Nathan Phelps

Nathan Phelps

Phelps speaking at QED, Manchester, UK in 2014
Born (1958-11-22) November 22, 1958
Topeka, Kansas, U.S.
Residence Calgary, Alberta
Nationality Canadian, American
Known for LGBT rights activist, Atheist activist, Calgary branch director for the Centre for Inquiry Canada, son of former Westboro Baptist Church pastor Fred Phelps
Children 6 (3 step children)
Parent(s) Fred Phelps
Relatives Shirley Phelps-Roper (sister)
Megan Phelps-Roper (niece)

Nathan "Nate" Phelps (born November 22, 1958) is an American-Canadian author, LGBT rights activist,[1] and public speaker on the topics of religion and child abuse. He is the sixth-born of the 13 children of Fred Phelps, from whom he along with three of his siblings had been estranged since his 18th birthday in 1976 until his father's death in 2014.[2] Phelps permanently left Westboro Baptist Church in 1980 and has since publicly censured the group.[3]

Other members of the Phelps family have also left, most recently Zach Phelps-Roper in February 2014.[4]

Early life

Phelps was born in Topeka, Kansas on November 22, 1958.[5] From birth until age 18, Phelps lived with his parents Fred and Margie in his hometown. Although he attended a local public school,[6] beyond that his life revolved around his father's Westboro Baptist Church (WBC), which adjoined their family home[7] inside a walled compound.[2] Attendance at scheduled sermons was strictly enforced, and after-school time was largely committed to raising money for the Church through selling candy.[8][9] Later this was eclipsed by participation in his father's intensive exercise program, which would routinely involve Phelps and his siblings running 5 or 10 miles after school,[6] accompanied by participation in a fad diet.[10]

Phelps describes his father as "deeply prejudiced",[7] and also violent[11] and abusive,[7] and gives accounts of receiving extended beatings with a leather strap[2] and later with a mattock handle.[12] Phelps' brother Mark and sister Dortha have corroborated Phelps' claims of physical abuse by their father.[2][3][7][13][14]

Leaving Westboro

On his 18th birthday, Phelps left his family home. Still in internal conflict, he abandoned his family and the WBC, despite his then deeply-held belief that this meant he would go immediately to hell.[8] In great fear of having his escape interrupted by his abusive father,[15] Phelps made a clandestine nighttime getaway[7] in an old car he had bought specifically for this purpose, with little plan or preparation beyond this.[10] He slept the first night in the men's room of a nearby gas station.[5]

Phelps left WBC prior to the start of the Church's high-profile picketing activities, and has attributed the onset of Church picketing to his father's exclusion[14] from the legal profession.[8]

Kansas and California: From faith to atheism

Phelps at the Reason Rally

After leaving WBC, Phelps undertook various jobs before reuniting with his older brother Mark, and in 1978 they established a printing company together in Prairie Village, near Kansas City.[5] The company later relocated to Southern California. Phelps worked for 25 years in the print business.[8]

Three years after leaving, Phelps contacted his family,[5] and for a brief period left Mark and the firm to stay with them. His father had offered to fund him through law school, a path which took 11 of his siblings into careers as lawyers,[16] but which Nathan declined. Fred never accepted him back, eventually denouncing him. Phelps then left again, this time for good, permanently breaking contact with his father.

During an interview while at QEDcon in April 2014, Nate Phelps explained how the lingering effects of his indoctrination as a youth were so entrenched. He understood how one could feel persecuted and sincerely surprised when other people react quite strongly against ideas of what "the truth" was as he saw it:

When I first heard that my family had started this “God hates fags” campaign...immediately people start using words like 'cult' and 'hate,' and that kind of stuff. And I remember, more privately than anything else, that, ‘No no no no, this isn’t a cult, this is my family! This is a church, this is a real church! It’s not a cult, and that no, that’s not hateful, it’s true! So I get it, because that’s how you understand the world to be. And even though I had been gone for some time, it was still one of those moments where I got to recognize that I’m actually still holding a lot of these ideas as true in my mind even though I'm starting to question the whole God thing.[17]

In the 20 years following his departure, Phelps tried to find a milder form of Christianity, and raised his own children in an Evangelical church, but his doubts only grew as he continued studying religion. At the Reason Rally in Washington on March 24, 2012, he told that the events of 9/11 finally brought him to disbelief:

