When the Gospel Community Church in Coxsackie, New York, breaks midservice to excuse children for Sunday school, nearly half of the 225-strong congregation patters toward the back of the worship hall: the five youngest children of Pastor Stan Slager’s eight, assistant pastor Bartly Heneghan’s eleven and the Dufkin family’s thirteen, among many others. “The Missionettes,” a team of young girls who perform ribbon dances during the praise music, put down their “glory hoops” to join their classmates; the pews empty out. It’s the un-ignorable difference between the families at Gospel Community and those in the rest of the town that’s led some to wonder if the church isn’t a cult that forces its disciples to keep pushing out children.
But after the kids leave, Pastor Stan doesn’t exhort his congregation to bear children. His approach is more subtle, reminding them to present their bodies as living sacrifices to the Lord, and preaching to them about Acts 5:20: Go tell “all the words of this life.” Or, in Pastor Stan’s guiding translation, to lead lives that make outsiders think, “Christianity is real,” lives that “demand an explanation.”
Lives such as these: Janet Wolfson is a 44-year-old mother of eight in Canton, Georgia. Tracie Moore, a 39-year-old midwife who lives in southern Kentucky, is mother to fourteen. Wendy Dufkin in Coxsackie has her thirteen. And while Jamie Stoltzfus, a 27-year-old Illinois mom, has only four children so far, she plans on bearing enough to populate “two teams.” All four mothers are devoted to a way of life New York Times columnist David Brooks has praised as a new spiritual movement taking hold among exurban and Sunbelt families. Brooks called these parents “natalists” and described their progeny as a new wave of “Red-Diaper Babies”–as in “red state.”
But Wolfson, Moore and thousands of mothers like them call themselves and their belief system “Quiverfull.” They borrow their name 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 home-school 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 began with the publication of Rick and Jan Hess’s 1989 book, A Full Quiver: Family Planning and the Lordship of Christ, which argues that God, as the “Great Physician” and sole “Birth Controller,” opens and closes 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.
Though there are no exact figures for the size of the movement, the number of families that identify as Quiverfull is likely in the thousands to low tens of thousands. Its word-of-mouth growth can be traced back to conservative Protestant critiques of contraception–adherents consider all birth control, even natural family planning (the rhythm method), to be the province of prostitutes–and the growing belief among evangelicals that the decision of mainstream Protestant churches in the 1950s to approve contraception for married couples led directly to the sexual revolution and then Roe v. Wade.
“Our bodies are meant to be a living sacrifice,” write the Hesses. Or, as Mary Pride, in another of the movement’s founding texts, The Way Home: Beyond Feminism, Back to Reality, puts it, “My body is not my own.” This rebuttal of the feminist health text Our Bodies, Ourselves is deliberate. Quiverfull women are more than mothers. They’re domestic warriors in the battle against what they see as forty years of destruction wrought by women’s liberation: contraception, women’s careers, abortion, divorce, homosexuality and child abuse, in that order.