By Jon Michael Bell
God's Left Hook
The air hangs heavy, torpid, and hot. Pulling the warm steam into one's lungs leaves only a disturbing sense of slow suffocation. Under the harsh subtropic sun, the magnolia blossoms slip from the black-green leaves, falling like wet snow-petals to perfume the red-clay earth. In the heat, it leaves a heavy, hanging smell...the wealth of Dixie. Fred Phelps spent his first years here.
Outside the courthouse, flags sag limp and breezeless. Above the doors are cut the words: Thou Shalt Not Bear False Witness Against Thy Neighbor It's Meridian, Mississippi, town of old store fronts, mouthwatering cornbread, and 40,000 people. Surrounded by 100-foot pine forests, its business is lumber. Trucks and flatbed railcars loaded with freshly cut logs rolls slowly by. To the sensual fragrance of the magnolias is added the sweet aroma of pine. While great pyramids of logs await processing into lumber at the plant on the west side, Navy jets roar overhead...the other source of revenue. The federal government threatens to close the base down; the locals fight to keep it. Meridian was sacked by General Sheridan during the Civil War. The implacable bluecoat burned the town and tore up what, till then, had been a rail hub of the South. The town has since recovered. The railroad did not. In the cemeteries can be found gravestones of the Confederate dead. Among them, a more recent marker reads: Catherine Idalette Phelps, Age 28 Fred's mother used to open all the windows in the house and play the piano, according to Thetis Grace Hudson, former librarian in Meridian and a neighbor of the Phelps family during the Depression. The other households on her street were too poor to afford any entertainment, she says, so everyone remembered Catherine Phelps for her kindness.
Apparently she played well. Whenever she was at their house, Hudson remembers she used to ask Mrs. Phelps to play the hymn "Love Lifted Me" on the piano. Fred's mother always obliged, even if she was busy. But, after an illness of several months-those who still remember the family say it was throat cancer-Catherine Phelps died on September 3, 1935. Fred was only five years old. Since the little boy's uncle was the mayor of nearby Pascagoula, and his father was prominent in Meridian, the honorary pallbearers at her funeral included the local mayor, a city councilman, two judges, and every member of the police department. Ms. Hudson says young Fred was bewildered at the loss. After his mother's death, a maternal great aunt, Irene Jordan, helped care for Fred and his younger sister, Martha Jean. "She kept house for the daddy," adds a distant relative who declined to be identified. At times, work caused the boy's father to be away from home and Jordan raised the children. The woman Fred Phelps has referred to as 'his dear old aunt' died in a head-on collision in 1951 as she was driving back to Meridian from a nearby town. The boy had lost two mothers before he'd turned 21.
Family friends remember Fred's father was a tall, stately man. A true Southern gentlemen, they say. And a fine Christian. But the elder Phelps also had a hot temper, according to Jack Webb, 81, of Porterville, Miss. Webb owns a general store, the only business in Porterville, a town of about 45 elderly people. "If he got mad, he was mad all over," said Webb. He was ready to fight right quick. He was mad, mad, mad." Webb is a frail man, slightly hard of hearing. Walking into his general store is like stepping back into the 19th century. The shelves, all located behind a 100-foot wooden counter, are stocked with weary tins of Vienna sausage and dusty bottles of aspirin. Coke goes for 30 cents. Glass. No twist-off.
Despite the temper, Webb adds, the elder Phelps was an honorable man. In Meridian, he had been an object of great respect. Fred's father was a veteran of World War One, and throughout his life suffered from the effects of a mustard gassing he'd taken in France. He found work as a detective for the Southern Railroad to support his family. The railroad security force or "bulls", as they were called, had a reputation for brutality when they patrolled the yards to prevent the itinerant laborers, washed out of their hometowns by the Depression, from riding the freights. "My father," says Pastor Phelps, "oft-times came home with blood all over him." Suddenly he stands up, turning his face away, and exits. Several minutes later he returns, smiling, apologizing: "You got me thinking about those days," he offers, then bravely charges into a round of the town's official song: "Meridian, Meridian... a city set upon a hill; Meridian, Meridian... that radiates the South's good will."
The elder Phelps was a "bull" throughout the Depression, says Thetis Hudson, and the pay was good. The family lived comfortably at a time when the other families in town were being ravaged by hardship. What was the son like? "Fred Phelps had as normal and beautiful a home life as anyone ever wanted," commented a relative who didn't want their name used. "His childhood was very good," says Hudson. "There was nothing in his family out of the ordinary." "All I know is it's a tragedy, and it stems from within Fred Phelps," adds the anonymous relative, referring to the homosexual picketing. "It has nothing to do with his upbringing."
