Quiverfull?

The Quiverfull movement is based on a fundamentalist Christian theology which teaches that one should have as many children as possible in order to transform the world for God. Some in the movement are providentalists, meaning that they believe that married couples should have sex as desired and simply accept what does or does not happen in terms of pregnancy. Others reject any method of avoiding conception but accept fertility treatment or early weaning in order to achieve pregnancy. They believe that they are following the Genesis command to Adam and Eve to “be fruitful and multiply” and specifically cite Psalm 137:

Lo, children are an heritage of the LORD: and the fruit of the womb is his reward. 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: they shall not be ashamed, but they shall speak with the enemies in the gate.

It can be very difficult for scholarly outsiders to understand why anyone who based their views on “the Bible alone” would end up as a Quiverfull family. After all, the Bible is far from full of large families. Even the most exceptional case of Jacob’s 12 sons and 1 daughter is a rather questionable model tainted with four mothers and dramatic parenting failure.

But understanding the reasoning of fundamentalist Protestants adherents to the Quiverfull lifestyle is easy for me compared to its appeal for Catholics. I can understand how traditionalist Catholics can reject NFP, but the more traditional Catholic ideal is not a Quiverfull approach, it is complete sexual abstinence and sacrifice of one’s sexual desires for the sake of a godly home. Saint Augustine was about as far as one could be from advocating very large families.

The providentalist approach is highly problematic because it fails to account for human responsibility, and the duties of parents in particular. Parents are not entitled to enjoy full nights of sleep while their infants wail from hunger. Parents are not entitled to enjoy their hobbies while their children demolish the house. And parents are not entitled to enjoy sexual intercourse while their children are neglected.

The idea that more children is always better is incorrect because married couples are called to procreation in the fullest sense. This means that mere reproduction is not enough, parents must also raise their children well. Or, in the words of Vatican II: “Marriage and conjugal love are by their nature ordained toward the begetting and educating of children…Parents should regard as their proper mission the task of transmitting human life and educating those to whom it has been transmitted.” The idea that Christian married couples must “give outstanding witness to faithfulness and harmony in their love, and to their concern for educating their children also” is simply a new way of understanding the longstanding tradition that Christian couples are obligated to not only have children, but to raise them to be healthy members of society.

In recognition of the importance of quality over quantity of children, Sirach/Ecclesiasticus contains strong warnings against the idea of mass breeding one’s legacy:

Do not long for a brood of worthless children, and do not take pleasure in godless sons. However many you have, take no pleasure in them, unless the fear of the Lord lives among them. Do not count on their having long life, do not put too much faith in their number; for better have one than a thousand, better die childless than have children who are godless. One person of sense can populate a city, but a race of lawless people will be destroyed.

Few people have experience with either very large families or the reality of uninhibited fertility for healthy women in wealthy countries. Perhaps this is why so many seem open to the idea of “being Quiverfull” without recognizing the implications of such a belief system.

It is quite reasonable to expect a healthy Quiverfull woman to start bearing children in her late teens and not stop until her mid-forties.  My sisters and I used to calculate what this would mean for us if we were to give birth every 18 months. We were not scared of the numbers because of the physical ramifications of constant pregnancy and breastfeeding. We were scared because we knew what it meant for the family. We knew that there was no way that anyone could actually parent that many children.

EDIT: While this post is about the Quiverfull ideology, I feel the need to at least acknowledge the Quiverfull reality. For one of the most powerful posts that I have seen on the subject please stop by Quivering Daughters. And please say a prayer for all the children who are caught in this movement. They have no choice to fight over theology and whether it is better to birth 15 children than to parent 5. They simply live this.

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33 thoughts on “Quiverfull?

  1. Molly

    I find it interesting in the quote “better to die childless…” , which I interpret loosely as the Bible saying “Some people aren’t meant to have children” and then see families trying all of these invitro and other methods to have children… kind of seems like playing God a little while not accepting that some people just might not be meant to physically have children, though I understand how painful that can be accept (though I still say there are many ways to be a parent without having biological children – adoption, fostering, even just mentoring or being more active with your nieces and nephews.

