Thursday, September 4, 2014

Fred W. Phelps, Senior - "The Man of God"

If you are a leader in any field you know at some point what you have done as a leader will be judged by those in your field and often by those outside it. No leader is ever able to lead for long without finally being measured and having the fruits of his leadership looked at. This analysis will often be done by the leader’s contemporaries and sometimes by historians but leaders will always be measured for what they did and how they did it.

Jesus was the head of what would one day be his worldwide church and he had some very strong ideas about how leaders were to act and how their leadership should be assessed. Jesus spoke some amazing words of kindness and tenderness toward people who were broken or in need or hurting. Those words are found throughout the writings about his life. But, he saved some of his harshest criticisms for leaders who lead people astray and especially for leaders who hurt those who are under their leadership.

An example of Jesus warnings about harmful leaders are the following words:

“Watch out for false prophets. They come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ferocious wolves. By their fruit you will recognize them. Do people pick grapes from thornbushes, or figs from thistles? Likewise, every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit.”

Jesus is very clear here that false prophets and teachers will not only come but will come in a disguise that will fool people. Ferocious wolves by definition are going to hurt people. Jesus’ warning was given to protect those who might be hurt by these leaders. He asked people to look closely at the fruit from these leaders’ lives to determine whether we should follow such a leader. His warning implied there was a serious choice to be made. In a sheep herding society, likening a leader to a ferocious wolf left people in no doubt about what Jesus was recommending they do if they found a false leader in their midst.

Today I look at the life of one leader and the fruit that came from his ministry. My father is Fred W. Phelps, Senior, and he was a pastor for over 50 years in Topeka, Kansas. Until very near the end of his life in March 2014 he continued to impact the lives of many people in his church, community, and nation.

He had his own church called Westboro Baptist Church, located in Topeka, Kansas. My father held his first church service in late November 1955. It was not affiliated with any other church.

He fathered 13 children, followed by over 50 grandchildren and several great grandchildren and these were among those he had the greatest impact and influence over as a leader.

He met my mother when he was preaching in Glendale, Arizona, and they were married in May of 1952. I was born his 2nd son in June 1954.

Here are some highlights from my father’s life.

East Side Baptist Church in Topeka, Kansas hired my father as an associate pastor in 1954. Then East Side Baptist Church expanded to the west side of Topeka and placed my father in this new church as pastor in late 1955. Shortly afterwards my father broke all ties with East Side Baptist church and he fought with them for many years following. As a young boy, I have personal recall of my father speaking harshly against the pastor of Eastside Baptist Church. In fact, in general, when my father spoke, he spoke with force and authority, often with an angry sounding voice.

The import of my father being an angry man and what that meant for the lives of we children and our community can be summed up by a proverb from the Bible that speaks to this issue. It says “Do not associate with a man given to anger or go with a hot tempered man.” Proverbs 22:24. Many people instinctively followed the advice of this proverb. There were actually very few people who could tolerate my father’s anger and hate and with rare exceptions my father had no parishioners except his immediate family.

I was ten years old when my father graduated from Washburn University School of Law and started practicing law. My father practiced law for only a very short period of time and was then suspended from the bar for two years, for misconduct. He resumed the practice of law for a time but was permanently disbarred from practicing law in the State of Kansas in 1979. Later, after nine Federal judges filed a disciplinary complaint against him, my father agreed to stop practicing law in Federal Court permanently in 1989. There is a list of leadership qualifications in the Bible in 1st Timothy. One of them is that a leader “must have a good reputation with outsiders.” My father’s leadership style did not gain him a good reputation with outsiders!

Not long after 1989 my father increased his activity in politics. He sought public office four times as a member of the Democratic Party. In 1992 he ran for the United States Senate from Kansas and received about 30 percent of the vote.

