Updated: Oct 1
The Westboro Baptist Church (WBC) is a Christian extremist hate group based in Topeka, Kansas, that has stood out for its hateful messaging and provocative demonstrations. Fred Waldron Phelps founded the WBC in 1955. Most of the members are the extended family of Phelps and a small number of other families. Its beliefs revolve around its strong opposition to homosexuality and demonizing the Jewish and Islamic faiths. They have gained large national and international attention for their openly hateful and bizarre messaging (1).
History and Foundations
On November 13, 1929, Fred Waldron Phelps was born in Meridian, Mississippi. He was the son of Fred Wade Phelps and Catherine Phelps. Six years after his birth, his mother passed away from esophageal cancer. He was a top student in his class when he graduated from high school at the age of 16, and he was given an appointment at West Point's United States Military Academy. He turned down this invitation after discovering a love for ministry during a religious gathering and received his Southern Baptist ministerial ordination at the age of 17 (1947).
To attend Bob Jones College, he moved from Mississippi to Cleveland, Tennessee. After deciding against going to West Point and becoming increasingly isolated from his father's Methodist beliefs, Phelps developed problems with his family, particularly his relationship with his father. This served as the foundation for Phelps's eventual estrangement from his family (2). Phelps allegedly entirely shut off his family, refusing to take any of their birthday or Christmas presents and returning them instead, according to several family members (3).
California would become Phelps’ new home after he dropped out of Jones College in 1948. He began attending John Muir College and gained notoriety for his street preacher-style open condemnations of campus life. He would call out students and faculty for their “sinful” actions (2).
In 1952, he married Marge Marie Simms, and in 1954, he and his wife and their young son moved to Topeka, Kansas. His newly discovered work at the East Side Baptist Church would serve as the foundation for the Westboro Baptist Church. The church's leadership made the decision to start a new branch on the west side of town. They chose Phelps to serve as the pastor of the Westboro Baptist Church (4).
Phelps, interestingly, stepped into the legal realm, specifically civil rights law. Phelps received his undergraduate degree in 1962 from Washburn University in Topeka, and in 1964 he earned his law degree from the same university. Even though Phelps earned his law degree, the way he obtained it was not particularly straightforward. The reputation Phelps gained in his community was overwhelmingly negative. To join the state bar, Phelps needed a judge to vouch for his “good character. Not a single judge would attest to his character, and instead, Phelps supplied awards he won while in the Eagle Scouts and a letter he says he received from U.S. President Harry S. Truman. He was admitted to the bar in 1964 (5).
At 84 years old, Fred Phelps died on March 19th, 2014. He reportedly died from natural causes but had been experiencing symptoms of dementia. The church had excommunicated him, according to his son, Nathan Phelps. A group of individuals painting a house with the LGBTQ rainbow were referred to as "good people" by Fred. The WBC has refuted this assertion, although it is supported by several members of the organization. Others swiftly took his place and began preaching in his absence (6).
The Westboro Baptist Church held its first service on November 27, 1955. Phelps quickly cut ties with the East Side Baptist Church. Phelps strongly argues that Westboro Baptist, while aligned with Primitive Baptism, does not belong to any denomination. Regarding denominational alignment, Phelps states, "No genuine Baptist church is." "Baptists, by definition, are independent, autonomous, and fiercely so. No genuine Baptist church is going to be giving up its sovereignty." Primitive Baptists believe a predetermined number of people were chosen for redemption before the world was created, and they will be saved on judgment day (7).
Phelps's malicious approach to preaching would result in church leaders and members parting ways with the WBC, leaving Phelps with a small audience that was made up mainly of his close family. To this day, the church is only composed of his family and friends. At its peak, nearly 100 people belonged to the WBC, but over time, some family members distanced themselves from the group and even went as far as to denounce the church and its doctrine publicly.
In 1991, Gage Park became the WBC’s first picketing target. According to the WBC, homosexuals would congregate in Gage Park. This was the beginning of the group's nationwide appearances. In only a few years, they were making their rounds all over the country, gaining local and national attention. Often being met with counter-protesters, some fights would break out, but the WBC is not a physically violent group. Phelps's children, practicing lawyers, would defend the WBC and target those who opposed the group. Many Topekan locals feared speaking his name on television or any outlet due to the fear of being sued. According to their main website, they have publicly preached over 73,000 times in 1076 cities, including some in Middle Eastern countries (8).