    And I really like that you point out that most of the families shown in the Bible are relatively small by Quiverfull standards.

    1. Rae Post author

      It seems to me that the the Quiverfull ideology is in some ways the other side of the IVF/surrogate mother/anything-for-a-genetically-related-child coin. I don’t think that outsiders can judge people for the very natural desire to “have my own children” but I do think that we can judge the philosophy behind having children at any cost, and especially any cost to the child.

  2. Sarah

    yeah. I have to say, I agree completely. I personally think it’s irresponsible to have as many children as possible. I think it treats fertility as a *right* rather than a gift. And this might make me unpopular with some people, but I think if a family has like 15 or 20 children it will be next to impossible to live in a sustainable way (eating healthy food that is grown/produced in a sustainable way, buying products not made in sweat shops, etc.). If people are that serious about “quiverfull” they should take a page from the Amish and get off the grid (grow their own food, make their own clothes, etc.) Because un;ess the family is independently wealthy they are not going to be able to afford to live in a just way in this society, which is probably a justice issue itself! Just my 2 cents.

    1. Rae Post author

      Oh! This reminds me of my husband’s point when we were talking about family size in the early Church. He pointed out that having a large family would have been viewed as selfish because children are not just blessings, they are material blessings. And focusing all of one’s energy on material blessings means that one is less able to give to others.

      My parents (not Quiverfull, but very pro-large family) were a pretty good example of “getting off the grid.” We wore second-10th hand clothing and ate legumes from 10-gallon buckets… and had Amish friends. :-)

  3. Tiphaine

    WOW I had no idea the quiverfull thing was about “as many kids as possible!” I thought it was only :”God is in control of how many kids we will or will not have.”
    I’m surprised.
    Wanting a large family doesn’t surprise or shock me. I think it is great that nowadays people who want to have big families actually can.
    I have a friend who have 16 kids so I’m probably biased. And I tend to be defensive of larger families because they are often critized…
    I guess I am a little confused because a lot of quiverful discussions take the Duggars for example, and they are not “quiverful” so it’s a bad example.. I know you didn’t refer to them but it’s hard to read a quiverful article and not think it’s a comment on the duggars.. (Just in case you don’t have TV: they are a famous TV family who raise 19 kids and live their baptist faith very openly)

    This was a very interesting post. I’ll need to read it again when my brains works better (morning, after getting some breakfast, before the baby takes all my food from the inside…)
    Thanks! :)

    1. Rae Post author

      I do not want to judge the Duggars or anyone else. But I think that it is only right to question questionable ideologies. :-)

  4. Maggie

    I thought the Duggars were part of the Quiverfull movement, but perhaps I am wrong. But this article did remind me a lot about them. I admire their family for their steadfast trust in God, but I’ve often thought about how they could possibly parent to the fullest with nearly 20 children. I am just thankful that they do have the financial means to provide for their family.

    This was a very interesting post, and you brought up some fantastic points! Your blog always makes me think!

    1. Rae Post author

      I thought that they were as well, but I haven’t done much research on them. I have to admit that the financial aspect does not concern me as much as the emotional aspect. Forcing children to be parents is wrong.

      And thanks!

  5. Elizabeth

    Thanks for including that Sirach passage – very good! I agree that the Quiverfull “have as many as physically possible” is not ideal. (Though I would rather see that than the Childfree movement.) However, I’m not sure I see the problem with taking a providentialist approach. Isn’t that the general approach of the Church towards married couples, with an important exception for grave/serious/just reasons? I admire those families who really do allow God to dictate their family size – the ones who say no to both NFP and Quiverfull and yes to whoever comes their way. I strongly desire to do this, unless a time does come where we have to use NFP to avoid again. Perhaps I’m just more open to this because I’m 27 now, so I have fewer years of fertility looming ahead of me. And perhaps that’s not completely providentialist if I’m willing to TTA again, but those are my feelings right now :)

    Also, I wonder if/how things would be different if our society had a different outlook on breastfeeding? For example, if we breastfed each child until they were 3+ (and exclusively, so that the return to fertility was delayed for a couple years), even a non-contracepting couple would have fewer children, spaced further apart.