As a teenager. Fred was tall and thin and sported a crewcut. He was extraordinarily smart, but thought to be a bit overbearing about it at times. A reserved and serious high school student, he never dated anyone while there. "He was not a real socializer, but he knew a lot of people. Everyone had the greatest respect for him," says Joe Clay Hamilton, former high-school classmate, now a Meridian lawyer. The future Pastor Phelps earned the rank of Eagle Scout with Palms, played coronet and base horn in the high school band, was a high hurdler on the track team, and worked as a reporter on the school's newspaper. In a class of 213 graduates, he ranked sixth. When he was voted class orator for commencement of May, 1946, received the American Legion Award for courage, leadership, scholarship, and service, then honored as his congressman's choice for West Point, Fred Phelps was only 16 years old. A year later this young man, touted as the quiet achiever, had turned his back on West Point, his former life, and his future promise. The summer of '47 would find him a belligerent and eccentric zealot, antagonizing the Mormons in the mountains of Utah. Because of his age, Phelps had to wait one fateful year before entering the military academy. During that time he attended the local junior college. While waiting for his life to start, Fred, along with his best friend, John Capron, went to a revival meeting at the local Methodist church. It was there the budding pastor felt the 'call', and the dreams of going north to West Point melted like the river ice washed down and marooned on the hot mud of the Mississippi banks.
Fred Phelps, by his own description, "went to a little Methodist revival meeting and had what I think was an experience of grace, they call it down there. I felt the call, as they say, and it was powerful. The God of glory appeared. It doesn't mean a vision or anything, but it means an impulse on the heart, as the old preachers say." The revival had a profound effect on both Phelps and Capron. "The two of them 'got religion'," said Joe Hamilton. Friends and relatives claim the two boys became so excited, they were unable to distinguish reality from idealism-they were going off to conquer the world. One relative still in Meridian described it this way: "Fred, bless his heart, just went overboard. If you didn't accept it, he was going to cram it down your throat."
Was this radical change in behavior a characteristic of the conversion experience? Or was there something hidden in the young man's character that drew him to the experience and its consequent license for loud and abusive behavior? If the latter, then some heart should be heard pounding beneath the floorboards in the old Phelps' house. Yet, there is little to be heard.
Fletcher Rosenbaum, a retired lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Air Force who lives in Meridian, went to high school with Phelps. "He was good at whatever he tried," Rosenbaum says. "He was a first-class individual. I would be surprised if he wasn't a top-notch citizen in Topeka." Picketing AIDS funerals and the fax attacks on members of his community by Phelps surprised Rosenbaum: "He was very reserved in high school. Very quiet. I'm surprised he would be involved in aggressive activities. To me, it would be out of character for him." This observation may not be entirely accurate. One woman, a librarian at the Meridian Public Library, said she remembers Phelps and went to school and church with him. "He doesn't bend," she observed. "He never did." She also described him as "spooky", "different", and "a preacher prodigy." "You tell him not to do it, and he'll do it," said another Meridian woman. "He was a very determined person. That's to be admired, but it can be taken too far." Even Fred himself remembers differently. He was a boxer throughout high school and, reminiscing briefly about his days in Meridian, he chuckles to himself. If any of the other boys came to class with a puffy face or shiner, their friends would ask if they'd been sparring with Phelps. He always left his mark on them, he tells me proudly.
Sid Curtis, a grade-school classmate of Fred's, remembers the future pastor drew well, even then. What did he draw? Boxers.
A golden glove contender in high school, Fred fought twice in state meets, winning matches which, according to him, were head-on slugfests. Not aggressive? Not the Bull of Topeka yet, but clearly it was in his character. A story in the high-school paper, predicting the futures of Phelps and his classmates, reads: "Fred Phelps will box in Madison Square Garden next June, 1954. Young Phelps will fight for the world championship." One can only wonder what deep currents rose in the teenager whenever he climbed into the ring. Recalling the earlier testimony of his sons, Nate and Mark, and remembering that research has proven abusive behavior is passed with high probability from one generation to the next, the question must be raised: Was the Pastor Phelps equally abused as a child? In the South, there is an unwritten code you don't bad-mouth one of your own. Strangers are welcome unless they ask too many questions, or speak ill of Southern folks and ways. In fact, if ET had come down in Meridian instead of Southern California, and a yankee inquired about that today, folks would probably scratch their chins, figure the carpet-baggers with a knowing eye, and say he was a quiet boy, little short for his age...but had good hands for the piano... If the stories his sons have told are true, the outside observer has two choices in understanding Fred Phelps: either there's a pounding heart under the floor in that old house or the teenager's Saul- into-Paul experience produced the character change. However, many Christians might find it difficult to believe that discovering Jesus would render a good-natured, quiet lad into the bullying hostile whose trail we will shortly follow from Vernal, Utah to Topeka, Kansas. If something did happen to throw Fred Waldron Phelps off track, something that mangled him for life, no one in Meridian wanted to say. Doing that no doubt would be to speak ill of the dead-something Pastor Phelps also was taught to avoid.
