Norm Phelps (1939–2014)

Norm Phelps died on December 31, 2014. An activist in the promotion of vegetarianism, veganism, and compassion for animals in spiritual traditions, he authored numerous books and articles.

He followed both the Tibetan Buddhist tradition and the Unitarian Universalist tradition — neither of which, he noted, is exclusive. But he was raised as a Baptist and a Methodist and wrote about Christianity and animals as well.

Norm’s books included The Dominion of Love: Animal Rights According to the Bible (2002), The Great Compassion: Buddhism and Animal Rights (2004), and The Longest Struggle: Animal Advocacy from Pythagoras to PETA (2007), all published by Lantern Books of New York. His most recent book is Changing the Game: Animal Liberation in the Twenty-First Century, which Lantern will release in its paperback version today (the Kindle edition, with a different subtitle, was released in 2013).

He was also active in numerous organizations. He co-founded the Society of Ethical and Religious Vegetarians (SERV), and worked in and with numerous other groups, such as the Fund for Animals, the Humane Society of the United States, Compassion Over Killing, Dharma Voices for Animals, and Unitarian-Universalists for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (UFETA). He engaged in a lengthy public dialogue critical of the Dalai Lama because of the Dalai Lama’s eating of meat, saying “there is no principle in Buddhism more important than compassion, not even reverence for our teachers.”

Perhaps he will be most immediately missed as a voice in the Unitarian-Universalist (UU) debate over animals. In 2011 he made extensive comments on the draft UU statement of conscience on “Ethical Eating,” calling it “profoundly flawed.” Just last fall he wrote “History Has Passed Us By: An Open Letter to My Fellow UUs on Animal Liberation.” He supported the effort to change the first principle of UUs, which currently requires UUs to affirm “the inherent worth and dignity of every person,” to instead affirm “the inherent worth and dignity of every being,” that is, to include animals.

I wasn’t close to Norm, although he knew who I was. He wrote very generous reviews of both Disciples and The Lost Religion of Jesus. We also both co-founded of The Society of Ethical and Religious Vegetarians (SERV), along with Richard Schwartz, Steve Kaufman, and a number of others.

Tributes to Norm have already appeared at Compassion Over Killing (Paul Shapiro), Animals 24-7 (Merritt Clifton), and Dharma Voices for Animals. Norm had two websites that have his writings, Animals and Ethics and Gabe Konrad interviewed Phelps in 2004 about Buddhism; in 2013 Caryn Hartglass interviewed him about animal activism.

If you’re in the DC area, Norm’s wife Patti Rogers and Compassion Over Killing are sponsoring a celebration of Norm’s life on January 18 in Takoma Park, Maryland. You can RSVP here at the Compassion Over Killing page for Norm Phelps.

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