His Quiver Full of Them: Jeri Lofland’s Thoughts
Decades ago, I cross-stitched a scripture motto for my parents from Psalm 127, the favorite psalm of large families.
“Lo, children are a heritage of the Lord: and the fruit of the womb is his reward.”
The psalmist goes on to say: “As arrows are in the hand of a mighty man; so are children of the youth. Happy is the man that hath his quiver full of them…”
The term “quiverfull” is now used as both a noun and an adjective to describe a theology and lifestyle that glorifies human fertility while maintaining that God will provide the resources to raise as many children as he allows a couple to conceive. Contraception is held to be “playing God” and a violation of the command to be “Be fruitful and multiply”. The ideal Quiverfull couple are always open to “more blessings”, regardless of financial situation, health concerns, housing limitations, or needs of existing children.
I’m not certain when my parents decided that contraception was immoral. As a high schooler, Mom was an advocate of zero population growth and intended to adopt rather than bear children. A few years later, she graduated from a strict Catholic nursing school and married my dad. I was born a year later, my brother two years after that, and so on for the next 20 years.
Mail would arrive periodically from the Couple to Couple League and my parents had a couple of books by Catholic authors John & Sheila Copley explaining the practice of abstinence and/or breastfeeding as a means of birth control. Of course, even “natural family planning” (NFP) sounded too much like the evil “Planned Parenthood” so it was usually referred to as “child spacing”. Somewhere along the line my parents abandoned NFP (turns out it’s not all that effective at preventing pregnancy!) and the babies began to come even closer together.
Certainly Mom was influenced by Mary Pride’s 1985 book The Way Home, a story of the author’s journey from feminism to what she calls “reality”. Mary had just three young children when she wrote the book, in which she blasted away at contraception, lingerie, Marabel Morgan’s The Total Woman, and even Christian schools.
“All forms of sex that shy away from marital fruitfulness are perverted. Masturbation, homosexuality, lesbianism, bestiality, prostitution, adultery, and even deliberate marital barrenness–all are perverted.”
“Since the word used for female is connected so strongly with the idea of nursing babies, whereas it has no connection at all with the idea of sexual activity, I believe that God is saying here that when women exchange their natural function of childbearing and motherliness for that which is ‘against nature’ [that is, trying to behave sexually like a man], the men tend to abandon the natural sexual use of the women and turn to homosexuality. When men stop seeing women as mothers, sex loses its sacredness. Sex becomes ‘recreational’, and therefore the drive begins to find new kicks.” (Mary Pride, The Way Home, 1985)
(Pride’s position against family planning was more extreme than even the Catholic Couple-to-Couple League’s, prompting a correspondence between her and John Kippley, president of CCLI, and leading Pride to grudgingly endorse NFP in some situations in her sequel to The Way Home.)
Pride went on to birth six more babies and became a powerful force in the new homeschooling movement. My mom used to share The Way Home with all her friends and donated it to church libraries when she could. (When she encouraged me to read it, I was confused. Especially by the story about the lady wearing saran-wrap. Sexually naive young women raised in patriarchal, homeschooling isolation were definitely not Pride’s target audience.)
Mary Pride’s views fit rather well with the teachings of Bill Gothard–a middle-aged bachelor who handed out plenty of sexual and parenting advice at his seminars and encouraged couples to have surgeries to reverse previous vasectomies and tubal ligations. One of Gothard’s books informs us, “Labor in childbirth… was given to the woman for her spiritual benefit…” and points out that the God of the Old Testament “cursed several women by closing their wombs.” Attendees of Gothard’s conferences learned to associate infertility with God’s judgement. A full quiver, on the other hand, was a sign of God’s favor, a spiritual status symbol.
In 1990, a Nebraska couple published A Full Quiver: Family Planning and the Lordship of Christ. In this book, Rick and Jan Hess (homeschooling parents of ten) invite the reader to imagine a world where no one has ever had more than two or three siblings, effectively eliminating many historical figures. This exercise concludes with visualization of a future where enormous families are normal and God provides spacesuits for a missionary family moving their brood to evangelize a colony on the moon. My parents had this book, probably purchased at an IBLP seminar and still available on Gothard’s website.
Then there was Nancy Campbell’s occasional magazine for moms, Above Rubies. Nancy is a fierce promoter of anti-feminism from her compound in Tennessee. Her website includes multiple articles by women who felt guilt and regret over “the biggest mistake” of their life. After they repented, they went on to expand their families by four, five, six more babies. What mistake is reversed by more pregnancies? An abortion, perhaps? No, as it turns out, the biggest mistake of these women’s lives was a tubal ligation. Nancy also sells a book, A Change of Heart, encouraging couples to have surgeries to reverse both vasectomies and tubal ligations.
Vickie Farris, whose husband Mike is president of the Home School Legal Defense Association, homeschooled their ten children and lived to write a book about it. She encourages other women to reject birth control methods and embrace motherhood. Quiverfull women like Farris, and Michelle Duggar of “Nineteen Kids and Counting”, have built their lives on the mantra “God won’t give anyone more than they can handle”, sometimes phrased as “What God orders, he pays for”.
My parents were opponents of both birth control and sterilization. They even encouraged some of their friends to have reversal surgeries, resulting in many more babies. My mom had eleven children over 24 years, including ten [unassisted home]births. Pregnancy was not easy for her–she often referred to herself with the phrase from St. Paul, “a living sacrifice”. She spent most of my childhood breastfeeding, diapering, potty-training, and homeschooling on top of that. I understood that this was not culturally normal, but sought to convince myself that God was pleased with this self-sacrifice. I spent my teen years watching my mom’s body swell and deflate, and changing thousands of diapers.
In my twenties, as I waited for my turn to become a wife and mother, I quietly ticked off how many children I could have in x years. I may have been ideologically persuaded that contraception was wrong, but I didn’t want to spend twenty years lactating either. When I got impatient for God to bring me a husband (no boyfriends on the horizon), I consoled myself by guessing how many fewer children I would bear in a shorter window of fertile sexual activity.
Fortunately, when I did get married, my husband and I quickly began to realize that many aspects of Quiverfull thought and practice were contradictory to our values. Not before taking NFP classes from a Catholic certified trainer, though. When we got pregnant anyway, we were told the method worked fine–we’d just had sex when [it turned out!] we were actually fertile. Well, what do you know?
I think my relationship with the Quiverfull movement finally ended a few years ago as I was perched on the end of an exam table in my doctor’s office. Looking up from my chart, she compassionately observed, “You’ve been raising kids for a long time,” and I burst into unexpected tears.
These days, stories of ex-Quiverfull moms and their “quivering daughters” are multiplying on the Internet like rabbits in the spring. The fruit of the movement has not turned out to be sweet; we deal with health problems, poverty, anxiety, depression, PTSD, eating disorders, cutting, sexual abuse, emotional incest, and divorce. (You can read far more than you want to know at the Homeschoolers Anonymous blog.)
In spite of these firsthand horror stories, Quiverfull continues to enjoy wide support in America and is gaining traction in other nations. Earlier this year, the BBC reported on the movement’s growth in the United Kingdom. You can listen to more, including scary-sounding clips from Nancy Campbell, here.
Meanwhile here in the States, Hobby Lobby and Catholic hospitals gnash their teeth over their employees’ rights to use birth control. Texan teenagers are taught that contraceptives don’t work. (The result? Texas has more than 10% of America’s teen births.) And TLC continues to profit from shows like “Nineteen Kids and Counting”, promoting Quiverfull ideology to some unsuspecting viewers.
The show should include a disclaimer: For your own safety, don’t try this at home.