Then, one sunny September morning, the illusion of a personal God that I tried so hard to believe in, exploded over the skies of Manhattan. Even as the ashes and ruin of this horrific act of blind faith settled over New York, Washington, and Pennsylvania, I watched people across the country scrambling to that same irrational altar for their answers. In the fierce storm of emotion that rolled across this country, one realization rose to the surface of my mind with blinding clarity: Certainly this mechanism of unassailable blind faith is one of the greatest risks mankind faces today.[18]

In addition to this, Phelps identifies both his experience reading Michael Shermer's book The Science of Good and Evil[8] and the birth of his first child[10] as turning points in his worldview. Phelps now describes himself as an atheist.[6]

Career as activist, speaker, and author

Phelps at The Imagine No Religion conference in Kamloops, British Columbia on May 7, 2011
Phelps at The Imagine No Religion conference in Kamloops, British Columbia in 2011

Phelps later moved to rural British Columbia, Canada,[6] and currently lives in Calgary, Alberta. He is the Executive Director of the Centre for Inquiry Calgary,[19] a secular organization that educates and advocates reason and science. He also serves on the board of directors of Recovering from Religion, which offers education and practical support for people leaving religious communities.[20][21]

Phelps is an active public speaker[22] and appears at events designed to promote the ideas of atheism, skepticism, and secularism,[15][23] He has spoken at numerous Gay Pride events[9][24][25] and describes himself as a "LBGT activist".[26][27] He emphasises his work raising awareness of child abuse related to religion and its legal status[8] and has published articles on this topic.[28]

Phelps is known for his criticism of the Westboro Baptist Church through literature, interviews, public speaking at atheist conventions, and his website. He states that his father physically abused him and the other Phelps children, and he believes that the church was an organization for his father to "vent his rage and anger."[11]

As of 2014, Phelps was working on a book called Leaving Westboro: Escaping America's Most Hated Church & Family.[19] In the same year, he made a widely reported announcement that his father was terminally ill,[29] and also that Pastor Phelps had been "excommunicated" from his own church during 2013.[30] Phelps' father died of natural causes shortly before midnight on March 19, 2014.[31][32][33] The Recovering From Religion organization released a statement on behalf of Phelps, who is on their board of directors, about his father's death.[34]


Phelps has been criticized by members of his family still active in the Westboro Baptist Church. His sister Shirley Phelps-Roper, a prominent spokesperson for the Church, said "Nathan Phelps is a rebel against God. He has nothing to look forward to except sorrow, misery, death, and hell", and stated that he "left when he was a raging disobedient rebel with selective memory".[12] His only encounter with his father since 1980 was on a radio talk program, on which Fred Phelps was highly critical of his son.[5][7][8][11]

Westboro Baptist Church has itself been widely criticized, and has been described as "roundly derided" and "widely rebuked and criticized" by Christian groups[35] which distance WBC's views from their own, and in other cases WBC is accused of "misreading" and "misrepresenting" the Bible.[16][36] Phelps has responded to this position arguing that WBC's position was derived by his father from bona fide Biblical text[8] and has written on the wider subject of mainstream Christianity's rejection of extremists.[37]

