The Transformation of Fred Phelps

The Topeka Capital-Journal
By Joe Taschler and Steve Fry

Hate as a human emotion has been present throughout the ages. It has manifested itself in genocide and war. About three years ago, hate began manifesting itself in pickets and facsimile machines in Topeka, the heart of middle America. As the decade marches on, so does the hate, unchecked. The blunt hatred startles most people when they first experience it. They find out the hating is being done in the name of God. They're speechless. The whole idea takes their breathe away.

The broker of hatred is the Rev. Fred Waldron Phelps Sr.

Most of his hate is focused on homosexuals for whom he advocates the death penalty. Seven days a week, Phelps and his followers carry picket signs throughout the city. The signs declare "God hates fags" and "Fags are worthy of death," among other things. The pickets began more than three years ago at Gage Park, a 160-acre park in the west-central part of the city. The park features the city's zoo and dome-enclosed tropical rain forest. Thousands of people visit the park each year.

The Phelps pickets have continually expanded and have popped up in such places as New York, Washington, D.C., and San Francisco. Additionally, the pickets are taking place throughout Kansas as well as the Kansas City metropolitan area. Phelps and his clan seem to be everywhere.

Phelps' message of hate isn't limited to picket signs. Phelps and his followers also send facsimiles -- faxes -- to hundreds of fax machines in homes and offices around the nation. But most of the faxes are sent to homes and businesses in Topeka and Kansas. The Phelps faxes almost always attack someone or something in the city or state. Phelps has used the faxes to label the mayor of Topeka the "ANTICHRIST." The faxes repeatedly refer to a city council woman as a "Jezebelian switch-hitting whore." The faxes also call the county's district attorney a "gestapo," "forked-tongued she-devil," and a "dirt-dumb, butt-ugly and demon-possessed vixen." The DA campaigned on a platform of prosecuting Phelps and has carried through on her promises, leading to a bitter feud between the two.

All of the information contained in the faxes is protected by free speech, Phelps says. He has received some encouragement from the federal courts with regards to his faxes.

Phelps and his followers picket the funerals of homosexuals in Topeka. The Phelps group also travels throughout the country to picket the funerals of openly-gay celebrities or persons who have died of AIDS.

Fred Phelps, Sr., also is a candidate for governor of Kansas.

An avowed critic of President Clinton, Phelps and his followers picket presidential visits and other gatherings of elected officials.

In Kansas, the funeral picketing led to a state law aimed at limiting such activity.

Phelps' hate extends beyond homosexuals to anyone who has ever crossed him, disagreed with him or challenged him. Phelps doesn't hide the fact that he hates and is hated. When questioned about it, he meekly, almost sheepishly, replies he is doing the work of God. He is sincere: He absolutely believes God wants him to preach hate against homosexuals. He sees himself as an island of righteousness in the age of Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome -- AIDS -- and gays rights.

Anyone who challenges Phelps and his tactics automatically becomes a promoter of homosexuals. Anyone who is a homosexual or isn't actively and vocally opposed to homosexuality is a "sodomite." Simply put, if you aren't for Phelps, you are against him. Nine of his 13 grandchildren and more than three dozen grandchildren are unshakable in sharing his beliefs.

Most people in northeast Kansas -- generally tolerant, gentle people whose roots are in farming and operating small businesses -- have accepted the hateful pickets and faxes the way they accept tornadoes and violent thunderstorms that march across the state each spring: They are a fact of life you must live with, but they are to be avoided, if possible. Phelps claims there are many people in the community and the state who support him and believe in what he is doing. But the only source of the hate is the mind of Phelps.

Dozens of interviews conducted across several states only add to the mystery surrounding Phelps. Nothing in his background explains his behavior. Rumors in Topeka that he is gay or was abused as a child aren't true. His life is a fog-shrouded labyrinth of strange turns and twists of fate. Conflict is the only thing constant in his life. He thrives on it.

In the beginning

Fred Waldron Phelps was born Nov. 13, 1929, in Meridian, Miss. He had a typical Southern upbringing in a highly respected family.

