“Oh what a vision, to invade the earth with mighty sons and daughters who have been trained and prepared for God’s divine purposes.” — Nancy Campbell, Be Fruitful and Multiply
In late January, when Jim Bob and Michelle Duggar, parents to eighteen children and stars of a TLC reality show about their twenty-member family, came onto The View with their newborn daughter, Jordyn, Barbara Walters asked the couple what their motivation was in having such an immense family – was it their religion?
The camera-seasoned couple, well known as the friendly face of the conservative pro-natalist movement Quiverfull, gave a credible pause of consideration before answering.
“Well, it’s amazing,” Jim Bob began, and retold the story of Michelle’s use of birth control in their early marriage and the later miscarriage they attribute to it. Michelle chimed in: “At that point, we were just brokenhearted, because here we were holding one baby in our arms, enjoying being parents, and then realized we had lost that baby. And so at that point, that was when we really just searched the scriptures and we found that God says that children are a gift, and a blessing, and a reward from him.” Michelle’s voice lilted into sing-song as she smiled down at baby Jordyn. “At that point,” she continued, “we said, Lord, give us a love for children like you love children.” Then, said Michelle, God gave them twins, and more than a dozen more, and still counting.
Quiverfull, as a number of people have learned over the past several years from endless TLC and Discovery channel specials on the Duggars and their palatial Arkansas home, is a conservative Christian conviction to have as many children as God gives a family, accepting each child as an unqualified “blessing” and a demonstration of radical faith in God. It’s a movement of pro-life purists seeded by the separatist strain of the conservative homeschooling community, who fight what they call the “contraceptive mentality” by refusing to limit their family size. Couples who follow the conviction forgo almost all birth control options, usually considering contraception a form of abortion and viewing even natural family planning as an attempt to control a realm, fertility, that should be entrusted to divine providence.
The Duggars, who consider themselves part of that movement and are certainly its most prominent members, attract disparate responses: adoration and disgust, respect and condemnation. But what many viewers of TV appearances agree upon is how sweet the family seems. What’s given far less play in any of the TV coverage of the family is the core of the Quiverfull conviction that informs the Duggars and a growing movement of conservative homeschoolers: that the biggest threat to modern society is women’s equality, and that conservative believers should fight feminism by raising large families to embrace radically patriarchal gender roles of wifely submission and male headship, and teach their daughters to do the same.
When I began researching my book, Quiverfull: Inside the Christian Patriarchy Movement, I was surprised to stumble upon the Quiverfull community. I was investigating the movement of pro-life pharmacists refusing to fill birth control prescriptions, and I was fascinated to read the counter-revolutionary call to arms of the anti-feminist activists who popularized the Quiverfull conviction in the mid-1980s. They urged women toward militant fecundity in the service of religious rebirth: creating what they bluntly referred to as an army of devout children to serve as “arrows” in spiritual battle against God’s enemies.
When people talk about large families in U.S. culture today – a topic given a lot of play following the Duggars’ latest birth and the recent octuplets delivered to California mother Nadya Suleman, a number of recurring questions crop up: Is it environmentally irresponsible for parents to bring so many children into the world when each increases their carbon footprint exponentially? Are parents of such large families expecting government assistance in our already-strained financial times? How can they give quality attention to each child, or even begin to consider college costs?
These are interesting discussions, but not the most important thing to understand about the Quiverfull movement. In order for a woman to be Quiverfull, she must embrace a life of absolute submission and obedience to God, her husband, and the cause of Christian revival – winning the culture wars – by having more children than the “other side.” At the heart of this call is Quiverfull’s insistence that women’s individual rights and desires are of secondary importance to the larger cause.
As Quiverfull leader Mary Pride, author of the founding text of the movement, The Way Home: Beyond Feminism, Back to Reality, wrote: “My body is not my own”- deliberately tweaking the title of the feminist health classic, Our Bodies, Ourselves, to make a point about women’s need to become “maternal missionaries” by having as many children as God gives them. And it’s this ideological grounding, tying the Quiverfull conviction to growing anti-contraception and pro-natalist movements worldwide, that makes Quiverfull arguments relevant far beyond the movements’ small, but growing, numbers (there are currently tens of thousands of followers).
Nadya Suleman and the Gosselin family – who started the TLC large-family roster with their reality program Jon and Kate Plus Eight – are not part of the Quiverfull movement, which is generally opposed to assisted reproductive technologies as well as birth control. However, their manner of speaking about their large families seems evidence of Quiverfull rhetoric making its way into the mainstream. In her Dateline interview on MSNBC, Suleman spoke of her children as “blessings” in much the way that Quiverfull families speak of their own children as “my eight – or ten, or twelve – little blessings.”