Starting in the early 90’s my father and his followers began public picketing. His followers, mostly my family, are still involved in picketing activity today. They have picketed gay pride gatherings, political gatherings, military funerals and any other person or setting that gets them maximum attention, including natural disasters where children have lost their lives, and the deaths of public figures. In response to my father’s church’s protests at military funerals, President George W. Bush signed the “Respect for America’s Fallen Heroes Act”. Several states have enacted similar laws and several other states have similar legislation planned. The most widely publicized slogan of my father’s church’s picketing activity signs is ‘God Hates Fags’. This slogan is actually the tip of a large iceberg . . . of hate. Today my father’s church is monitored as a hate group. And that is truly what it is.

Anybody who wishes to can read the highlights of my father’s life I have listed above, and more. They are chronicled under my father’s name on Wikipedia and other places. But these highlights are not nearly as relevant to me as the highlights of his personal, private behavior, particularly during the first twenty years of my life. Those private behaviors were the behaviors of flagrant abuse and did nearly incalculable damage to the hearts and minds of his children.

My father held himself out to be a man of God. He said he was about the business of warning the world at large about God’s anger. But I see my father differently. I see my father as a man who was addicted to hate. My father’s hateful actions could never honor the God he said he served. And it became apparent to a lot of us who knew him well that he was not serving God at all, but himself. There is a DSM V diagnosis that afflicts about 1% of the population that is called Narcissistic Personality Disorder (formerly known by the term megalomania). This disease shows an excessive preoccupation with personal adequacy, power, prestige, and vanity. In this condition the person is mentally unable to see the destructive damage they are causing to themselves and others in the process, and is a form of extreme egocentrism. Those of us who knew my father would agree that he seemed unable to “see” the damage he inflicted on his helpless and vulnerable children on a daily basis.

My father’s life was a litany of abusive, hateful behavior and lies since the day I was born; since the day he arrived in Topeka, Kansas. In fact, witnesses have said he was a hateful, arrogant prideful man prior to his arrival in Topeka, before I was born. My father once stated that the City of Topeka was mean and hateful to him, his church and his family since the day he arrived. To me that statement shows the lack of insight my father had about his own behaviors and the impact they had on others. It honestly never occurred to him that his hateful attitudes and behaviors might elicit a similar response from others. In the vernacular, you might say my father was a man who “could dish it out but not take it” himself. And he “dished” it out his entire adult life and then got wounded when others responded negatively to his anger and abuse.

My father was abusive to all of his children. He beat them, sometimes starved them, cursed them, condemned them and cruelly used them to accomplish his own purposes. My father was also abusive to his wife, my mother. He beat my mother, tormented her, humiliated her, and inundated her with abuse. My father often said he was doing God’s will as the head of the household by treating her in this cruel way. I say my father was a hateful, vicious, cruel, abusive bully. He said his church was the only ‘place’ (for truth and eternal salvation) and that if his children ever left his church they were going to hell. I say his church was a fraud and my father never told people the truth about God. I say my father used God and religion to justify and legitimize his bitter hatefulness and angry behavior. And that assessment of my father would be backed up by a watching world.

Once when my father and I were jogging around the Topeka West High School track a young boy was riding his bicycle around the track and happened to get in my father’s way. My father intentionally pushed the little boy over on his bike because he was angry at the boy for daring to get in his way. The little guy left his bike and went running off crying. A few minutes later this large man came stomping across the distant field at the high school, toward the track and toward my father. My father decided to run away when he saw this man, rather than stay and face a man who had justified righteous anger toward my father. My father didn’t hesitate to freely and ruthlessly abuse his children and his wife; and this man’s little boy. But when confronted by someone who was his equal, he seemed unable to stand face to face like a man to answer for his own behavior.