Searches of historic records and interviews with Mississippi residents who either knew young Fred Phelps and his family -- or just knew of them -- provide a fascinating account of his early days.

His father, Fred Wade Phelps, was a detective for the Southern Railroad. His mother, Catherine Idalette Johnston Phelps, was a homemaker who died Sept. 3, 1935. She was 28 years old. Fred was 5 years old. Mississippi residents who remember the Phelps family say Mrs. Phelps died of throat cancer. Mrs. Phelps' obituary indicates the family was prominent in Meridian. Honorary pallbearers for her funeral included the mayor of Meridian, a city councilman, two judges and every member of the Meridian Police Department.

Thetis Grace Hudson, a feisty 72-year-old retired Meridian librarian who was a childhood neighbor of the Phelps family, said young Fred acted with "bewilderment" to his mother's death. After his mother's death, a maternal great-aunt, Irene Jordan, helped care for Fred and his younger sister, Martha Jean. At times, work caused Fred's father to be away from home, and Jordan cared for the children. In a 1991 fax, Phelps refers to her as "the dear old aunt who raised me and my sister after our mother died." Jordan died in 1950 in a motor vehicle accident as she drove from Hattiesburg, Miss., to Meridian. Two of the principal women in Fred's life died before he reached the age of 21. Fred's father later re-married.

Folks in Meridian say there is nothing in Phelps' background that caused him to take to the streets and fax machines of Topeka in a hate campaign. Phelps' childhood appeared normal in Depression-era Mississippi. "There was nothing in his family out of the ordinary," Hudson said. She remembered Phelps as being a very intelligent child. Hudson said Phelps' father remained with the railroad during the Depression, and the family lived comfortably during the time when other families in the region were being ravaged by economic conditions.

Over and over, Mississippians insisted there was nothing in Phelps' childhood and teenage years that caused him to be the way he is today. "Fred Phelps had as normal and beautiful a home life as anyone ever wanted," a relative of Phelps in Mississippi said. She didn't want her name used. "All I know is it's a tragedy, and it stems from within Fred Phelps," she said of the homosexual picketing and hate campaign. "It has nothing to do with his upbringing."

High school years

Sid F. Curtis Jr., a Meridian resident, was a classmate of young Fred Phelps at Marion Park Elementary School in Meridian. Curtis remembers Phelps' artwork. "He likes sports. He did some very nice drawings of boxing. I thought he was very talented."

Some relatives and acquaintances in Mississippi talked freely about Phelps, but most didn't want their names used for the stories. They feared retaliation from Phelps. Others said they didn't want anyone to know they were related to him. They repeated the same themes about Phelps: As a youngster, he was smart and an achiever. By all accounts, he was a model citizen.

Fletcher Rosenbaum, a retired lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Air Force who lives in Meridian, went to high school with Phelps. "He was good at whatever he tried," Rosenbaum said. "He was a first-class individual. I would be surprised if he wasn't a top-notch citizen in Topeka."

The anti-homosexual picketing and fax-machine attacks surprised Rosenbaum. "He was very reserved in high school, very quiet," said Rosenbaum. "I'm very surprised he would be involved in aggressive activities. To me, that would be out of character for him."

As a teenager, Fred was tall, thin and sported a crew cut. He was extraordinarily smart, but a little overbearing about it at times. Fred was a reserved and serious high school student and didn't date anyone in high school.

"He was not a real socializer, but he knew a lot of people. Everyone had the greatest respect for him," said Meridian lawyer, Joe Clay Hamilton, a high school classmate of Phelps. Fred earned the rank of Eagle Scout with Palms, played cornet and base horn in the high school band, was a high hurdler on the track team, worked as a reporter on the Wildcat -- Meridian High School's newspaper -- and was graduated with honors. He was a member of Phi Kappa, a high school social fraternity. He also was president of the Young Peoples Department of Central United Methodist Church and received an award from the American Legion recognizing high qualities of courage, leadership, scholarship and service. Fred received another award as the best drilled member of the Mississippi Junior State Guard, a unit similar to the Reserve Officer Training Corps.

