Elders excommunicate Phelps after power struggle, call for kindness within church

The Topeka Captital-Journal/March 17, 2014

By Steve Fry

Pastor Fred Waldron Phelps Sr. was excommunicated from the Westboro Baptist Church after advocating a kinder approach between church members.

The excommunication occurred after the formation of a board of male elders in the church. The board had defeated Shirley Phelps-Roper, the church’s longtime spokeswoman, in a power struggle, and Fred Phelps Sr. called for kinder treatment of fellow church members.

The board then ejected Fred Phelps Sr., who founded the church in the 1950s.

The power struggle and excommunication was revealed by Nate Phelps, a son of Fred Phelps Sr. who broke away from the church 37 years ago.

The elders had a big impact on Fred Phelps Sr., Nate Phelps said.

“They took the one thing that meant everything to the man,” Nate Phelps said, referring to Fred Phelps Sr.'s tie to the church. “That old man and his reason to exist have gone away.”

On Sunday, church spokesman Steve Drain refused to talk about the excommunication of Fred Phelps Sr.

"We don't discuss our internal church dealings with anybody," he said.

Westboro Baptist Church, an independent fundamentalist church, is best known for its controversial anti-gay picketing and picketing of funerals, particularly funerals of American troops.

In the past, decisions in the church were made by votes of the members, but now the elders issue the decisions, Nate Phelps said.

Among the all-male board of elders are Drain, Timothy Phelps, Jonathan Phelps, Samuel Phelps-Roper, Charles Hockenbarger and Fred Phelps Jr.

Some church members are constantly anxious, Nate Phelps said, because they worry whether they are marked as being “contrary” to the church or whether their heart isn’t right.

Drain as church spokesman marked a shift from Shirley Phelps-Roper, the former longtime church spokeswoman, who was clearly a leader and an influence in the church.

Shirley Phelps-Roper and her sister, Margie Jean Phelps, represented the church as attorneys before the U.S. Supreme Court in the lawsuit originally filed by Albert Snyder, the father of a Marine who was killed in the war in Iraq in 2006. The church picketed the Marine’s funeral.

Nate Phelps said he observed that Shirley Phelps-Roper had fallen from grace and wasn’t as visible in the church as she had been while Drain and Tim Phelps had become more visible. In recent months, calls made to Shirley Phelps-Roper by The Topeka Capital-Journal have been answered by Drain.

Nate Phelps said late Saturday in a Facebook post that his father is “now on the edge of death at Midland Hospice house in Topeka.” In the post, he also revealed the excommunication. Drain acknowledged Fred Phelps Sr. has been admitted to Midland Care Hospice, adding he "has a couple things going on" but disputed the gravity of his health.

"The source that says he's near death is not well informed," Drain said Sunday.

After Phelps was voted out of Westboro Baptist Church this past summer, he was moved out of the church and into a house, Nate Phelps said.

For many years, Fred Phelps Sr. and his wife, Margie Marie Phelps, lived in an upper floor of the church. The couple have 13 adult children, nine of whom remain in the church and four of whom have left the church. Roughly 20 of the couple's grandchildren also have left the church.

Fred Phelps Sr. is in and out of lucidity, Nate Phelps said, and he has a problem breathing.

Drain has declined to specify Fred Phelps Sr.’s illness.

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