    1. Rae Post author

      By definition Providentialism does not allow for exceptions. So if one believes that “God should control family size” except in certain cases, then it is not really providentalism, which is good since the Church is solidly anti-providentalist.

      I suppose that we can each pull out the stacks of encyclicals and doctors of the Church :-D (and I would love to if you’re inclined to have a multi-post discussion) but I do not believe that the Church has ever encouraged a pseudo-providentalist- just enjoy sex and bear with babies approach to family planning. Instead She has always been very firmly on the side of self-sacrifice for the sake of one’s spouse and children, and allowed marital intercourse not in the best interest of children only for the sake of avoiding other sin.

      Why are you drawn to the idea of “yes to whoever comes their way”? My concern is that for many it is the appeal of surrendering control to God and thus giving up responsibility for responsible planning and action.

      Ideally most couples will have many years in their marriage where they are not especially concerned about fertility and can simply rejoice in whatever children they are given. But that is a far cry from ignoring the physical demands of one’s body and being unwilling to either take care of problems which inhibit fertility as well as abstain from sex in order to best care for the children.

      I am quite pro-breastfeeding, but I don’t think that it would have the impact in child-spacing that you anticipate. At a certain point babies begin to consume food other than breast milk, and it is a rare woman who remains infertile for 3 years, even if she breastfeeds that long. Ecological breastfeeding *can* delay the return of fertility in some women for a few years, but I have not seen any stats that it is consistently reliable for more than the first six months, and from the women around me I have not seen it be reliable for more than nine months. Also, breastfeeding continues to place demands on a woman’s body. So even if women had fewer children, they would still be exhausted mothers who were constantly either pregnant or breastfeeding and thus forced to rely on the older children to parent the younger children.

      I strongly encourage you to listen to the stories of children who grew up in homes where the parents took a providentalist approach to family planning. Some are very happy, but some are shockingly unfeeling about the parent-child relationship and others are so very clearly hurt. Everyone knows that having a large family comes at a cost, and while I admire a couple’s willingness to sacrifice themselves, I cannot accept that it is right for them to sacrifice their children. I know that this is not what you intend, but I have never seen a providentalist family where it was not the case.

      1. Elizabeth

        Interesting. So I guess I’m not quite providentialist, then, because I do think there are important exceptions to be made. I do find a lot of appeal in surrendering control to God, but I don’t feel that I’m being less responsible by doing that. (Of course, this is all easy to say now, before we have any children.) I guess I just figure that most couples generally act in the best interests of their children (especially if they embrace having lots of them), and imagine that they make tons of sacrifices. I can certainly be wrong on this, especially since I have little contact with any really large families.

        Actually, I think you and I are in agreement on all this – it’s just you’re discussing it from a Quiverfull perspective here and I’m still stuck in approaching it from the contraceptive mentality. Sorry about that! Do you think the Quiverfull movement is simply a case of the pendulum swinging far in the opposite direction of contraception? One says “I want all control” and the other says “I want no control.” What would the Church’s position then be, in those terms?

        I can’t pull out stacks of encyclicals (only converting a year ago, there is still a TON for me to learn!), but do enjoy these discussions :)

        1. Rae Post author

          I think that you’re probably right. Maybe the Church’s position could be described as “you can’t always get what you think you want right now”? Hm, that sounds rather negative… maybe I’ll leave the description up to you. :-)

      2. MimiR

        Extended breastfeeding typically spaces children 2.5 years apart, with the typical spread being 2-3 years. This means 8 kids for most women, with an upper limit (if she marries in her early 20s) of 12 or 13 and a lower limit of 6 in the range of “normal.”

        Very, very fertile women can have kids spaced as close as 20 months together on average, and there’s no bottom limit for infertility, of course.