In a class of 213, Fred ranked sixth and was the class orator at commencement on May 28, 1946. "The Four Freedoms must be shared and not just enjoyed," a Meridian Star newspaper story quoted Fred as saying during his speech, titled "Our Heritage and Our Responsibility." Phelps was referring to President Franklin D. Roosevelt's definition of the four freedoms as freedom of speech, freedom of worship, freedom from want and freedom from fear.

A story in the Wildcat about 1946 Meridian High School graduates included this rhyme:

"Fred Phelps would be an athlete great,

Did he not believe in studying late."

Fred's prowess as a boxer figured in a story predicting the futures of Phelps and his fellow high school classmates. "Fred Phelps will box in Madison Square Garden next June 1954. Young Phelps will fight for the world championship," the Wildcat clipping read. A Golden Gloves boxer in high school, Fred fought two times in a state meet, winning both matches.

The Transformation

The year 1946 marked a turning point in Phelps' life. That year, he was graduated from high school and preparing to attend the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. He had been groomed for a West Point appointment all his life and had secured an appointment to the military academy from Mississippi's Fifth Congressional district.

That summer, Phelps attended a revival at a Methodist church in Meridian, and his life spun around and headed in another direction. The revival ignited an inferno inside him.

Fred Phelps, by his own account, was being called by God to be a preacher and missionary.

The tiny seed that ultimately grew into Phelps' fervent anti-homosexual ministry was planted by a Methodist minister conducting the revival at the East End Methodist Church in Meridian. Phelps still remembers the minister's sermon. "It was the parable where the Lord Jesus said a certain man made a great supper and bade many to come, and they all began to make excuses," Phelps said. "He said the Kingdom of heaven is like unto man who made a great supper. His application of it was there is no logical, rational reason why any human being should not get right with God in his heart. I remember that sermon pretty doggone good."

Shortly before the revival, Phelps had met John Capron in Meridian, and they became close friends. They did everything together, including going to the movies and attending gatherings at the Central United Methodist Church, Meridian's largest Methodist church. Capron eventually married Fred's sister, Martha Jean.

Mississippi sources say the revival was instrumental in changing Phelps and John Capron.

The two of them "got religion," said Joe Clay Hamilton, the high school classmate of Phelps. Both Phelps and Capron became very excited about religion. They couldn't distinguish reality from idealism, friends and relatives said. They were going off to conquer the world. A Mississippi relative of Phelps who didn't want her name used, described it this way: "Fred, bless his heart, just went overboard. If you didn't accept it, he was going to cram it down your throat."

What made the transformation even more astonishing is what it did to Phelps' plans. He was to begin West Point in 1947. His father's dream had been for Phelps to attend West Point. Young Fred shared the dream and had driven himself toward it since childhood. But Phelps, who was 16 when he graduated from Meridian High School, couldn't begin until he turned 17. While waiting for his 17th birthday, he "felt the call."

Dreams of West Point melted away like an ice cube tossed onto a hot sidewalk. Phelps, by his own description, "went to a little Methodist revival meeting and had what I think was an experience of grace, they call it down there. I felt the call, as they say, and it was powerful. The God of glory appeared. It doesn't mean a vision or anything, but it means an impulse on the heart, as the old preachers say."

In January 1947, Phelps abandoned plans for West Point and enrolled in Bob Jones University, a non-denominational Christian university then located in Cleveland, Tenn. The school offers degrees ranging from two-year associate's degrees to doctoral degrees. The university teaches a literal interpretation of the Bible. In 1983, the Internal Revenue Service revoked the university's tax exemption because it accused the school of practicing racial discrimination. Years later, Phelps renounced the university as "racist."

By the summer of 1947, Fred Phelps had switched his religious denomination to Baptist.

He had become zealous, devout, a fiery orator and an eccentric, said the Rev. B.H. McAlister, a Southern Baptist minister who ordained Phelps.

