore changed his position on Gay Rights. Phelps and members of his church picketed Clinton’s Inaugural Ball, where they publicly called Vice President Gore a “Famous Fag Pimp.” One year later, Phelps and his group attended the funeral of Al Gore’s father, where they yelled out to Gore saying, “Your dad’s in Hell.”
In a 2011 YouTube video, Phelps thanked God for the “violent shooter” who shot Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords and told the nation that, “However many were dead, Westboro Baptist Church would picket their funerals.” Phelps said that “Gabrielle Gifford, an avid supporter of sin and baby-killing, was shot for that mischief.” He callled the Tucson shootings, God’s “Marvelous work.” He ended that video saying that “the Westboro Baptist Church prays for more shooters.”
That YouTube video can be seen here.
It was because of Phelps and his protests at military funerals that President GW Bush signed into law the “Respect for Fallen Heroes Act in 2006,” and Kansas Governor Kathleen Sebelius established a 150-yard picketing buffer zone around funerals in 2007.
Phelps, according to two of his sons, was just as angry and enraged at home. Nathan Phelps, Phelp’s son, claimed that his father would beat his wife and children with his fists as well as a pick-ax handle. Nathan’s claims were also repeated by another of Phelps sons.
A board of male elders of the Westboro Baptist Church excommunicated Phelps in August of 2013. The Spokesman for the church did not give reason for the excommunication, saying, “We don’t discuss our internal church dealings with anyone.” Members of Phelp’s own family sat on the board of male elders.