“What would possess a family… to want twelve kids or eighteen kids?” said Suleman, making a clear reference to the Duggar brood. “That’s just what they feel is meaningful to them. Their family. Expanding a family. It’s an amazing thing. I do believe that children are all blessings from God.”
Polite, respectful and obedient children are typical of the movement. On the first occasion I spent time with a family that follows the Quiverfull conviction, I found myself in a rural suburb north of Atlanta at a two-family picnic that nonetheless boasted eleven children: the eight children of the Georgia hosts, and the three of a young Alabama couple who’d only just started their family. As I sat at a picnic table with the four parents and one nursing newborn, the elder children tended to the younger siblings without being asked, automatically rising from the picnic table to pick up a fallen, wailing toddler outside, and otherwise exemplifying the distinctly polite, respectful, and obedient manners typical of children of the movement.
The scene was, in action, what Quiverfull families think of as evangelism by example: proving through their own children that large families do not have to be unruly, but that well-behaved children can serve as inspiration to couples on the fence about giving up family planning, who compare children like these with misbehaving brats they encounter on the street. Then they’ll ask, “How did you raise kids like that?,” and the Quiverfull parents will explain their family philosophy of how it’s easier with more, how older children learn to help out and shoulder responsibilities, and all of the children understand the mature necessity of sacrificing individual desire to the common family good.
That’s a broad enough standard to allow for various interpretations, including mainstream beliefs that children should help out in the family and not expect to always have their way. In the Quiverfull movement, which graduates new believers from accepting many children to a deeper study of movement literature about women’s submission to the headship of the fathers and husbands, it often becomes a lifestyle of rigid hierarchy and duty. Many women who have left the movement say that the experience of Quiverfull daughters is to learn early that their role is limited to the domestic and that their highest calling is in becoming mothers and wives. It can be a life of crushing toil, as former Quiverfull believer Cheryl Lindsey Seelhoff explains. “The Quiverfull movement holds up as examples men like the Duggars : all men of means. But for every family like this, there are ten or fifty or one hundred Quiverfull families living in what most would consider to be poverty : Mothers are in a constant cycle, often, of pregnancy, breastfeeding, and the care of toddlers.”
Among the children, it’s daughters who bear the remaining weight of the lifestyle their parents have chosen, regularly taking over a great deal of the housework and childcare involved in such a large family, and often having their educational opportunities curtailed as homeschooling lessons are tailored to what they’ll need in their “future careers” as wives and mothers. College away from home is usually out of the question.
In the literature of the movement, seeing children as advertisements for the faith is just a forerunner to other metaphors that stress the utility of offspring, as movement leaders envision shaping the world through an exponentially growing line of descendents. The name of the movement, Quiverfull, is taken from Psalm 127, the scriptural cornerstone of the movement, which reads: “Like arrows in the hand of a warrior, so are the children of one’s youth. Blessed is the man whose quiver is full of them.” Following this, the language of children as arrows in a warrior’s quiver, tools of battle to be used against others, is rampant. “Children are our ammunition in the spiritual realm to whip the enemy!” adds one Quiverfull advocate, Rachel Scott, in her movement book, Birthing God’s Mighty Warriors.
While the militaristic language of weaponry describes “spiritual war” and not physical violence, what remains troubling is the reinforcement this language gives to children’s position in this movement: implements of war, valuable – and surely deeply loved by their parents – but nonetheless designed for sacrifice on the altar of their parents’ vision.
Among yet more extreme believers, such as the pro-patriarchy homeschooling ministry Vision Forum, some movement leaders urge followers to develop a “200-year plan,” to chart out generations of children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren for centuries to come, along with tasks they want those descendents to fulfill to glorify the family name. “If the Christian Church had not listened to the humanistic lies of the enemy and limited their families,” writes Vision Forum founder Doug Phillips in an introduction to the movement book Be Fruitful and Multiply, “the army of God would be more powerful in this hour. The enemy’s camp would be trembling.”
Some movement leaders urge followers to develop a “200-year plan.” It’s absurd, on one hand, to believe that two hundred years’ worth of heirs will follow an ancestor’s goals so closely, but it’s also a logical extension of the “demography is destiny” argument that Quiverfull relies upon: that through the sheer number of their offspring they will be able to enact their will upon the culture around them.
The problem with the Quiverfull movement isn’t so much the threat that the bombastic calls of its leaders for demographic dominion will come true, rendering America the reconstructed Puritan colony that the far right imagines. Rather, it’s the enforcement of a stringent chain of command on all of its adherents, but especially its women, in the name of such a plan, so that women are told to sacrifice their bodies and individual desires as an offering to God. Many Quiverfull mothers follow the example of leaders calling for such self-sacrifice but, without the wealth and high-profile the Duggar family enjoys, life on the path to number eighteen is far different for them. This isn’t the stuff of reality TV, but it is the reality of what underlies this movement.