        If you’re having a kid every year, you’re doing something unnatural to make that happen. And all claims of “leaving it up to God” are so much pious hogwash. If you want a lot of kid because you want them, you should at least have the honesty to admit it.

  6. Jenelle

    I’m pretty sure the Duggars would consider themselves Providentialists if anything. They are not trying to have as many as possible but are letting God dictate their family size which is notably huge. While I don’t agree with the theology of “you must have lots of children” that you mentioned, I do think God gives the grace needed to parent to those who are truly trusting him. The Duggars seem to all be happy in their situation and each child gets special attention on different days (like birthdays, special achievement, etc). Also, since they don’t have tv or have many different schedules of extra curricular (independent) activities they do spend a lot of time together as a family and with individual attention. I’m sure everything is not perfect and I’m also sure there are some more similar families that do seem huge but because of financial/emotional/spiritual resources are able to do well. Much better than the family that has no family meals or traditions.

    1. Rae Post author

      I do not in any way intend to imply that large families in general are worse than small families. What I do question is how anyone (Catholics in particular) can defend the Quiverfull ideology either philosophically or theologically.

      While it is true that many children in small families are ignored/left in front of the television/neglected in general, it is *required* that children in very large families are not fully parented by their parents. Either outside help or the older siblings must fill the place which I believe God intends to be the parents’ role.

      1. Jenelle

        While I agree with you in the first part – I don’t know how to defend the ideology – and I know you are not bashing large families completely, I find it interesting that you don’t think older siblings should help.

        The way I see it is if you can give attention to each child, it is a learning experience for siblings to help out with other siblings and around the house. I read the quiverfull daughter post and I am sorry she was expected to do so much and was so stressed out by it. I would never want to give my children hours of chores or total responsibility over things like getting kids ready for school or making sure they eat their dinner or behave perfectly outside the house. On the other hand, I think it is entirely acceptable to expect certain duties on a daily basis as long as they are fair and explained in a loving way. No help can take away the parent’s role of modeling a Godly life (or lack of) to their kids.

        1. Rae Post author

          I do think that children should help around the house, and that this extends to older siblings helping with the younger siblings. I do *not* think that older siblings should serve as the primary caregivers for younger siblings. And at some point, depending upon the parents’ resources, having more children means that the parents can no longer fill the role of primary caregiver.

          My husband has five younger siblings. His father would be gone for weeks at a time for work and so my husband (as a young teen) would stay up at night taking care of the baby so that his mother could sleep. That way she was rested enough to actually parent the next day. I have no problem with this sort of thing so long as it is not abused.

          What I do have a problem with is couples having so many children that there is absolutely no way that they can actually be the ones parenting the children.

          Hm. I suspect that we actually agree on this, but are taking different perspectives.

      2. Tiphaine

        I love the kind of discussions that start on this blog :)
        I was reading the thread of comments and answers and I think we don’t have the same definition of parenting and what is possible for a parent.

        “While it is true that many children in small families are ignored/left in front of the television/neglected in general, it is *required* that children in very large families are not fully parented by their parents. Either outside help or the older siblings must fill the place which I believe God intends to be the parents’ role.”

        It would be interesting to define better what we think is God’s description of a parent.

        I don’t think we can put a limit on how many kids is manageable for parents to really parent them all. 4? 5? 12?
        It depends on the parents maturity, abilities, emotional availabilities organisation etc. Some parents do fine with 8 kids. Some are overwhelmed by just 1.
        I have seen many more sad and neglected kids in smaller families. But I have seen also dysfunctional big families, and of course it is more dramatic because not one kid is concerned, but 5!

        1. Rae Post author

          I do not believe that God gives us a cut-and-dried description of what it means to be a parent. But I cannot believe that God intends for parents to prioritize their own desires above their children’s wellbeing.