The Westboro Baptist Church supreme court case, officially known as Snyder v. Phelps, was a historic United States Supreme Court decision decided in 2011. Albert Snyder, the father of a dead Marine named Matthew Snyder, filed a lawsuit against members of the Westboro Baptist Church, including Fred Phelps, for purposefully causing mental distress, among other things. The Westboro Baptist Church had picketed at Matthew Snyder's burial with posters saying things including "Thank God for Dead Soldiers”. The United States Supreme Court decided in favor of the Westboro Baptist Church in an 8-1 decision, ruling that its activities were legal forms of free expression under the First Amendment (9).
Even while it is still operational, the WBC has seen a significant drop in interest. They were at the pinnacle of their success in the 2010s and have since faded into obscurity.
Objectives & Ideology
The WBC bases its philosophy on an unequivocal rejection of homosexuality as well as several references to anti-Semitism. They are adamant that society's growing acceptance of LGBTQ+ rights is an insult to God that should be punished. They consider homosexuality to be punishable by death and believe that God is punishing society because of the growing acceptance of homosexuality. This stems from their strict adherence to specific passages from the Bible that they perceive as opposing same-sex relations. In other words, scriptural literalism.
Five-Point Calvinism is the theological system upon which the WBC runs. Five-Point Calvinism (TULIP) is a comprehensive theological system within the Reformed Christian tradition. It is not followed by many churches due to most Christians opposing its structure and ideals. It includes the following fundamental doctrines: Total Depravity, highlighting humanity's intrinsic wickedness and its need for divine favor to be saved; Unconditional Election, which asserts that God has predestined individuals for salvation based on His sovereign will; Limited Atonement, which teaches that Jesus Christ's sacrifice was made particularly for the elect rather than generically for everyone; The doctrines of irresistible grace, which claim that people who receive God's grace cannot reject or oppose it, and perseverance of the saints, which hold that the elect will stay firm in their faith and salvation until the end of their lives (10).
Their ideas extend beyond just condemning homosexuality. War, natural disasters, and tragedy, in the eyes of the WBC, are considered manifestations of divine vengeance. They see America as a refuge for sin, which is why it has experienced disaster. They saw the 9/11 attacks and school massacres as divine retribution for accepting homosexuality. These beliefs have received widespread condemnation from not only Americans but also from people and religious organizations around the world.
Along with fervent anti-homosexual beliefs, the WBC also preaches anti-Semitism and Islamophobia. In 1996, responding to an FAQ, the WBC stated, “As Hitler controlled the courts, prosecutors, and police (Gestapo) in persecuting German Jews, so do Topeka Jews today in persecuting Baptists. As first-century Jews stirred up the Roman tyrants by persecuting the primitive church, so do Topeka Jews today stir up Kansas tyrants by persecuting Westboro Baptists. They whine about the Nazi Holocaust while they perpetrate the Topeka Holocaust”. The WBC defends its anti-Semitism by asserting that "Jews and homosexuals" were in control of Nazi Germany and that Jews are committing the holocaust against the WBC (11). Many of their song parodies are connected to anti-Semitism.
In the eyes of the WBC, even other Christian denominations are not in line with God. In a section of their website, they state, "Methodist, Episcopal, Lutheran, Presbyterian, Catholic, Northern and Southern Baptist, Church of Christ, Assembly of God, etc. have all departed from God”. Throughout their website and appearances, the WBC openly condemns other churches and regards them as not “true churches of Jesus Christ” (12).
While the WBC’s beliefs and practices are universally condemned by religious and civil rights groups, its existence has opened an avenue for discussion on freedom of expression, free speech, and whether some speech should be outright banned. Some believe that the WBC should be banned from gathering, and some believe that regardless of their ideals, they should be allowed to express their beliefs. While only having a membership of less than 100, its impact as a divisive religious group cannot be ignored.