The Bible has helpful lists for people to determine if they are growing in behaviors that would show evidence of God in their lives. One of the lists in Galatians 5 talks about our sin nature before we know God and includes things like “hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, and dissensions.” This is a list that reflects much of what my father’s character and actions were on a daily basis when I was in his home. The list that follows right after that verse catalogues things that would be evident in a person’s life who knows God. It says “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.” If you just examine this one instance about my father pushing a little boy over on his bike because he got in my father’s way you see my father did not exhibit the qualities of kindness, goodness, gentleness, and self control. And lest you try to let my father off the hook by saying anyone could have a bad day, know that this is the way he treated most people in his life, except those who did what he wanted.

I cannot say whether my father actually had an experience of receiving the gift of eternal life, of becoming a follower of Christ, when he was 16 years old. He says he did. My father attended Bob Jones University, a Christian university, and he may have done so out of intent to grow in his faith. However it was reported that the staff of Bob Jones University told my father he would have to get psychological help or leave the school. Clearly my father was having problems of a sufficient psychological nature that the university didn’t feel equipped to keep him on as a student without him getting professional help. And he was unwilling or unable to do this. My father left the school he really wanted to attend, rather than face up to himself and his problems. This would become a pattern in my father’s life of rejecting help from people and institutions that knew him well enough to challenge wrong or troubling behaviors.

As a young boy, I watched my father reject his dad when his dad tried to have a relationship with him. I also remember seeing my father’s sister walking down the street behind our house crying the day my father chose to reject her and her husband. His sister’s husband was the man who had been my father’s best friend and was reportedly with my father when the two of them came into a relationship with Christ, when they were both 16 years old. Yet my father, a supposed man of God, chose to sever his relationship with both of them. There is a proverb in the Bible that says “the wise listen to advice.” My father by these standards was destined to fail as a pastor/leader because he was beginning to systematically remove people from his life who dared to challenge him in any way or could even help him along his journey as a leader.

My father’s sister and her husband (my father’s former best friend) were missionaries to a foreign country and served and followed the Lord all of their lives. My father, on the other hand, spewed hate and judgmental, filthy words to unsuspecting people all of his life. My father dressed all his hateful, filthy language in the clothing of God’s word. But this did not make him a man of God. This actually made him a fraud and a hypocrite. He held an extremely high standard for the world and did not live up to it himself. For as long as I knew my father, and from all of his public behavior, the fruit of my father’s life does not show evidence of a man who knew the Lord of the Universe who loved us and gave Himself for us.

If for a moment you take my father at his word; that he truly believed he was “preaching this word (that God hated them) and was going to do it faithfully no matter what anybody said”; then you have cause to seriously question the basis of his faith. My father seemed to have totally missed the thrust of the Bible which is that while mankind had managed to get itself disconnected from God that God had every intention of reconnecting with us! And the way He would reconnect with us was by having His Son Jesus come to earth to make it clear that the connection with God was available to ALL who wanted it.

If my father knew the Lord He would have spoken of this truth. If my father had really understood who this Jesus was, the bridge back to the Father, he could have picketed with signs that summarized the glorious good news of hope and love; the amazing good news that Jesus Christ truly loved mankind and made a way for us all back to God. A true Christian does not relate to the world by condemning the world. A true Christian bears witness to the good news and the message of the good news is all about God’s love and forgiveness.

A true Christian would not tell others only about their sin problem and not give them a solution to the problem. In simple terms sin is the disease that separates us from God and each other, and the cure for the disease is the forgiveness of God through His Son Christ. No Christian would only focus for year after year and decade after decade on the deadly disease itself and never, ever tell people of the wonderful amazing cure. A true Christian tells people there is a Savior of the world and His name is Christ! This Savior saves people from the sin and sorrow and mess they have made of their lives. A true Christian seeks the lost on behalf of Christ and does it with love and kindness.

The Bible says very clearly it is “the kindness of God that leads us to repentance.” My father must not have ever truly understood the kindness of God. If he had he would never have spent a lifetime trying to condemn people and make them begin to distrust God’s incredible kindness toward people.

