Fred Phelps was born in Meridian, Mississippi on November 29, 1929. His current occupation is rabblerouser, hatemonger, and preacher for the Westboro Baptist Church, a Primitive Baptist church in Topeka, Kansas. He has also worked as a vacuum cleaner salesman and as a lawyer. He has been disbarred for defrauding his clients, lying in court, and harrassment. He enjoys competing in triathlons and exercises daily.
Phelps was, by all accounts, a shy and unassuming, though frequently very angry, boy. He was an Eagle Scout, ran hurdles, played in the band, worked for the school newspaper, and was a Golden Gloves boxing contender. He graduated sixth in his class at the age of 16 and was recommended to West Point. Because of his age, he had to wait a year before he could enter West Point, and at some point during that year, he attended a Methodist revival, found God, and turned away from his military dreams to pursue a life as a minister.
Phelps attended Bob Jones University. In the summer of 1947, he and two other students were assigned to preach to and convert non-believers and encourage them to join fundamentalist churches. They chose to preach at Vernal, Utah, mainly because it was a hotbed of evil Mormonism. They met with limited success, mainly because Phelps was insulting and belligerent to everyone he came across. But at the end of the summer, they returned to the university, and Phelps was ordained as a minister at the ripe old age of 17.
Phelps had his first brush with fame when he moved to California and enrolled at John Muir College in Pasadena. He started a campaign to stamp out necking, petting, and dirty jokes on campus that landed him in the June 11, 1951 issue of Time Magazine. In 1955, he moved to Topeka, Kansas, where he was given a new church -- Westboro Baptist -- and quickly offended most of his congregation into leaving. Phelps believed that God hated almost everyone -- himself, his immediate family, and his supporters excluded, of course -- a doctrine which, surprisingly, found little support among the parishioners he railed against from his pulpit. Phelps has remained the sole pastor of Westboro Baptist's approximately 50-member congregation (almost all of the church members are also members of Phelps' family).
Phelps likes to present himself as an amiable family man, but there is plentiful evidence that he has been an abuser of his wife and 13 children for decades. Two of the four children who have left the family have reported savage beatings at the hands of their almost-constantly enraged father. They were beaten hundreds of times with mattock handles and leather straps, while their mother calmly watched and wiped their faces off between sessions. He would kick them in the stomach, twist their arms until they were almost dislocated, hold them in the air and knee them in the groin. He would scream invective for hours on end. For a time, he was addicted to amphetamines, but when he kicked the habit, he became a health nut and forced the children to exercise and run marathons. When he thought they were too fat, he put them on starvation diets which sometimes lasted for months.
Phelps was also emotionally abusive. In addition to his extensive and profane tirades about the kids, he also commanded that none of them could ever marry or live outside the home without his permission. He also insisted that they all get law degrees, despite whatever academic interests they had, because he wanted to have a whole family of lawyers on hand to help him sue his enemies.
Phelps hated his father for marrying again after his mother died, and he forbade his father from ever seeing him or his family. When his father sent their grandchildren photographs, Phelps cut the pictures up into tiny pieces and mailed them back.
His attacks have not been limited to his family either. Though he stridently defends his own First Amendment rights, he works overtime to shut up anyone who speaks against him, especially in his hometown of Topeka. He is an enthusiastic abuser of the lawsuit, blocking up court dockets in Topeka with frivolous lawsuits designed to harass and intimidate his opponents. He and his family picket public officials, businesses, and churches. They used to picket private homes until the city council banned it. He sends out hundreds of faxes libeling those he disagrees with. Of course, no evidence is ever provided to back up his charges. In many cases, the people who Phelps pickets, sues, slanders, or taunts are guilty of only minor crimes against Phelps -- they preached tolerance from the pulpit, they employed a homosexual, they got in his way at the track. But he has very effectively cowed much of Topeka into silence. The police avoid him, the press avoids him, the churches avoid him. He has beaten them all.
Here's what two of his estranged sons, Mark and Nate Phelps, said about their childhood once in an interview: "We weren't allowed to participate in any activities at school. Not through most of our childhoods. No sports, not even track, until my senior year. And no outside friends. No one was allowed to visit, and we weren't allowed to go anywhere. To birthday parties or anything. Then, shave our heads. My father wanted the world to reject us. It would drive us right back to him. To the Place. The world-within-a-world. The one that was Fredcentric."
Fred Phelps is, in all likelihood, a sadist.
