Nate Phelps

On this date in 1958, writer and LGBTQ activist Nathan “Nate” Phelps was born in Topeka, Kansas, to Margie (Simms) and Fred Phelps, the sixth of their 16 children (three were stillborn). His father was the notorious founder in 1955 of the homophobic and nativist Westboro Baptist Church, which was Primitive Baptist in origin and fueled by hyper-Calvinism. At age 7, Nate could recite the names of all 66 books of the bible in 19 seconds.

Fred Phelps, who had a law degree from Topeka’s Washburn University, was emotionally and physically abusive to his wife and children. When the barber strap he beat the children with to instill biblical discipline frayed, he started using the handle of a mattock, a tool shaped like a pickaxe with an adze and a chisel on the head. He led the church, which never had more than about 70 members, until he was forced out in a power struggle shortly before dying in 2014 at age 84.

Nate waited until midnight on his 18th birthday to leave the family in his Rambler Classic car he’d kept hidden. He then worked at several jobs before joining his older brother Mark, who’d left the household earlier. They started a printing company near Kansas City in 1978. 

He and the business where he would work for about 25 years moved to southern California in 1981. He got married in 1986 to his wife Tammi (which led to his father calling him an adulterer because she was divorced). They had a son, Tyler, in 1987, and twins Hayley and Hunter two years later. They and Tammi’s three older children were raised in an evangelical church “where I began my search for the kinder, gentler God of mainstream Christianity,” Phelps said. (Freethought Today, November 2020)

After a “painful” marital breakdown in 2005, fueled in no small part by his increasing religious doubts, he moved to British Columbia (still his home as of this writing in 2021): “I had recently read Richard Dawkins’ “The God Delusion” and for the first time in my life I was willing to consider that I might be an atheist. That was such a horrible, terrifying word that I would not say it out loud.” (Freethought Today, ibid.) 

Phelps was hired as Calgary branch director of the Centre for Inquiry Canada in 2009, served on the board of directors for Recovering from Religion and spoke at the Reason Rally in Washington in 2012, where he said the events of 9/11 ended his religious beliefs. “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.”

He was the 2020 recipient of FFRF’s Henry Zumach Freedom From Religious Fundamentalism Award for his years of speaking out publicly for freethought and humanism. The $10,000 award is endowed by FFRF Member Henry Zumach. Phelps was a guest on “Freethought Matters” on Feb. 18, 2021.

Freedom From Religion Foundation