Fred Phelps Sr: 'on the edge of death'

The Westboro Baptist Church is notorious for picketing the funerals of gay people and soldiers. Now its founder is apparently on his death bed.

Share

He spent much of his life making unwelcome appearances at other people's funerals, with placards bearing the infamous slogan, "God Hates Fags". Yet now, as Fred Phelps Sr approaches his own death, even members of his close family have been barred – by other family members who have stayed loyal to him –from saying goodbye. According to a Facebook post by his estranged son Nathan Phelps, the 84-year-old founder of the anti-gay Westboro Baptist Church (WBC), was excommunicated last summer by the group he himself founded almost 60 years ago, and is now "on the edge of death" at a hospice in Topeka, Kansas.

Nathan Phelps, the sixth of the pastor's 13 children, fled his abusive father and the WBC in 1980. Now 55 and an avowed atheist, he lives in Canada, where he campaigns on behalf of LGBT rights. Of his father's excommunication and imminent demise, he wrote: "I'm not sure how I feel about this. Terribly ironic that his devotion to his god ends this way. Destroyed by the monster he made. I feel sad for all the hurt he's caused so many. I feel sad for those who will lose the grandfather and father they loved. And I'm bitterly angry that my family is blocking the family members who left from seeing him."

Fred Phelps Sr, an ordained minister, established the WBC in Topeka in 1955, but only in the past two decades has the church become infamous for its practice of picketing the funerals of gay people, public figures and – since 9/11 – the US servicemen and women killed in Afghanistan and Iraq. Phelps and his bitterly homophobic followers purport to believe that the deaths of US military personnel represent God's punishment for homosexuality.

The Westboro Baptist Church was known for picketing the funerals of gay people and soldiers The Westboro Baptist Church was known for picketing the funerals of gay people and soldiers (Getty) The fringe Calvinist group – whose lesser-known slogans include "Fags Die, God Laughs" and "Thank God for Maimed Soldiers" – has achieved disproportionate notoriety, given that it has always consisted of fewer than 100 adherents, most members of the extended Phelps family.As a young man, Phelps was a successful civil rights lawyer, but he was disbarred by the Kansas Supreme Court in 1979 after reportedly reducing a witness to tears on the stand by accusing her of obscene sexual acts. His anti-gay crusade became common knowledge in 1998, when he picketed the funeral of Matthew Shepard, a Wyoming student who was tortured and murdered by two other men in a homophobic attack.

As well as military memorials, the WBC has picketed the funerals of public figures such as Apple founder Steve Jobs. Its members staged a demonstration at Ground Zero in New York, claiming 9/11 was divine retribution for homosexuality. It has even picketed performances of The Laramie Project, an acclaimed play about Shepard's murder. On its website, the group claims to have picketed more than 52,000 events, and reveals its plans for several more protests including upcoming Lorde and Miley Cyrus concert dates in Kansas City, Missouri.

In 2011, the US Supreme Court upheld the WBC's right to stage its demonstrations, on free speech grounds. Yet over the past decade, more than 20 members have followed Nathan Phelps by leaving the church. The group's steady deterioration was documented by filmmaker Louis Theroux in two programmes for the BBC, The Most Hated Family in America (2007) and America's Most Hated Family in Crisis (2011).

Fred Phelps Sr is thought to have preached his last Sunday sermon on 1 September 2013. In an email to the Topeka Capital-Journal on Sunday, Nathan Phelps reportedly said his father had been voted out of the group shortly thereafter, and moved to a hospice, where he had stopped eating and drinking. Another of Phelps's sons, Mark Phelps, confirmed Nathan's claims were "accurate". Steve Drain, a spokesman for the church, told the Capitol-Journal that Phelps was being treated at a hospice. However, Drain also claimed: "The source that says he's near death is not well informed."

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Software Developer

£35000 - £45000 Per Annum Pensions Scheme After 6 Months: Clearwater People So...

Systems Analyst / Business Analyst - Central London

£35000 - £37000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: Systems Analyst / Busines...

Senior Change Engineer (Network, Cisco, Juniper) £30k

£30000 - £35000 per annum + Benefits: Ampersand Consulting LLP: Senior Change ...

Senior Change Engineer (Windows, Linux, VMWare) - London £35k

£30000 - £35000 per annum + Benefits: Ampersand Consulting LLP: Senior Change ...

Day In a Page

Read Next
David Cameron has painted a scary picture of what life would be like under a Labour government  

You want constitutional change? Fixed-term parliaments have already done the job

Steve Richards
Nigel Farage has backed DJ Mike Read's new Ukip song  

Ukip Calypso by Mike Read? The horror! The horror!

Patrick Strudwick
Oscar Pistorius sentencing: The athlete's wealth and notoriety have provoked a long overdue debate on South African prisons

'They poured water on, then electrified me...'

If Oscar Pistorius is sent to jail, his experience will not be that of other inmates
James Wharton: The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

Life after the Army has brought new battles for the LGBT activist James Wharton
Ebola in the US: Panic over the virus threatens to infect President Obama's midterms

Panic over Ebola threatens to infect the midterms

Just one person has died, yet November's elections may be affected by what Republicans call 'Obama's Katrina', says Rupert Cornwell
Premier League coaches join the RSC to swap the tricks of their trades

Darling, you were fabulous! But offside...

Premier League coaches are joining the RSC to learn acting skills, and in turn they will teach its actors to play football. Nick Clark finds out why
How to dress with authority: Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear

How to dress with authority

Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear
New book on Joy Division's Ian Curtis sheds new light on the life of the late singer

New book on Ian Curtis sheds fresh light on the life of the late singer

'Joy Division were making art... Ian was for real' says author Jon Savage
Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

The Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Barbra Streisand is his true inspiration
Tim Minchin, interview: The musician, comedian and world's favourite ginger is on scorching form

Tim Minchin interview

For a no-holds-barred comedian who is scathing about woolly thinking and oppressive religiosity, he is surprisingly gentle in person
Boris Johnson's boozing won't win the puritan vote

Boris's boozing won't win the puritan vote

Many of us Brits still disapprove of conspicuous consumption – it's the way we were raised, says DJ Taylor
Ash frontman Tim Wheeler reveals how he came to terms with his father's dementia

Tim Wheeler: Alzheimer's, memories and my dad

Wheeler's dad suffered from Alzheimer's for three years. When he died, there was only one way the Ash frontman knew how to respond: with a heartfelt solo album
Hugh Bonneville & Peter James: 'Peter loves his classic cars; I've always pootled along fine with a Mini Metro. I think I lack his panache'

How We Met: Hugh Bonneville & Peter James

'Peter loves his classic cars; I've always pootled along fine with a Mini Metro. I think I lack his panache'
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's heavenly crab dishes don't need hours of preparation

Bill Granger's heavenly crab recipes

Scared off by the strain of shelling a crab? Let a fishmonger do the hard work so you can focus on getting the flavours right
Radamel Falcao: How faith and love drive the Colombian to glory

Radamel Falcao: How faith and love drive the Colombian to glory

After a remarkable conversion from reckless defender to prolific striker, Monaco's ace says he wants to make his loan deal at Old Trafford permanent
Terry Venables: Premier League managers must not be allowed to dictate who plays and who does not play for England

Terry Venables column

Premier League managers must not be allowed to dictate who plays and who does not play for England
The Inside Word: Brendan Rodgers looks to the future while Roy Hodgson is ghost of seasons past

Michael Calvin's Inside Word

Brendan Rodgers looks to the future while Roy Hodgson is ghost of seasons past