Return to index.

Joann K. Mathias

Letter from the Jail: Lambs of Christ, Fargo, North Dakota

Volume 6 (1993)

A nationally-affiliated nomadic group locally identifying themselves as the Lambs of Christ congregated in Fargo, North Dakota, on Good Friday 1991 to protest the existence of the one remaining abortion clinic in the state. Their goal was to make North Dakota the first truly abortion-free state. In pursuing that goal, the road was not smooth.

Many activists were arrested and repeatedly jailed for infractions of the law--including criminal trespassing. After their arrest, the Lambs of Christ protesters refused to cooperate with law enforcement officials. They used heavy bicycle locks to couple themselves to concrete blocks or car steering wheels. Protesters became limp and refused to walk, forcing officers to carry them whenever they needed to be moved. Most refused to give their names and were assigned John/Jane Doe along with a number for identification.

The hundreds of local protesters, their immobility, the court costs, and certainly the expense of housing the large number of prisoners became a physical and financial burden for the city of Fargo and the state of North Dakota. Because many Lambs of Christ members were willing to risk arrest, overflow conditions occurred in the Fargo city jail resulting in many incarcerations in various security locations throughout the state.

Once protesters were arrested and jailed they needed to maintain communication with their supporters across the nation. They needed support and replacements to maintain the picket lines surrounding the "house-of-abortion" on Fargo's south side.

Letter writing became one method to communicate--to call for more "Christian-American Families" to leave their homes and join the Fargo protest march. Father Norman Weslin, the leader and founder of the Lambs of Christ abortion protest group, was jailed with 63 other Lambs of Christ members. Hewas incarcerated for about 100 days. While a prisoner, he wrote an appeal to his supporters throughout the nation requesting that they come to Fargo.

The rhetorical artifact analyzed in this paper is the August 1991 "letter from the Fargo jail." The rhetorical content of the letter was examined from the perspective of feminist theory (Foss, 1989) and the ethical system of care and justice (Gilligan, 1982). Just as, historically, women have used rhetorical theories developed by men, men can use the feminist theory to examine structure of gender, to blend women's viewpoints into their analysis, to accredit unqualified worth to women's voices, and to create rhetorical theory that gives them respect (Foss, 1989). "Feminist criticism, then, is designed to discover how gender is created and maintained through rhetorical artifacts and how these artifacts, in turn, constitute filters for all of our experiences" (Foss, 1989, p.158).

This paper will: (a) support the historical significance of letter writing from ancient to modem times; (b) focus on women's experiences using the traditional approach to artifact analysis, and discuss the need for a change to include women and how changes are being made; and (c) analyze Father Weslin's "letter from the Fargo Jail" from a feminist viewpoint.

Letters as Rhetorical Artifacts
Dictamen, the rhetoric of the medieval an of letter [and poetry] writing, flourished for some 300 years in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries It first achieved the mature status of a distinct discipline in the medieval universities at a time when rhetoric was the "business course" of the university system (Hill, 1973). As Kane (1970) states, the theory

involved directions regarding the order and number of the parts of a letter, enumeration of the traditional figures of speech, rules for correct forms of salutation, and the system of cursus [rhythmic prose]. The theory, originally devised for the use of the Roman curia, received popular acceptance in the secular world (p.229).


When the practice of dictamen became common in almost every aspect of secular life, the theory eventually weakened. However, some remnants remain. The rhythm of collects and other prayers used today rise from the system of cursus. But, in contrast, Kane (1970) says, "in the area of letter-writing the handful of declarative sentences usually found today between 'Dear Sir' and 'Sincerely yours' are far removed from the medieval theory of dictamen" (p. 230).

Contrary to Kane's (1970) belief that intellectual endeavors were limited to the Roman Catholic Church in the Middle Ages, Hill (1973) states that dictamen was also used politically, in business, and in literature. Letter writing expanded over the centuries as larger and larger populations became literate and continues to be a popular way of communicating today--politically, in business, and in literature.

The public letter "has long been a means of persuasion used by reformers and politicians, writers and prisoners," states Bosmajian (1966, p. 127) as he examines the rhetoric of Martin Luther King's "letter from the Birmingham jail." King was inspired to write his letter after being imprisoned on Good Friday 1963 as a response to a published plea by eight area religious leaders urging "the Negro community" in Birmingham to cease supporting the civil rights demonstrations. The "letter from the Birmingham jail" was addressed primarily to the moderate clergymen and laymen, black and white, in both the North and the South, but it became a public appeal "relevant to all Americans" (pp. 127-128).

