Kathryn Joyce is working on a book about conservative Christian women's movements, to be published by Beacon Press.
Between 1985 and 1990, three books were published by small, independent Christian presses that would come to have a profound impact on Christian Right thinking on family planning, feminism and birth control. Charles Provan's The Bible and Birth Control, Mary Pride's The Way Home: Away from Feminism and Back to Reality, and Rick and Jan Hess's A Full Quiver: Family Planning and the Lordship of Christ. Together, these three books laid a comprehensive framework for the pro-natalist, anti-birth control movement today known as Quiverfull, wherein believers eschew all forms of birth control, natural and hormonal, and argue that Christian families should leave the number of children they have entirely in the hands of God.
In the Nov. 27th issue of The Nation, I profiled a group of Quiverfull believers who had broods of 8, 11, 13 and 14 children, and who spoke of their decision to have such large families as a form of spiritual warfare. That much is reflected in their name, taken from Psalm 127: "Like arrows in the hands of a warrior are sons born in one's youth. Blessed is the man whose quiver is full of them. They will not be put to shame when they contend with their enemies in the gate." Quiverfull mothers think of their children as no mere movement, but as an army they're building for God.
Quiverfull parents try to have upwards of six children. They homeschool their families, attend fundamentalist churches, and follow biblical guidelines of male headship – "father knows best" – and female submissiveness. They refuse any attempt to regulate pregnancy. Quiverfull probably began as a self-conscious movement with the publication of Rick and Jan Hess's 1989 book, A Full Quiver: Family Planning and the Lordship of Christ, in which they argue that God, as the "Great Physician" and sole "Birth Controller," is in charge of opening and closing the womb on a case-by-case basis. Women's attempts to control their own bodies – the Lord's temple – are a seizure of divine power.
Its word-of-mouth growth can be traced back to conservative Protestant critiques of contraception, and the growing belief among evangelicals that birth control pills are an "abortifacient" (that hormonal contraception such as the pill can cause the "chemical abortion" of accidentally fertilized eggs). This is one of the strongest ties between Quiverfull conviction and the larger Christian Right, connecting a radically-expanded "pro-life" agenda that has broadened its political interests from abortion, to birth control and sexual abstinence, to international pro-natalist and pro-population movements. (Such an expanded agenda was on full display this fall at the Contraception is Not the Answer conference in Illinois, deftly covered in these pages by Tyler LePard.)
Pride's book – a grassroots hit among the homeschooling movement – denounced birth control as the hallmark of selfish feminists and paved the way for women's careers and abortion. "Family planning is the mother of abortion. A generation had to be indoctrinated in the ideal of planning children around personal convenience before abortion could be popular," Pride argued, calling for Christians to fight abortion by demonstrating that children were "unqualified blessings" by having as many as God gave them.
A number of families in the past twenty years have followed Pride's and the Hesses' charge. Though there are no exact figures for the size of the movement, the number of families that identify as Quiverfull is likely in the low tens of thousands. In its most benign self-descriptions, Quiverfull is about faith, pure and simple: faith that God won't give a woman more children than she can handle, and faith that by opening themselves up receive multiple "blessings" – in the form of children – they will bring God's favor upon them in other areas of life as well. God "deals with the hearts" about birth control, and if they submit, they are cared for.
But a more disturbing rationale for Quiverfull can also be found in its founding texts. After arguing Scripture, the Hesses point to a number of more worldly effects that a Christian embrace of Quiverfull could bring. "When at the height of the Reagan Revolution," they write, "the conservative faction in Washington was enforced [sic] with squads of new conservative congressmen, legislators often found themselves handcuffed by lack of like-minded staff. There simply weren't enough conservatives trained to serve in Washington in the lower and middle capacities." But if just eight million American Christians began supplying more "arrows for the war" by having six children or more, they propose that the Christian Right ranks could rise to 550 million within a century.
The language of spiritual warfare, demographic victory in the culture war through population shifts drastic enough to influence the law, and the inversion of old patriarchal traditions to seem like rebellion against modern society, may seem dramatic, but these are key parts of the religious and pro-family agenda to fight birth control that has drawn the attention of policy makers on the right and in the middle, and deserves the attention of anyone concerned with reproductive freedom. A fuller portrait of the movement and its members is available here.