As part of the Rocky Mountain mission assignment in summer 1947, Phelps and two other students from Bob Jones University were to seek out a fundamentalist church, convert non-believers to Christianity and steer the converts to the Baptist church. The three men chose Vernal, a town in northeast Utah about 130 miles east of Salt Lake City. During the day, the trio went door to door seeking converts, then conducted tent revivals at night, preaching on the radio. McAlister was pastor of the First Baptist Church in Vernal at the time.

The mission assignment fit Phelps' nature and his knack for conflict: He was a Baptist working to convert people who were predominantly and stauchly Mormon.

Pitching a tent in the city park of Vernal, the missionaries drew only 20 to 25 people a night. Then one of the three, Ed Nelson, ran a newspaper advertisement that asked, "What's Wrong with the Mormon Church?"

"Boy, did we get a crowd," said Nelson, 69, now a travelling Baptist evangelist based in Denver. Nelson recalled the events that night: Tensions rose between the missionaries and the crowd of 200 spectators, many of them Mormons disputing the missionaries' message. The crowd stormed the speaking platform, and one spectator grabbed Phelps, who had been the song leader that night. "'Get your filthy mitts off me,'" Nelson quoted Phelps as saying. Phelps pulled his fist back. "I was afraid he was going to punch one of those guys," Nelson said.

Nelson turned off the light to avoid a fight.

Nelson last saw Phelps in 1952 or 1953. "The last time I saw him he thought there were only a handful to be saved and he was one of them."

When it came time for Phelps' ordination, "we put him through the paces because of his young age," McAlister said. "We feared for him because of his youth." Phelps was 17, at least three years younger than most ministers when ordained.

McAlister, who has helped ordain hundreds, described the ordination process: An examination board of 10 to 20 ministers asks a candidate questions about doctrine and scripture. Not everyone passes.

Phelps did. He was ordained Sept. 8, 1947, and then returned to Bob Jones University as a Southern Baptist minister.

Today, Nelson and McAlister share Phelps' anti-homosexual sentiments. But, "I question his wisdom as to his being so zealous," McAlister said.

Despite being ordained as a Southern Baptist minister, Phelps touts himself as a Primitive Baptist preacher and an Old School preacher. No rules prevent him from switching denominations, said Mark Coppenger, an official with the Southern Baptist Convention in Nashville, Tenn.

"I was ordained by the First Baptist Church of Vernal, Utah," Phelps says. "There is no such thing as being ordained by the Southern Baptists. You are ordained by the Baptist church. I went to that church, and we liked each other. They baptized me in a mountain stream that was cold and ordained me."

Phelps says he hasn't missed a Sunday preaching lesson since. "So the hunch was good," he said. "If the call was good, it never goes away."

Street Preacher

Phelps left Bob Jones University without graduating.

From Bob Jones, Phelps headed north to the Prairie Bible Institute in Three Hills near Calgary, Alberta. After two semesters, Phelps moved to California in April 1949, where he earned a two-year degree in 1951 from John Muir College in Pasadena.

Phelps' gift at being a malcontented street corner preacher started getting national attention 43 years ago, long before he and his followers descended on Topeka's Gage Park.

The June 11, 1951 issue of Time Magazine included a story on Phelps, then a Pasadena street preacher who lectured lunch-hour students about "sins committed on campus by students and teachers." The sins Phelps cited included promiscuous petting, evil language, profanity, cheating, teachers' filthy jokes in classrooms and pandering to the lusts of the flesh.

One day, police approached Phelps and escorted him to a police car, telling him his removal from the street was for his own protection because the crowd was becoming hostile. Police chatted with him, then released him after the crowd broke up. Phelps was back out preaching almost immediately after his run-in with the police in Pasadena, returning to preach from the lawn of a sympathizer near the school. His 1951 behavior was a prophecy of his behavior in Topeka in the 1990s: When he is challenged or told he is wrong, his resolve to continue becomes as tough and cold as tempered steel.

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