Father Weslin's "letter from the Fargo jail" was addressed to members of a combination of pro-life organizations and ministries. This select group of "Christian-American Families" was urged to activate, to leave their way of life behind, and to join the pro-life forces in Fargo.

Fulkerson (1979) quotes Ong when he refers to the argument that "the writer's audience is always a fiction" (p. 123) meaning that at the time of the writing, the writer must imagine the audience and its expected response. However, with this "fictionalized" audience, one must make assumptions regarding who they are, their capacities, and how best to appeal to them. "But in the very act of fictionalizing an audience the letter-writer also projects an image of himself. The audience, in a sense, creates the writer just as much as the writer creates the audience" (Medhurst & Benson, 1984, p. 279).

Meanwhile, the writer can never be certain that the targeted audience will be reached. In the cases of King and Weslin, the writer could only visualize the vast audience and the possible responses. Fulkerson, (1979) states that as the distance between the writer and the reader increases, the greater the challenge to motivate the audience.

Fulkerson (1979) refers to Martin Luther King's letter when he states, "Judged by the frequency with which it has been reprinted, the 'Letter' has already become an American classic. The letter has been characterized by many as a "compelling argument," "a virtuoso performance," "a model of effective persuasive writing," and "one of the strongest pieces of persuasive writing to come out of the twentieth-century America" (pp. 121- 122). History has proven that King's letter could withstand the test of time. Bosmajian (1966) says Martin Luther King's "letter from the Birmingham Jail," is on the list of great public letters. While Weslin's "letter from the Fargo jail" may not be able to lay claim to similar accolades, the author made a concerted effort to activate his audience--to convince them to leave their homes and join the protesting forces in Fargo.

Scott (1973) states that a common response to radical rhetoric is division, and "people experience division as oppression" (p.123). From the division, one side is dominant; domination is a source of power. He quotes the Los Angeles Free Press, "Even if a woman is white, middle class and has a good job, it does not mean that she is not oppressed sexually, economically, emotionally, intellectually, and every other way" (p. 131). In Weslin's "letter from the Fargo jail," women are mentioned only three times. Women are divided from the men which indicates domination, criticism, and repression by the men. This leaves women without identity, voice, or power.

"Womanless communication" is one of five conceptualizations of women in communication research (Spitzack & Carter, 1987). "Womanless communication research simply leaves women out of its account of human communication" (p.402). McIntosh (1984) states that scholarly attention is focused on those with the most public power and involved with laws, wars, acquiring land, and managing power. She "raises questions of how the systems of reality got defined in such a way that women's realities got left out" (pp. 26-27).

The "Letter from the Fargo Jail"
The notoriety that Martin Luther King's "letter from the Birmingham jail" achieved is not expected for the "letter from the Fargo jail." Yet each is worthy of examination. This study was completed, not in the traditional masculine approach of persuasive strategies, but rather, from the feminist theory as an effort to recognize women's experiences and women's language and voices in Father Weslin's letter.

This "letter from the Fargo jail" was directed to members of groups opposing abortion. Abortion is an issue of far greater significance to women than men since it can involve her whole person. Therefore, it is appropriate to use a feminist critique of this letter.

"Feminist criticism quite possibly could be considered more central to the analysis of rhetoric than almost any other method of criticism...and it is dramatically changing the form and content of knowledge about rhetoric," (Foss, 1989, p.151). Feminist theory is applicable to all communication events not just ones important in women's lives. Artifacts are examined to determine whether women's points of view are included. Using feminist criticism is a way to look back, an act of "[r]e vision," to see with "fresh eyes" (p. 154).

However, Foss (1989) states "the act of re vision" does not nullify traditional rhetorical theories from Aristotle to Burke. Feminist criticism was intended to acknowledge that previously rhetorical theory was created in the "Western tradition"--by men to deal with men's interests and concerns (p.154).

Feminist criticism provides the lens to analyze and evaluate how women and men have been portrayed rhetorically in our culture. Analyzing rhetoric from a feminist point of view is to study and evaluate how symbols have been used to form and perpetuate specific cultural gender definitions for women and men. Foss (1989) lists two assumptions that link gender with rhetoric and support the need for rhetorical criticism from a feminist stance. First, "women's experiences are different from men's" (p. 152). Traditionally, critical studies have looked at men's experiences and considered them universal--what applied to men applied to women. However, women experience the world differently than men, both biologically and socially; the need for a feminist critique is apparent. Second, "women's voices are not heard in language" which means that women's "perceptions, experiences, meanings, practices, and values, are not incorporated into language" (p. 152). Whenever a group consists of members of unequal power, the subordinate members (women, in this case) become silenced. Then language does not serve the same purpose for the powerless.