Approach to action
As one of the most outspoken hate groups in America, picketing is the key part of their attempts to organize. They have been spotted in various locations. Funerals for homosexual individuals, memorial services for fallen troops, LGBTQ gatherings, and even funerals for children slain in the Sandy Hook elementary school tragedy are among their most notable events. They would carry banners during the event that mocked and denigrated those who had died. "God hates Fags," "Thank God for Dead Soldiers," and "God hates America" were among their most well-known catchphrases. According to Fred Phelps, the organization spends $250,000 annually on picketing. Bus fares, airline tickets, and other fees all contribute to these prices (13).
On the official WBC website, they have a section dedicated to song parodies that they have conducted. A few examples include a parody of “Feel Good Inc.” by Gorillaz titled “Fear God”, and “Bohemian Rhapsody” by Queen titled “Bohemian Tragedy”. They have made over 160 parodies. To add to the parodies, there are 61 music videos that they have released over the course of these parodies (14).
The WBC justifies its activities by claiming to carry a divine message, stating that God's wrath is being directed toward society as a result of its acceptance of homosexuality. They see their demonstrations as an instance of religious obligation, an instrument to warn society of what they see as coming divine wrath.
Works Cited (Chicago-style)
(1) - The Editors of Encyclopedia Britannica. 1998. “Primitive Baptist | Southern US, Calvinist, Arminianism.” Encyclopedia Britannica. July 20, 1998. https://www.britannica.com/topic/Primitive-Baptists.
(2) - “CJOnline - InDepth.” n.d. https://web.archive.org/web/20130301061252/http://cjonline.com/indepth/phelps/stories/080394_phelps01.shtml.
(3) - “CJOnline.Com : In-Depth : Fred Phelps.” n.d. https://web.archive.org/web/20031122060832/http://www.cjonline.com/indepth/phelps/stories/080394_phelps14.shtml.
(4) - Staff, Topeka Capital-Journal. 2023. “Home.” The Topeka Capital-Journal. September 26, 2023. http://cjonline.com/indepth/phelps/stories/080394_phelps13.shtml.
(5) - “Phelps’ Law Career Checkered.” CJOnline - InDepth. Accessed September 26, 2023. https://web.archive.org/web/20130101115350/http://cjonline.com/indepth/phelps/stories/080394_phelps16.shtml.
(6) - Lasdun, James. “James Lasdun · Kinks and Convolutions: God Hates Your Feelings · LRB 9 February 2020.” London Review of Books, February 18, 2020. https://www.lrb.co.uk/the-paper/v42/n04/james-lasdun/kinks-and-convolutions.
(7) - “Primitive Baptist.” Encyclopædia Britannica. Accessed September 26, 2023. https://www.britannica.com/topic/Primitive-Baptists.
(8) - “Locations of Westboro Baptist Church’s Public Preaching Ministry.” 2017. May 21, 2017. https://www.godhatesfags.com/wbcinfo/preachinglocations.html.
(9) - “Facts and Case Summary - Snyder v. Phelps.” n.d. United States Courts. https://www.uscourts.gov/educational-resources/educational-activities/facts-and-case-summary-snyder-v-phelps.
(10) - Kraby, Clayton. 2023. “The Five Points of Calvinism – Defining the Doctrines of Grace.” ReasonableTheology.Org, September. https://reasonabletheology.org/five-points-calvinism-defining-doctrines-of-grace/.
(11) - “Westboro Baptist Church In Their Own Words: On Jews.” Extremism in America - westboro baptist church: In their own words - on jews. Accessed September 26, 2023. https://web.archive.org/web/20110311195425/http://www.adl.org/learn/ext_us/WBC/WBC-on-Jews.asp.
(12) - “Fred Phelps and the Westboro Baptist Church.” n.d. https://web.archive.org/web/20081130183032/http://www.adl.org/special_reports/wbc/wbc_on_christians.asp.
(13) - Lauerman, Kerry. n.d. “Fred Phelps, 1929-2014: The Man Who Loved to Hate.” Mother Jones. https://www.motherjones.com/politics/1999/03/man-who-loves-hate/.
(14) - “Westboro Baptist Church Music Videos.” 2017. May 21, 2017. https://www.godhatesfags.com/video/musicvideos.html.