Westboro Baptist Church
Westboro Baptist Church protesters Reuters

Westboro Baptist Church founder Fred Phelps Sr. is "on the edge of death" according a Facebook post from his estranged son Nathan.

The controversial religious group's leader was excommunicated from his own organisation in August 2013 and is now receiving hospice care in Topeka, Kansas, according to reports.

His anti-gay hate group has had run-ins with numerous figures and groups but perhaps for British audiences the group are best remembered for their role in Louis Theroux's BBC documentary The Most Hated Family in America.

When Theroux's documentary first aired, in 2007, it proved to be one of the journalist's best shows, prompting a return four years later for follow-up doc America's Most Hated Family in Crisis.

Theroux's insight into the inner-workings of the organisation – which consists of Phelps' huge family, was one of the few genuine looks at the true ethos of the organisation.

Theroux's tactile, logical approach to questioning provoked interesting responses, not least from Phelps himself who reluctantly talked to Theroux.

The Most Hated Family in America used the Westboro Baptist Church's picketing of US soldiers' funerals as its basis. The Church believes that all atrocities - including the attacks of 11 September 2001 – are punishment from God for the world's increasingly more tolerant view of homosexuality.

Another key figure in the group is Fred's daughter Shirley Phelps-Roper, who explains the groups view of America: "If you see a nation or a people who have risen up with one voice to say that it's okay to be gay, you're looking at a doomed people.

"Those people have crossed the line. When you say 'gay pride', you obviously have given over any trace or any notion that you're going to admit that you're sinning."

In his follow-up, America's Most Hated Family in Crisis, Louis attended one of the Church's many pickets, seeing first-hand the reactions it provoked from the Kansas public and the member's reaction to their disagreement.

Warning: The following video contains strong language.

They're an easy group to hate, but Theroux remained level-headed. Prior to his return to the Phelps family, Theorux said in an interview with the BBC that they're actually remarkably nice and well-mannered people, despite their extremist views.

"They're intelligent, high achieving, have good jobs, and they're kind, for the most part, when they're not on pickets. They're easy to communicate with and deal with too. It's just this one area - their pickets.

"They will even - so I'm given to understand and I have no reason to doubt it - work alongside gay people very happily in the work place. If a gay person goes along to talk to them outside the church or if a gay person even turned up to the church to attend a service, they wouldn't humiliate them or be rude to them; they'd shake their hand and welcome them in."

Theroux says that the ultimate aim of the two documentaries has been to answer the question, "Why would nice people do such horrible things?" by looking into the indoctrination of an entire family into their patriarch's hateful beliefs.

fred phelps
Gay hate pastor Fred Phelps of Westboro Baptist Church on deathbed BBC/YouTube

"I think that the pastor [Fred Phelps Sr.] is not a very nice person. I think he's an angry person who's twisted the Bible and picked and chosen verses that support his anger, that sort of justify his anger, and he's instilled that in his children and they've passed it on to their children. Although the second and third generation are by and large quite nice people from what I saw, they still live under the influence of their Gramps.

"It shows you what strange avenues the religious impulse can take you down. I think another part of the answer is that parts of the Christian Bible are pretty weird. There's a lot of weird stuff in there and when you take that and you add this angry, domineering kind of a father figure, which is Gramps, and you add that he has sort of separated them off from other people, other families and driven them to achieve a lot, and he was kind of a charismatic guy, and still is up to a point.

"He was a very verbal, very persuasive, an extremely compelling speaker. All these things added together combined to make a powerful influence."