Gilligan (1982) also discusses women's voice. She asserts: "the way people talk about their lives is of significance, that the language they use and the connections they make reveal the world that they see and in which they act" (p. 2). She indicates that the ethic of care which focuses on responsibility, relationships, and needs and the ethic of justice which follows law and justice are each logical viewpoints for dealing with life's issues; neither is better. Gilligan recognizes that both caring and justice perspectives will be used by women and men. However, she argues, women will prefer the caring perspective and men the justice.

The language of justice is described as men's concern with fairness and is based on universal principles, rules and laws. Bloom (1990) states, "moral dilemmas revolve around competing rights. A hierarchical system is created. Relationships are subordinate to rules, and rules are subordinate to universal principles" (p. 246).

Gilligan (1982) discussed the language of care from three perspectives: orientation to individual survival, goodness as self-sacrifice, and responsibility for consequences of choice. Responsibility was interpreted as exercising care, empathy, and inclusion; not being selfish meant not causing harm.

Feminist perspectives stimulate us to review the rhetorical tradition with a new awareness of its less attractive aspects and to design an up-to-date rhetorical theory that more reflects the viewpoints of all humanity today. A feminist position in rhetorical criticism is when the reviewer has no doubt there needs to be a balance between women and men for opportunities for communication and that women's viewpoint should be an integral part of rhetorical procedure and theory (Foss, 1989).


Analysis of the "Letter from the Fargo Jail"
The "letter from the Fargo jail" communicates seven key ideas. Recipients are: (a) urged to pray for the sinners (North Dakota abortion supporters); (b) informed about the treatment of those who have been arrested and jailed; (c) presented with names, phone and fax numbers, and addresses of two judges, the state's attorney, mayor, sheriff chief of police, and the daily paper's letters-to-the-editor column; (d) offered a discussion and explanation of how the "satanic influence" allows this to happen; (e) informed of the cost per day to the Fargo taxpayer to incarcerate the 64 Lambs of Christ; (f) reminded of the major contributions of other members; and (g) told of the writer's love being sent to them from the jail.

To consider how gender has been communicated, three of Foss' (1989) questions were used to examine the "letter from the Fargo jail."

1. "Does the artifact describe how the world looks and feels to women or men or both? Does it embody the perceptions and experiences of women or men or both?" (p. 155).

In Father Weslin's letter, there was no ethic of care addressed to women, men, or children. The female attributes of caring, empathy, and inclusion were ignored. Women focus on relationships. Yet, this letter focused on tearing apart homes, families, and relationships to support the "cause." Nor does Father Weslin's "letter from the Fargo jail" appear to recognize that women have a right to a voice or opinion in the abortion/right-to-life issue. Women's issues and voices were generally ignored. The significant slant is toward men's voices and men's world views. Repeatedly, one identifies the rhetorical choices of the Manichean style of thought, "us versus them"--the pro-life versus abortion rights. The rhetoric in this letter was a demandingly persuasive call to battle.

Come out of your houses! Turn your heads away from the mundane tasks of life!...Lay down your plowshares!--Put your affairs in order! This is the colossal war against Satan!...The movement of Christian warriors has begun--...Take a little bit of bacon!--and a little bit of beans! ....Gather with the movement of Christian-American Families to Fargo where the killing goes on!....No waffling!--no wavering!--no compromises with Satan!--"Set your face like flint"....YOU COME!--For thirty days, sixty days, or "the duration."


These excerpts do not sound like a call to save unborn babies, but like a call to war--to fight an enemy--a draft of not just young men, but whole families. Nothing was spared when it came to attempts to motivate "Christian-American Families." Nowhere was there any concern or suggestion about relationships-- i.e., a disrupted and fractured family that is already a living and breathing entity. Their entire agenda focused on the Lambs of Christ protest movement and the yet-to-be-born fetus.

As Scott wrote, division is experienced as oppression because one side is dominant and that domination is a source of power. This letter expresses domination by using the word "kill" or "killing" 31 times in approximately three pages of single-spaced text.

