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Fred Phelps, Sr.

Evangelist

Born: 13 November 1929
Died: 20 March 2014
Birthplace: Meridian, Mississippi
Best known as:

The founder of the Westboro Baptist Church

Name at birth: Fred Waldron Phelps

Fred Phelps, Sr. was the founder and leader of the Westboro Baptist Church, a small independent Christian sect from Kansas famous for staging anti-gay protests at military funerals. He grew up in Mississippi and was raised a Methodist, but in 1947 he was ordained as a Baptist pastor. After studying at four bible colleges and working as a missionary, Phelps, with his wife, landed in Topeka as an associate pastor in 1954. A year later, he was named pastor of an off-shoot, the Westboro Baptist Church. Phelps earned a law degree in 1964 and opened his own firm; during the 1960s and '70s he defended African-Americans in a variety of civil rights cases, but he was disbarred in 1979 for outrageous and unprofessional conduct. Meanwhile, the Westboro Baptist Church separated itself from larger institutions and became a compound made up mostly family members (Phelps had 13 children). During the 1990s, Phelps directed his super-Calvinist theology toward homosexuality and became more public with his belief that God was punishing the United States for being tolerant of gays. Phelps and his offspring pushed the boundaries of free speech by showing up at military funerals and creating a media circus. They became internationally famous after a 2007 BBC documentary, The Most Hated Family in America, which showed that the elder Phelps had able help from his children, especially daughters Margie Phelps and Shirley Phelps-Roper. The church fought for and received protection from the U.S. Supreme Court for their free speech rights (2011), but were the primary cause of laws that now create a picketing buffer zone around military funerals.

Extra credit:

Fred Phelps, Sr. and Shirley Phelps-Roper were barred from entering the United Kingdom in 2009 for inciting hate speech... Fred Phelps, Sr.'s son Nathan Phelps officially left the church in 1980 and has since become a public critic of Phelps and the Westboro Baptist Church; in 2013, Nate Phelps announced that Fred Sr. had been voted out of the church, but the claim was neither confirmed nor denied... Eleven of Phelps's children went into the law profession.

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