By Beth Middleton.
Fred Phelps Senior, one of the most controversial figures of recent time, passed away on March 19th of this year. Amidst the general rejoicing and proposals that his funeral be picketed there was occasionally the odd suggestion that this man may not only be the founder of a homophobic hate group, but rather a father, grandfather and human being in his own right. Arguably, this is a man to be pitied rather than hated and to find joy in the death of an elderly man is to sink to even the Westboro Baptist Church’s levels.
Fred Phelps was born in Meridian, Mississippi, one of two children. His childhood was to be one of instability. His Mother died at the age of 28 of oesophageal cancer when Phelps was just five years old. From there he and his sister were raised by their great-aunt Irene Jordan, who then passed away in a car accident in 1950. After this tragedy Phelps moved back to live with his father who had remarried in 1944. By the mid 1950s Phelps was estranged from his parents and never spoke to them again.
Phelps married Margie M. Simms in May 1952. They had 13 children, 54 grandchildren and 7 great-grandchildren. There is undeniable controversy surrounding his role as a father and Nathan Phelps, Fred Phelps’ estranged son, has accused him of being an abusive father who beat both his children and his wife. Nathan Phelps states that the Westboro Baptist Church was just another outlet in which Phelps’ could channel his rage and anger.
The Westboro Baptist Church is best known for its anti-gay preaching and funeral picketing. It describes itself as following Primitive Baptist and Calvinist principles and aims to channel these into a way of life. Amongst these beliefs are those that only a few are selected for salvation before they’re born and that there is nothing that can be done during life to gain this salvation. Despite their Baptist roots the Church is not affiliated with any Baptist denomination as their controversial messages have lead to them being denounced by the two largest Baptist denominations.
Fred Phelps’ message and the church he founded are both hate fuelled and now he himself has become a target for hatred. Unfortunately, his death does not mark the end of the church that spreads his message. By the time of his death he was no longer considered the leader of the church and as a result, his hostile teaching will continue having manifested itself in the guise of religion.