Revival meeting changed Phelps' path

Daughter says leader of Topeka hate group is misunderstood

The Boston Globe/November 30, 2004
By Derek Spellman

It was the early 1940s, and Fred Phelps Sr. was seeking an outlet for his intellectual gifts.

At age 16, he had graduated from his high school as valedictorian and had secured an appointment to the U.S. Military Academy from President Truman.

But the academy's age requirement - it would not accept anyone under 17 - left him with some time to travel. It was then that he came upon a religious revival meeting.

During the revival, Phelps decided to forgo plans for West Point. He enrolled at Bob Jones College in Cleveland, Tenn., for ministerial training.

Ordained as a minister by the Southern Baptists, he later established Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka, Kan., and became its pastor in the 1960s.

Shirley Phelps-Roper, of Topeka, in a telephone interview Monday, told the story of her father, now 75, and what set him on the path that would make him one of America's most virulent foes of homosexuality.

Signs stating "God hates fags," "Thank God for Sept. 11" and "Turn or burn" have become a hallmark of his followers' demonstrations. Phelps, who for a time was a lawyer, has since been disbarred. His daughter said 11 of his 13 children have attended law school.

The Web site for Westboro Baptist Church has an online memorial devoted to Matthew Shepard, a gay Wyoming man who was brutally beaten to death in 1998. Phelps' group protested at Shepard's funeral, and the online memorial keeps count of the days - 2,241 as of Monday - since his death and descent "into hell."

Phelps was not available for comment Monday, but his daughter said people have been misled by the controversy and scrutiny surrounding her father. Phelps is not consumed by hate but is a generous man, she said.

"You will never find a kinder people than here," she said of the Westboro church.

Others say the church's shrill rhetoric and obscenities have cemented its reputation as a collection of extremists.

"He doesn't seem to be effectively reaching people," said Paul Cates, director of public relations at the American Civil Liberties Union office in New York.

In fact, the tactics of the Westboro church usually do not earn followers but produce the opposite effect, Cates said.

Phelps' protesters were vastly outnumbered by opponents when they protested Sunday at Joplin churches and Monday at Webb City High School.

But Phelps-Roper said the Westboro church, which has a regular following of about 100 people, is steadfast in its beliefs.

The congregation rejects mainstream church practices such as passing around collection plates during worship. The Phelps family pays for its campaign against homosexuality through work instead of patronage, Phelps-Roper said.

"We don't ask for money," she said.

The church's tactics have left a number of people baffled by its motives. Some people who witnessed or opposed the protests Sunday and Monday said they could not speculate as to whether members of the Westboro church genuinely believe in their preaching.

"You'd have to believe it to spend this much time (on it)," said David McKibben, a member of the First Baptist Church of Joplin.

Cates said that while the church's invective can make it seem to be a radical fringe group, the rhetoric can influence people who are ambivalent about homosexuality.

"Sometimes it does make people think," he said.

To see more documents/articles regarding this group/organization/subject click here.