Christ said He did not come to condemn the world but to save it. So if we’re following Him that is exactly the way we should treat other people. Not in condemning but in saving, loving and helping. Please don’t misunderstand me. Sin and its consequences are serious. I’ve likened sin to a deadly disease and that is an accurate way to represent it and its impact in our lives. In fact, sin was such a horrendous problem that God the Father; who the Bible says “IS love”, gave His only Son that whoever believes in Him would not perish but have eternal life. That statement is so simple we can tend to skip over its amazing truth. God gave to each one of us His Son that WHOEVER believes in Him can have eternal life. The connection with God could be reestablished and with it all the incredible things God wants to do for us who belong to Him.

God never sent His Son into the world to condemn the world, but to give the opportunity for anyone who asked to be saved . . . from death, and mourning and crying and pain. The gift was for all who would take it. My father never preached that truth to anyone that I know of. Because I think he never understood that the gift was available to all, including him. He never, ever knew that a plan had been put into place, by God, before the beginning of time to redeem the human race. What a beautiful picture of the profound love of God my father never understood. And never was able to pass on to anyone else.

It was not right for my father to stand and spew hate and lies about God at human beings. The right thing for him to have done would be to speak and witness to the great hope of the world; the Savior who gave His life up for us so we might live. Sin is the problem, but God’s love is the powerful, effective solution! His love is the bridge between us and all that hurts us and separates us from him. Sadly my father was never able to bring this amazing truth about God’s love and mercy and kindness toward people because he did not know it himself.

The Bible says “How shall they believe if they have not heard? How shall they hear without a preacher?” By that statement Paul is putting great responsibility on those preaching the truth about God. A few verses later he says “Faith comes from hearing the message, and the message is heard through the preaching of Christ.” Sadly that is not what my father did. He did not preach the truth about Christ being the one who could cure the disease of sin by His forgiveness. The true Christian has the privilege of bringing the hope, the light and the love of God to other people. If Christ did not come to condemn the world than we are not to either! The woman the Bible talks about who was caught in the act of adultery, and who the men of her day wanted to stone, was rescued by Jesus that day . . . from certain death. His response to her was the same uncondemning manner He responds to any of us who come to him with honesty about our sin and the mess we have made of our lives. His response was to forgive her and love her and set her free from what was hurting her. And not to condemn her! This is the Jesus who my father never understood and never preached. A Jesus who understands how much sin hurts us, but wants to set us free from it!

I tire of the pretense my father made of his role as a pastor. By the standards of Jesus, the head of the church, my father was a false prophet. One who came in sheep’s clothing but was actually a ferocious wolf. Who deceived Jesus’ flock by telling them Jesus didn’t love them and wasn’t able and willing to save them from their disease of sin and separation from Him and His Father. And I tire of the pretense of those who my father has abused and manipulated and deceived into doing his bidding. Please don’t pretend to speak the truth of God’s amazing love while spewing hateful lies to the contrary.

The ones who have suffered the greatest harm from my father’s legacy include those closest to him. They were his wife, his children and his grandchildren. These were the ones who heard his soul-damaging message of God’s hatred and unwillingness to love and redeem His children. Over and over again, day in and day out, until they finally believed it. And gave up their souls and in some cases their sanity over those blatant untruths.

Fruit produced in a person’s life is the litmus test of true faith. Not the endless arguing, complaining and finger pointing my father did over the way the rest of the world was living their lives. The evidence of a true Christian will be the things he or she says and believes and does. It will be things like acts of kindness and speaking the truth always but doing it in a loving way. It will mean acting with integrity and humility; choosing to say one is sorry for the things one does that are wrong. It will mean things like spending our money and resources for the benefit of the poor and the destitute. It will mean a life that is largely spent on behalf of others and not on behalf of ourselves.

The bible makes a powerful statement that “the only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love.” Seriously? The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love? Well, I am not completely sure what my father’s faith was based on but it certainly did not express itself in love. And so sadly, it was a faith that did not count. Because my father did not show love, his faith did not count. Can you imagine getting that as your final grade for life as a leader? “Your life’s work does not count because it didn’t show your faith expressing itself through love."

