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05/04/2007

Fred Phelps: The Early Years

by Jeremy Hooper

1101510611 400This from the June 11, 1951 edition of Time magazine:

Five-year-old John Muir College at Pasadena (enrollment: 2,000) has no more than the average quota of campus sin. But to Fred Phelps, 21, a tall (6 ft. 3 in.), craggy-faced engineering student from Meridian, Miss., John Muir is a weed-grown vineyard. Day after day this spring he has called upon his fellow students to repent. His method: to walk up to groups of boys & girls munching their lunchtime sandwiches in the quadrangle, ask "May I say a few words?" and launch into a talk.

Fred Phelps's talks drew crowds of up to 100. Over & over he denounced the "sins committed on campus by students and teachers . . . promiscuous petting . evil language . . . profanity . . . cheating . . . teachers' filthy jokes in classrooms . . . pandering to the lusts of the flesh." Such strictures sent Dr. Archie Turrell, principal of John Muir, and most of his faculty into a slow burn. Not only was Evangelist Phelps attacking them, they decided, but conceivably he was violating California's state education code, which forbids the teaching of religion on any public school campus.

Something of a Martyr. A fortnight ago they ordered him to stop his campus preaching. Phelps moved across the road, off campus, and kept on preaching. Principal Turrell warned him again. "He accosted me in very stern language," says Phelps, "and told me that he would call the law. So I told him I had no fears. If the police arrested me I would preach to them in jail."

As Phelps's audience grew, police arrived, cleared the crowded sidewalk of both the earnest and the merely curious. Phelps was "invited" into a police car and driven away from the scene; John Muir suspended him for the rest of the week.

But Evangelist Fred Phelps, who had turned down an appointment to West Point to devote his life to preaching, was not to be discouraged by a little thing like suspension. Last week he was back, preaching from the lawn of a friendly Pasadena citizen across from the quadrangle. His audiences were bigger and more sympathetic; in fact, Fred Phelps now had something of the attraction of a martyr.

Off His Stick? Pro-Phelps students recalled that the California law against the teaching of religion has never been interpreted at John Muir as a ban on such voluntary groups as the Student Christian Association, the Roman Catholic Newman Club, the Christian Science Club, and the Mormon Deseret Club. In any case, they thought Principal Turrell had no right to pursue Phelps across the street.

"I don't agree with what he says," said a history major. "But I agree that he has a right to say it—off campus." Said another: "I think some of us can stand a bit of revival. Maybe Phelps has got something."

Students were delighted with the story that Phelps had been ordered to consult the school psychologist, a middle-aged lady, and that he had turned the tables on her by "psychoanalyzing" her. Gloated an admiring coed: "I hope he did. They had no right to suggest that he's off his stick. Just because you're religious, it doesn't mean you have to be crazy."

FULL: Repentance In Pasadena [Time archives]

You're right, random 1950's coed—to be religious doesn't mean you have to be crazy. Too bad Phelps seems to have skipped the class where you obtained that crucial bit of knowledge.

*For all things Phelps: Westboro Archive:

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