Yet, suddenly at 16, the child has become the man: fanatic, unempathic, combative, and vindictive. If there is an answer to the question, 'why does Fred hate us all so much?', perhaps it lies in those years, age five to 15, when his father was largely absent and Fred and his sister were cared for by Irene Jordan.
"If he were dead, I'd talk," says Fred's sister, Martha Jean Capron, now residing in Pennsylvania. "But as long as he's alive...that's up to him..." Following the revival experience, Phelps abandoned plans for West Point. He moved to Cleveland, Tennessee, where he attended Bob Jones College, a non-denominational Christian academy.
John Capron went with him. While Fred and his boyhood chum would eventually separate over religion, Martha Jean and Capron never would: they were married and moved to Indonesia as missionaries. John was a minister there for ten years. Later he would smuggle Bibles into Communist China. Pastor Phelps' brother-in-law died of a heart attack in 1982.
Perhaps it's a shame Phelps didn't go to West Point. An army career could have provided a healthy outlet for his aggression, been more compatible with his demanding and commanding nature, while his strong body, mind, and will would have been an asset to the service and his country. If he'd survived Korea as a 2nd lieutenant, probably he'd have been a lieutenant colonel by Vietnam. There he'd almost certainly have chipped his Manichaean mandibles of dualism on that war's hard bone of moral ambiguity. Either he'd have ended on a river somewhere, whispering "the horror...the horror..." to bewildered junior officers, or gained a wider horizon and returned home to retire an urbane cynic and Southern gentleman. But in 1946, Fred Phelps had a year to kill instead of Nazis or North Koreans. The revival took him from Meridian to Bob Jones; from there the future pastor found another outlet for his anger. This one gave instant gratification and conferred adult license to abuse almost overnight: lip-shooting preacher; revivalist minister. And, unlike Vietnam, here God was unequivocally on his side...
As part of a Rocky Mountain mission assignment in summer, 1947, Phelps and two other students from Bob Jones were to seek out a fundamentalist church, convert non-believers to Christianity and steer the converts to that church. The three men chose Vernal, a town in northeast Utah. They would be working to convert, not secular hedonists, but a population that was predominantly and staunchly Mormon. When Fred and his friends got there, they set up a meeting tent brought from Bob Jones in the city park. A local Baptist minister provided them food and lodging (B.H. McAlister, who would later ordain Phelps). During the day the do-it- yourself apostles went door-to-door, seeking converts to the good news. At night, they conducted revival meetings in the tent. Only no one came.
So Ed Nelson, one of the trio, had an idea. He went to a local radio station and asked if he might buy a block of time. Nope, was the reply. Not if you're going to attack the Mormon church. Ok, said Ed, can I announce I'll be giving an address tonight at the tent?
Sure. So Ed Nelson announced on the radio he'd be doing just that. And the title of the speech? 'What's Wrong with the Mormon Church?' says Ed, over the air. That night, continues Nelson, now 69 and a traveling Baptist evangelist based in Denver, a huge crowd arrived. It was so large, the trip had to roll up the sides of the tent. Ed was nervous, but he gave his speech. The crowd listened politely. When the young evangelist was finished, a man in the crowd asked would there be questions. Sure, said Ed.
But the very first one stumped him, Nelson confesses disarmingly, and he panicked. Flustered, he announced there would be no more questions. Several in the throng protested, saying that, after sitting in courtesy, listening to their religion attacked, they weren't going to let the young men off so easily-that they should be willing to answer the crowd's questions.
At that, Fred rushed one of the men speaking and started to throw a punch, but Ed grabbed his arm and shouted: "Fred! Fred! No! Don't you do it!" "And," Nelson recounts, "Fred looked at that guy and he said, 'you shut your mouth, you dirty...' something or other."
Which, to Ed, only compounded their troubles. Fred's companion then raised his arms and shouted, "Folks, the meeting's over! It's over!" And he rushed out and killed the lights inside the tent. This discouraged any further theological discussion.
It would seem this format-speak one's mind, then take violent offense at anything less than complete agreement, and suppress all opposing views by any means handy-was the major life lesson learned by Fred Phelps during his sojourn among the Vernal heathen. "He was hot-headed and peculiar," remembers Nelson about Fred then. Eventually the minister decided to cease his association with Phelps because of his hostility and aggressiveness. "The last time I saw him, he was traveling through (on the road preaching). My wife and I gave them a hundred dollars and a bunch of handkerchiefs." When told of what Phelps was doing today, Ed said: "I'm not surprised. He was heading that way. He was so brilliant, he was dangerous. He was getting involved in the idea that only he was saved...going into heresy..." Though vandals damaged the tent, the boys from Bob Jones continued to hold nightly meetings there during the rest of their vacation. No one came, but Nelson reports they did manage to convert two teenage girls-at least for the summer.
