Fred Phelps Sr., the former leader of the Westboro Baptist Church—a Christian-based family cult—died last night at the age of 84. Here are nine things you should know about the notorious religious leader and his organization.
1. Phelps was an Eagle Scout who was slated to attend the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. But during a Methodist revival meeting at the age of 17 he “felt the call” to ministry. He was baptized and ordained by First Baptist Church of Vernal, Utah, in 1947. In 1954, the East Side Baptist Church in Topeka hired Phelps as an associate pastor, and then promoted him to be the pastor of their new church, Westboro Baptist, which opened in 1955. Soon after Westboro was established, Phelps broke all ties with East Side Baptist.
2. In 1964 Phelps earned his law degree from Washburn University and founded the Phelps Chartered law firm, where he worked as a civil rights attorney. “I systematically brought down the Jim Crow laws of this town [Topeka, Kansas],” Phelps claimed. His career as a lawyer ended in 1979, when he was disbarred by the state of Kansas for allegedly being too abusive to witnesses.
3. After being disbarred, Phelps remained prominent in state and local politics, working for years as a major organizer for the state’s Democratic Party. (In 1988, Phelps housed campaign workers for Al Gore’s first presidential run.) He ran for governor of Kansas in 1990, 1994, and 1998, for the Senate in 1992. Because of his work in politics, Phelps was invited to two of Bill Clinton’s inaugurations. He attended both—and protested the president at the second.
4. Phelps established Westboro Baptist Church (WBC) in Topeka, Kansas, in 1955. The church describes itself as “an Old School (or, Primitive) Baptist Church.” (The Baptist World Alliance and the Southern Baptist Convention have each denounced the WBC over the years, as have many Primitive Baptist congregations.) The church subscribes to a form of hyper-Calvinism and claims to subscribe to three confessions of faith: The First London Baptist Confession of Faith (1646), The Savoy Declaration of Faith and Order (1658), and The Philadelphia Confession of Faith (1742). At its peak, the church had approximately 40 members, almost all of whom were related to Phelps by blood or marriage. (Phelps has 13 children and approximately 45 grandchildren.)
5. Phelps teaches a number of peculiar beliefs, including a form of “equal ultimacy,” in which God works equally to keep the elect in heaven and the reprobate out of heaven; that Billy Graham is the “greatest false prophet since Balaam”; and that after President Obama leads the nations in a war against Jerusalem (sic), 144,000 “elect Jews” will join WBC members in heaven.
6. Phelps and WBC claim “Jesus Christ invented picketing.” They began protesting in 1991 and picket approximately six locations every day. (One of Westboro’s followers estimated that the church spends $250,000 a year on picketing.) They claim to have picketed more than 52,000 times in all 50 states and three foreign countries. In 1997, Saddam Hussein granted Phelps and a group of WBC congregants permission to travel to Iraq. After arriving, they stood on a street in Baghdad and led a protest against the United States.
7. Because of Phelps protests at funerals of military service members, the U.S. House and Senate passed the Respect for America’s Fallen Heroes Act in 2006. The act bans protests within 300 feet of national cemeteries from an hour before a funeral to an hour after it. Violators face up to a $100,000 fine and up to a year in prison. On August 6, 2012, President Obama signed Pub.L. 112-154, the Honoring America’s Veterans and Caring for Camp Lejeune Families Act of 2012, which, among other things, requires a 300-foot and 2-hour buffer zone around military funerals.
8. The American Civil Liberties Union filed a lawsuit in Missouri on behalf of Phelps and Westboro Baptist Church to overturn the ban on the picketing of soldier’s funerals. In the case of Snyder v. Phelps the Supreme Court ruled 8-1 in favor of Phelps in an opinion released on March 2, 2011. The court held that “any distress occasioned by Westboro’s picketing turned on the content and viewpoint of the message conveyed, rather than any interference with the funeral itself” and thus could not be restricted.
9. According to his estranged son, Phelps was “excluded” from the Westboro Baptist Church in 2013 after advocating a kinder approach between church members. A recently formed board of elders—consisting mostly of Phelps’s sons and grandsons—voted to remove Phelps as pastor. WBC says these eight elders serve as ministers for the church.