See also


  1. Hampson, Sarah. (2010-06-28). "After years of silence, Nate Phelps faces off with his anti-gay father". The Globe and Mail.
  2. 1 2 3 4 "Inside the Westboro Baptist Church". Southern Poverty Law Center. 2001. Retrieved 2014-02-23.
  3. 1 2 Kendall, Justin. "The New Fred: Shirley Phelps-Roper is just like her notorious father except in one crucial way,", November 2, 2006. Retrieved December 21, 2012.
  4. Fourth Phelps-Roper sibling leaves Westboro Baptist Church
  5. 1 2 3 4 5 Jon Michael Bell, Joe Taschler and Steve Fry (1994-06-29). "Addicted to Hate: The Fred Phelps Story. Exhibit A of the lawsuit filed in Shawnee County District Court in Topeka, Kansas by Jon Michael Bell against Stauffer Communications in June of 1994, Case number 94CV766. Chapter 8: Over the Wall at Westboro". Deborah Levinson. Retrieved 2013-12-05.
  6. 1 2 3 4 "Nate Phelps - Ex-member of the Westboro Baptist Church and Phelps family". AND Magazine. Retrieved 2014-02-11.
  7. 1 2 3 4 5 6 Hannaford, Alex (2013-03-12). "Nate Phelps on escaping Westboro Baptist Church". The Telegraph. Retrieved 2014-02-11.
  8. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 "80: Nathan Phelps". Irreligiosophy. 2010-09-14. Retrieved 2014-02-11.
  9. 1 2 Lawrence Tech Pride Week 2012 "Nate Phelps". YouTube. 2012-03-24. Retrieved 2014-02-13.
  10. 1 2 3 Seth Andrews. "Nathan Phelps Escaping Westboro Baptist Church". The Thinking Atheist. BlogTalkRadio.
  11. 1 2 3 Anderson, Ric (2006-07-23). "Phelps' son speaks out". Topeka Capital-Journal.
  12. 1 2 Trevor Melanson (2008-10-31). "Running From Hell - Growing Up in America's Most Hated Family (p6)" (PDF). The Ubyssey. Retrieved 2014-02-11.
  13. "The Phelps family has declared war on Topeka". Topeka Capital-Journal. Topeka, Kansas: Morris Communications. 20 November 1994.
  14. 1 2 Kerry Lauerman (1999). "The Man Who Loves To Hate". Mother Jones. Retrieved 2014-02-23.
  15. 1 2 "Leaving Westboro: Nate Phelps traded a hate-filled faith for atheism". National Post. 2012-09-29. Retrieved 2014-02-11.
  16. 1 2 Andrea Stone Senior Washington Correspondent (2011-03-03). "Fred Phelps' Daughters May Misread Bible but They Know the Law". Retrieved 2014-02-23.
  17. Jenkins, Paul. "Skepticule 070: Location podcast from QEDcon, featuring Nathan Phelps". Skepticule. Retrieved 4 June 2014.
  18. Daniel Fincke (March 26, 2012). "Nate Phelps's Sadness". Retrieved April 7, 2013. at the Reason Rally, 02:35–02:45 pm March 24, 2012.
  19. 1 2 "Centre for Inquiry Calgary". Centre for Inquiry Canada. Retrieved 2014-02-11.
  20. "Nate Phelps (bio)". The Huffington Post. Retrieved 6 May 2012.
  21. "Board of Directors". Recovering from Religion. Retrieved 2014-02-11.
  22. "Events - Nate Phelps Official Website". Retrieved 2014-02-13.
  23. Brayton, Ed. "Nate Phelps at Rock Beyond Belief » Dispatches from the Culture Wars". Retrieved 2014-02-11.
  24. Pittsburgh Pride Week 2010 Wednesday, June 09, 2010 (2010-06-09). "Stunning Pride Week kickoff: Son of anti-gay activist promotes tolerance at rally". Retrieved 2014-02-13.
  25. "Toronto Gay Pride 2010. Religion is Man-Made: Nate Phelps: Wesboro's forgotten son". 2013-06-24. Retrieved 2014-02-13.
  26. "Biography".
  27. "Nate Phelps: Breaking the mould". Daily Xtra. 2011-08-15. Retrieved 2014-02-17.
  28. "Nate Phelps: Ritual Child Sacrifice Is Alive and Well in 21st-Century America". Retrieved 2014-02-11.
  29. Adam Withnall (2014-03-16). "Fred Phelps, founder of 'God Hates Fags' Westboro Baptist Church, is 'on edge of death'". The Independent.
  30. Martin Pengelly (2014-03-16). "Fred Phelps Sr, ex-pastor of gay-hating Westboro church, 'close to death'". The Guardian.
  31. Hanna, John. "Anti-gay pastor Fred Phelps, Sr. dies". ABC News.
  32. "Anti-gay Westboro Baptist Church leader Fred Phelps dies". BBC. Retrieved 20 March 2014.
  33. Burke, Daniel (20 March 2014). "Westboro church founder Fred Phelps dies". Retrieved 20 March 2014.
  34. Phelps, Nathan. "The Lessons of My Father – Nathan Phelps Speaks Out on Fred Phelps' Death". Recovering From Religion. Recovering From Religion. Retrieved 21 March 2014.
  35. "Westboro Tornado Blame: Jason Collins and Kevin Durant to Blame for Oklahoma Twister, Claims Phelps (VIDEO)". The Christian Post. 2013-05-21. Retrieved 2014-02-23.
  36. "Fred Phelps is wrong about the gospel, right about the law". CNN. 2010-10-07. Retrieved 2014-02-23.
  37. Nate Phelps (2012-12-18). "Dear Maria". Huffington Post. Retrieved 2014-02-23.
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