At the end of their stay, Fred got ordained. Ordained? At 17? Isn't that too young? "No, it isn't," replies B.H. McAlister, who did the ordaining. "If he can pass the test, he is eligible. I don't think the word of God is bound by age."
Phelps was at least three years younger than most when they become ministers. Southern Baptists do not require a candidate for the ministry be a graduate of seminary. McAlister, who has helped ordain hundreds of ministers, said an examination board of 10 to 20 ministers would ask a candidate questions about doctrines and scriptures. Not everyone passed. Fred Phelps did-but only after McAlister and a missionary convinced the teenager he was wrong on a scriptural fine point. Which point was that? According to McAlister, Phelps considered the local church to be more than a place of fellowship-for him, membership in the local congregation directly corresponded to membership in the Body of Christ. Phelps may have conceded the point to be ordained, but, for 40 years, his family and church members in Topeka have been controlled by his threat that, if they depart his congregation, they must carry a letter of permission from him. In addition, they must join a congregation that he approves. Otherwise, as with Mark and Nate, the pastor Phelps draws up the dreaded missive ordering the straying sheep to be 'delivered to Satan for the destruction of the flesh.' "We barely knew him," admits McAlister, who settled upon Fred the distinction of having been both baptized and ordained in a single eventful summer.
Phelps returned that autumn to Bob Jones, but left after a year without graduating. Later he would say he did so because the school was racist. In 1983, the IRS revoked the tax exemption of Bob Jones, accusing it of practicing racial discrimination. From there, Fred went north to the Prairie Bible Institute near Calgary, Alberta. But after two semesters he moved on.
Sources have disclosed the head of the college felt pastor Phelps might be clinically disturbed. Compatible with that diagnosis, Fred's next stop was Southern California. There he enrolled at John Muir College in Pasadena.
Campaigning to change community sexual mores with a sign and a sidewalk harangue has been a four-decade effort for Fred. His implacable efforts at John Muir to root out necking and petting on campus and dirty jokes in the classroom reached the pages of TIME magazine (11 June 1951). After being forbidden to preach on campus and getting removed at least once by police from college property, Fred finally found a following that cheered his defiance of authority when he returned to harangue from a sympathizer's lawn across the street. TIME speculated it might presage a movement back to more solid values by the younger generation. Phelps cashed in on the notoriety of the TIME article to become a traveling evangelist again-this time with more success than in Vernal.
In return for spending a week or two preaching at an established church or giving a revival, he would receive a bed, his meals, and a small stipend for gas to the next assignment. It was during one such ministry in Phoenix that he met his wife, Marge. She was a student at Arizona Bible School and an au-pair with the family that took in the itinerant evangelist. Today's Mrs. Phelps remembers being curious about the minister who'd been in TIME magazine. Laura Woods, the mistress of the house who gave voice lessons during the day, remembers Fred was the perfect guest. He helped build a room, mowed the lawn, made the beds, and washed the dishes, she said. When the couple decided to get married, Mrs. Woods made Marge Simms two dresses-a wedding gown and an outfit to travel in. They were married May 15, 1952. Laura and her husband, Arthur, remain friends today with Fred and Marge Phelps. The couple moved to Albuquerque for a year, where Marge kept house while Fred traveled a circuit around the Southwest-one that took him from Durango, Colorado to Tucson, Arizona. Fred Jr., the first of their thirteen children, was born May 4, 1953.
The family then lived in Sunnyslope, Arizona for a year while pastor Phelps continued his itinerant ministry. Mrs. Phelps was eight months pregnant with Mark when Pastor Leaford Cavin at the Eastside Baptist Church in Topeka invited Fred to come and preach.
On Fred Jr.'s first birthday, the family arrived in the Kansas capital to find it an auspicious day indeed: May 4, 1954 was the day the U.S. Supreme Court handed down its historic decision, Brown vs. Board of Education of Topeka, the landfall desegregation case which ruled separate but equal schools for blacks and whites were unconstitutional. The Pastor Phelps saw the coincidence of the Brown decision -just as he was deciding where to settle-as a sign telling him that Topeka was The Place. On that watershed day for America, if the new arrivals visited the state capitol building, perhaps Phelps was struck by the dramatic mural of the raging giant on the burning prairie, rifle in one hand, Bible (law book) in the other. Perhaps, as he has hinted, Pastor Phelps came to Topeka, saw it had become a national forum on black civil rights, saw the power of the legal profession, and decided it had fallen to him: Kansas would have a new John Brown.