Eventually, his children grew up. Some of them gathered up their courage (Phelps had promised them that if they ever left home, he would excommunicate them and they would instantly go straight to hell) and left the family. In at least one case, one of his kids threatened him with a butcher knife if he wouldn't stop beating their mother. Clearly, the time was coming when he wouldn't be able to inflict physical and emotional pain on his family, and he needed a new target for his cruelty. The growing panic over AIDS in the 1980s inspired him to launch his infamous campaign against homosexuals. He and his family conduct daily demonstrations outside their church, waving signs that say, "GOD HATES FAGS", "FAGS HATE GOD", "AIDS CURES FAGS", "THANK GOD FOR AIDS", "GOD GAVE FAGS UP", and other similar slogans. They also like to conduct these demonstrations at the funerals of homosexuals who died of AIDS or were killed by gay-bashers -- Phelps takes special pleasure in the Matthew Shepard case -- the church's website includes a counter proclaiming how many days Shepard has been burning in hell.
After 9/11, Phelps added a new gimmick to his repertoire -- America-bashing. His reasoning seems to be that 9/11 was God's punishment on America for failing to kill gays enough. Unsurprisingly, this made more people hate him than ever before. Judging this new spin on his ministry to be a great success, Phelps has taken to denouncing anything that makes it onto the nightly news. Dead miners in West Virginia? God hated them. Major city destroyed by hurricane? God hated them. Beloved celebrity dies? God hated them. Phelps and his congregation have even started picketing the funerals of soldiers killed in the Iraq war. Anything to get more attention and to spread more pain.
Here are some choice tidbits from Westboro Baptist's FAQ:
(Question: Why do you preach hate?) "Because the Bible preaches hate. For every one verse about God's mercy, love, compassion, etc., there are two verses about His vengeance, hatred, wrath, etc. The maudlin, kissy-pooh, feel-good, touchy-feely preachers of today's society are damning this nation and this world to hell."
(Question: Didn't Jesus die for everyone?) "No. Jesus died only for His sheep (John 10). His church (Ephesians 5:25). His elect (I Peter 1:2). If He died for everyone, everyone would go to heaven. All sins of all people would be forgiven. But obviously, all sins aren't forgiven, because people are burning in hell."
"The only true Jews are Christians. The rest of the people who claim to be Jews aren't, and they are nothing more than typical, impenitent sinners, who have no Lamb. As evidence of their apostacy, the vast majority of Jews support fags. Of course, there are Jews who still believe God's law, but most of them have even departed from that."
As any halfway decent theologian can tell you, Phelps' grasp of Biblical principles is ludicrously weak. He seems to know this, because he always refuses to debate Biblical scholars about his beliefs. But if Phelps is a poor evangelist for God, he is an excellent evangelist for hate. If I were a more Christian person, I would point out that his detractors hate him and are led to damnation, while his family and supporters hate for him and are led to damnation. A win-win equation for Old Scratch...
Some final thoughts, first from Mark Phelps: "If my father's going to become a spokesman for the Christian Reform Movement, it's important Christians realize who he really is. What worries me most is my brothers and sisters may see him as a Christ-like figure. He has nothing to do with Christ. He is a sad, sick man who likes to hurt people. For as long as I've known him, he has been addicted to hate."
And from me: It's tempting to dismiss Phelps as a small, insignificant nobody grabbing a place in the national spotlight by shouting "FAG!" a few times. One wants to avoid calling him evil or a monster or anything like that, because you can sense that's what he really wants. But, strictly based on his sadistic treatment of his family, I think words like "evil" and "monster" are perfectly acceptable.
I'm an atheist. I believe that, when Fred Phelps dies, he will cease to exist, just like you, me, and everyone else. I don't expect him to go to hell, and I certainly don't expect him to earn any angel's wings. But Fred Phelps is one of the reasons I sit up late at night and hope that I've been wrong...
Information derived from the godhatesfags.com website and from an unpublished (and essentially suppressed) story by Jon Bell for the Topeka Capital-Journal (it used to be available online, but the Capital-Journal got it safely hidden away. Some background on that is available at http://www.cjr.org/year/94/5/topeka.asp .) ((UPDATE: Bell's article is back online at http://www.godhatesfundies.com/misc/ath))
(The suffering I go through for this site. /me goes for a walk in the park to expunge some of Fred's website from my brain.)
Thanks to wertperch for tracking down Fred's birthdate...