Jesus knew that the world would be watching Christians to see if they were acting in a way that reflected the truth about this God they believed in. He left some clear instructions to His disciples right before He died that would help them know when they were on the right track. These instructions were for leaders and followers alike.

What He said was:

“A new commandment I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. All people will know that you are My disciples if you love one another.” John 13:34-35

Jesus gave this new commandment that He knew would impact the world throughout time. It was for His followers to love one another; to truly love people. He did this because He knew that true, sacrificial, selfless love was something the world simply had no easy answers for, and something they couldn’t ignore. And this love is something that could change the hardest of hearts.

The real fruit from my father’s life was not the love that Jesus spoke about. It was actually its opposite: hatred, animosity, viciousness, treachery, abuse. It took me the same number of years to recover from living with my father as the number of years I lived with him. Nearly 20 years. Yes! It took the second 20 years of my life to realize and recognize and recover from my father’s lies and abuse.

To describe my father as a “rager” is to barely put your toe in the water of what he was like but it’s a start. When I was going through the healing process, I connected with this raging fury within me. It felt like frantic, violent flailing about, angry rage and furious frenetic activity in an effort to survive, to avoid feeling, to do anything to deal with the pain and the craziness within me. I have heard it said that children take on their abusers poison. One thing I came to realize during my healing work was that I was always trying to emulate my father. As a kid I felt that with enough activity, enough arguing, enough meanness, enough work, enough telling people off, enough hatefulness I would finally receive love and acceptance from my father and/or finally feel safe.

As I look back on it now, it was the lostness and despair of a child who had no place to feel safe and survived by doing whatever I thought would get me what I needed. But as a young child I didn’t really understand what I needed. As a man who has been a dad for over 25 years I know now exactly what I needed. I needed kindness, patience, a gentle hand teaching me and guiding me, helping, encouraging, a good role model, warmth, safety, and love. All things every child needs. Sadly this was something my father in his illness and delusions simply couldn’t provide.

Though his legacy rages on in the lives of many of his children and grandchildren through the raging fury, frantic hateful flailing about and spewing of hate and filth, its impact is now thankfully gone from my soul. I am at peace with my Lord and at peace with people.

I love all of my brothers and sisters and nephews and nieces, and I hope they are able to unravel the legacy of lies, deceit, hate, abuse and confusion that my father has filled them with. This was possible for me and it is possible for them. I hope my family is able to stop raging at and condemning those for whom the Lord gave His life. And I hope that someday each of my family members will be able to put their hope and trust in the Lord who paid the price for their sin; saved them; and be able to live the amazing life of freedom the Lord meant for them to live.

I also hope those who have witnessed the damaging treatment of my father and his church and family would not depend for one minute on their message to decide what is right and wrong and whether God is a loving God. I hope instead they are able to look to the author of life, God, and accept His message of ‘Peace. Good Will to Men!’ announced at the birth of His Son on the earth. That is a message worth putting on picket signs! But better to be put in the hearts of those who have been abused and hurt by others, so they know that God has never stopped loving them.

If you have been abused by religion, or by a wrong use of the Bible, or by religious leaders I would appreciate speaking with you and sharing in your journey of healing and faith. It would be my privilege! Please get in touch with me. Your story matters to God and it matters to me.

Mark Phelps


  1. It's so good to hear stories of how people have escaped from these abusive views of God. It seems like there are more and more out there these days, and when the abusive voices start to seem like the majority simply because they are the loudest, hearing more stories like yours is such a needed encouragement.

  2. I'm so glad that you were able to find healing in what God, and what Jesus Christ, did, and what he stood for, for what he stands for. Fred Phelps was indeed a fraud, using hatred instead of love, protesting against Christ, instead of with Jesus. Protesting against God, rather than with God. The way he treated the world around him, including his wife and family, would put Adolf Hitler to shame.