(CNN) -- Fred Phelps -- the founding pastor of a Kansas church known for its virulently anti-gay protests at public events, including military funerals -- has died, the church said Thursday.
The 84-year-old died of natural causes at 11:15 p.m. Wednesday, according to church spokesman Steve Drain.
Phelps founded Westboro Baptist Church of Topeka, Kansas, in 1955 and molded it in his fire-and-brimstone image. Many members of the small congregation are related to Phelps through blood or marriage.
In a statement Thursday, the church chided the "world-wide media" for "gleefully anticipating the death." 2003: Phelps on Matthew Shepard statue
"God forbid, if every little soul at the Westboro Baptist Church were to die at this instant, or to turn from serving the true and living God, it would not change one thing about the judgments of God that await this deeply corrupted nation and world."
According to Westboro, the church has picketed more than 53,000 events, ranging from Lady Gaga concerts to funerals for slain U.S. soldiers. Typically, a dozen or so church members -- including small children -- will brandish signs that say "God Hates Fags" and "Thank God for Dead Soldiers."
Under Phelps' leadership, Westboro members have preached that every calamity, from natural disasters to the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in Newtown, Connecticut, is God's punishment for the country's acceptance of homosexuality. Phelps had advocated for gays and lesbians to be put to death.
"Fred Phelps will not be missed by the LGBT community, people with HIV/AIDS and the millions of decent people across the world who found what he and his followers do deeply hurtful and offensive," the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force said in a statement.
"While it is hard to find anything good to say about his views or actions, we do give our condolences to his family members at what must be a painful time for them."
In 2013, more than 367,000 petitioners called on the White House to legally recognize Westboro Baptist Church as a hate group. The White House called Westboro's protests "reprehensible" but said that "as a matter of practice, the federal government doesn't maintain a list of hate groups." In 2011, the Supreme Court upheld Westboro's right to picket military funerals on free speech grounds. Congress and several states, though, have passed laws aimed at keeping church members at a distance from funerals.
Nathan Phelps, Phelps' estranged son, posted a Facebook message March 15 saying that his father had been excommunicated from the church. Later, though, Nathan Phelps said it was "unclear" whether his father had been expelled from Westboro.
Westboro declined to say whether Phelps has been excommunicated. A church statement said March 16 that "membership issues are private" and that eight unnamed elders lead the congregation.
On Thursday, the church added, "Listen carefully; there are no power struggles in the Westboro Baptist Church, and there is no human intercessor -- we serve no man, and no hierarchy, only the Lord Jesus Christ."
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