2. "How are femininity and masculinity depicted in the rhetorical artifact? Do the images conform to, or violate, society's representation of the ideal woman or man?" (Foss, 1989, p. 156).

The letter soundly depicts stereotypical male reality with the word choices: "war," "battle," "power," "control," "crush," "justice/judicial/law" and other "you versus us" metaphors. This strongly supports what our society (and others) have historically considered the "ideal man." Foss (1989) notes that men's gender traits include competitiveness. Gilligan (1982) states, "masculinity is defined through separation while femininity is defined through attachment, male gender identity is threatened by intimacy while female gender identity is threatened by separation" (1982, p. 8).

In Father Weslin's letter, no invitation was made to women. Women were included if one accepts the concept of the "traditional" American family that has both husband and wife when the letter calls "Christian-American families" to Fargo. There was no reference to women's values of gentleness, gracefulness, or nurturing.

In some ways this letter recognizes the relational, emotional, graceful, and gentle traits of women when references were made to the divine: "The Divine Set-ups" are working!!--In an awesome and beautiful way!...unite brothers and sisters.... He loves us with a passion." However, even the references to love, (i.e., "a blaze of love!! ") depicts a tone of violence. When a public letter asks whole families to disrupt their lives, families, and communities, one expects to find more equality in the writer's rhetorical choices.

3. "What does the rhetorical artifact suggest are the behaviors, concerns, issues, values, qualities, and communication patterns of women and men apart from the society's definition of gender?" (Foss, 1989, p. 156).

Father Weslin's letter portrayed only men's traditional reality with repeated references to "killing," "crush" "war," "warriors," "genocide," "law/ judgments/sentenced/juries/court," "man-made law," "battle ground" "colossal war," and more. Certainly the war-related rhetorical choices of aggressiveness are typically associated with male behaviors, concerns, issues, values, qualities, and communication patterns. He seemed unable to separate from his U. S. Army lieutenant colonel background and made this a call to the "troops" ("Shouting," 1992). This supports Medhurst and Benson who said, "the letter writer projects an image of himself' (1984, p. 279) and Gilligan's (1982) statement that people reveal the world as they see it through their rhetorical choices. One would expect a more female-focused letter filled with caring, gentleness, nurturance, etc., considering that saving the unborn is the agenda of the Lambs of Christ group.

The law-related references also depicted a male sense of power, justice, and aggressiveness. Traditionally, in our society, males are the ones in power and thereby reserve the right to make the laws which comprise our "justice system."

As previously stated, women were nearly nonexistent in this letter to "Christian-American Families." Proportionately, women were not addressed, nor were their behaviors, concerns, issues, values, qualities, or communication patterns. A few word choices: "feel," "beautiful," "simplistic trust," and "love" do relate more to women than men as Foss (1989) attributes women's gender traits of "emotional, gender, graceful, concerned with appearance, and nurturing" (p. 151). Gilligan (1982) says, "women not only define themselves in a context of human relationship, but also judge themselves in terms of their ability to care" (p. 17). However, characteristics attributed to women such as a focus on relationships and care were definitely not addressed as men were called to "gather," "No waffling--no wavering--no compromises," or "walk, if you have to." However, readers were urged to "bring your families."

This implies an attitude that women are powerless possessions. Women were not addressed or given voice in the matter when the rhetorical choices in the letter were addressed primarily to a male audience. The indication is that the male dominates, meaning he makes the decision for the entire family. The "letter from the Fargo jail" thereby significantly conforms to the societal definition of male gender traits of power.

The focus of abortion is basically a woman's issue. Yet, women were mentioned only in three instances: "Joannie is looking this way!" "Penny who gathered 7,000 Christian-American Families for Project Jericho here in the Dakotas in the past..." and, "We must all unite as brothers and sisters...."

Why were women nearly absent in this appeal for action to "Christian-American Families?" Not all people are men. Not all people who support the anti-abortion issue are men. Not all people willing to leave their homes and jobs to come to stage the protest are men. This nationwide appeal letter left more than half of the human race not addressed, appealed to, or even invited to come to protest with the Lambs of Christ in Fargo.


Effects of denial of women
What effects does this letter have on women--and men--who read it? Foss suggested that an artifact such as this letter which is directed to men "affirms their experiences, values, and power" and "may present men as the standard, universalizing the male perspective, and thus presenting women as the other" (1989, p. 156). By virtue of this letter, women were devoid of identity and power as they were drawn into identification with the male perspective.

How can the study of this letter be used to better women's lives? The letter could be used as a blatant example to bring the women's voicelessness and powerlessness to their awareness. The female members of the Lambs of Christ group could be urged to use their time together (while walking the protest line or serving jail time) to begin communicating with one another communicating their concerns--sharing the disruption in their lives and the lives of their living children. As they begin to find their voices with one another, let them begin to discover their power and become empowered to express their single and community voices to the "Father Weslins" of the world.

This letter makes comparatively little reference to women. "Families," "babies," "child," "man," "warriors," "Jesus," "Lambs of Christ," "Tom," "Randy," "Joe," and two female names, "Joannie," and "Penny." Traditionally, and I trust in this letter, the implication is that women are included in the "family. " By not directly identifying women in this letter, women are silenced, and women are denied power by their sheer invisibility/silence/absence. Women are assumed to be part of "man." Yet, they are called only to remain unidentified and nameless. By virtue of remaining nameless and voiceless, women remain powerless.



This paper used the feminist critique and the ethics of care and justice to analyze a "letter from the Fargo jail" to determine if the women's perspective was included in the letter addressed to "Christian American Families." Several conclusions may be drawn from the analysis.

First, the rhetorical choices were male oriented and directed to males. Certainly the world view and experiences of women were not a part of this letter. The rhetorical choices (the metaphors of war, the words of justice, rules and law) that proliferate in the "letter" were male-oriented.

Second, women and children were not addressed in the "letter from the Fargo jail." They were not given recognition, and certainly not given a voice. Yet as a part of the traditional "family," it is presumed that they were called to join the movement of the Lambs of Christ.

Third, to Father Weslin, the cause was the only thing that mattered. Nothing else in life was as important. "Christian-American Families" were repeatedly and emphatically told to "Gather with the movement of Christian-American Families to Fargo where the killing goes on! " There was no regard for homes, jobs, schools, children already born, women, or even men. Recipients of the letter were expected to sacrifice their home life and "come to Fargo" with no consideration for the relationships of the living.

Fourth, it can be expected that an issue concerned with women and born and unborn babies would also be concerned with women and women's feelings. In this "letter" only two women were identified. Other women remained nameless, voiceless, and as a result, powerless. I discovered no concern for women or women's feelings in Father Weslin's "letter."

Gilligan's ethic of care and justice was a more difficult tool to use in the analysis of the rhetoric of this letter since the letter is devoid of care of living, breathing humankind. The letter's tone was militant and full of language of justice. As indicated by the quotations cited from the letter, the Lambs of Christ members were asked to forsake all others--all else--and join those already in Fargo. This was caring only for the agenda of the movement--not caring about the families, women, children, homes, or careers. In the Lambs of Christ "letter from the Fargo jail," the language of care drowned in the sea of justice.



Bloom, M. M. (1990). Sex differences in ethical systems: A useful framework for interpreting communication research. Communication Quarterly, 38, 244-254.

Bosmajian, H. A. (1966). Rhetoric of Martin Luther King's letter from Birmingham jail. The Midwest Quarterly, 8, 127-142.

Foss, S. K. (1989). Rhetorical Criticism: Exploration and Practice. Prospect Heights, IL: Waveland Press, Inc.

Fulkerson, R. P. (1979). The public letter as a rhetorical form: Structure, logic and style in King's "letter from Birmingham jail." The Quarterly Journal of Speech, 65, 121-136.

Gilligan, C. (1982). In a different voice. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Hill, S. R. Jr. (1973). Dictamen: that bastard of literature and law. Central States Speech Journal, 26, 116-123.

Kane, P. E. (1970). Dictamen: The medieval rhetoric of letter-writing. Central States Speech Journal, 21, 224-230.

McIntosh, P. (1984). Interactive phases of curricular revision. In B. Spanier, A. Bloom, & D. Boroviak (Ed.), Toward a balanced curriculum (pp. 25-34). Cambridge, MA: Schenkman Publishing Company, Inc.

Medhurst, M. J., & Benson, T. W. (Eds.). (1984). Rhetorical dimensions in media. Dubuque, Iowa: Kendall/Hunt Publishing Company.

Scott, R. L. (1973). The conservative voice in radical rhetoric: A common response to division. Communication Monographs, 40, 123-135.

Shouting of the Lambs. (1992, May 4). Time, p. 30.

Spitzack, C., & Carter, K. (1987). Women in communication studies: A typology for revision. The Quarterly Journal of Speech, 73, 401-423.