          I did not intend to officially limit how the number of children appropriate for each family. I simply intend to critique the philosophy that it is right for parents to have sex without regard for how another child will impact the children which they already have, and how they will be able to parent the child conceived. And an underlying assertion of the Quiverfull ideology is that parents are permitted to indulge their sexual desires without regard for their children’s wellbeing.

          It is possible to have 20 children without accepting the Quiverfull ideology. It is possible to be infertile and embrace it. But I do not believe that the neglect of children in small families justifies the neglect of children in large families!

      3. MimiR

        Oooh, now that’s interesting.

        It’s quite clear in Proverbs 31 that he woman described isn’t doing any diaper-changing. She’s got maidservants. That’s their job.

        Household help was the norm for ALL the patriarchs. They were, after all, the leaders of their people. When they didn’t do enough actual parenting themselves, their kids turned out badly, but there’s no hint of censure for a system in which most of the “heavy lifting” of childcare was done by the “help,” so to speak.

        Now, making a child do an adult’s job is an entirely different question.

  7. Dawn Farias

    The providentalist approach is highly problematic because it fails to account for human responsibility, and the duties of parents in particular. Parents are not entitled to enjoy full nights of sleep while their infants wail from hunger. Parents are not entitled to enjoy their hobbies while their children demolish the house. And parents are not entitled to enjoy sexual intercourse while their children are neglected.

    Hi Rae!! I don’t understand this paragraph. Are you saying that
    1) providentialist parents aren’t ALLOWED, as a tenet of the philosophy, the luxury of occasionally ignoring their children in order to do the things you listed OR
    2) providentialism fails because there is no way a parent could enjoy those luxuries WITHOUT ignoring their children?

    1. Rae Post author

      Sorry to be confusing. :-)

      3. The providentalist position that couples should simply enjoy sex as they wish and “leave the results to God” is the equivalent of parents deciding that they are going to enjoy full night’s sleep and leave the results of a neglected two-week old to God.

      After all, the providentalist would remind us that we cannot really control whether the infant grows up to be the healthiest child in the country or dies of SIDS, so why not just sleep and say yes to God’s plan without trying to interfere? Except that we know that parents can take basic steps to keep a child fed, clean, and comforted. They can deny their desire to sleep in order to parent their child.

      We do not believe that it is okay for parents to indulge themselves at the expense of their children in any other area, so why would it be okay when it comes to sex?

  8. Jason

    The Duggars are definitely part of the Quiverfull movement and are open about their affiliation.

    It bothers me when I see Catholics hold them up as examples to follow. While Humae Vitae teaches against contraception, it also teaches that bringing new children into the world is something that should be considered. Catholic teaching is about being open to life, not mindlessly getting pregnant or refusing to consider the consequences on the rest of the family.

    Quiverfull claims that all methods of birth control including NFP is sinful. That is contrary to Catholic teaching. Catholics should be aware that Quiverfull is not in agreement with Catholic teaching.

    1. Rae Post author

      I agree with you. I did not intend to imply that I accept the radical traditionalist Catholic case against NFP, simply that even if one *does* reject NFP, the Quiverfull ideology is still not compatible with Catholic tradition.

      If a Catholic has a struggle of conscience which leads them to reject periodic abstinence, then the solution is not to ignore the requirements of responsible parenthood; the solution is complete abstinence. But for some reason that is a tough sell. :-)

  9. booklady

    Rae,

    So much of this is new to me … but absolutely fascinating. I used to have a very good friend who has a large family. She loved having babies and was very pro-large families, her own family in particular, and defensive if anyone was the least bit critical of her choice to have many children. I know people can be unkind from some of the stories she told me. Still, all the while she was telling me about the criticisms she received, I always thought there must be another side to whole question. Thank you for this post and the subsequent discussion!

  10. Kacie

    great post! I appreciated it. I am sure there are many well-meaning people in the Quiverful movement who are not neglecting their children, but the ideology behind it is fundamentally flawed.

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  12. Mary

    I read your article with extreme interest. I would be what you consider – a Charismatic Christian. I prefer not to label myself as anything other than daughter of the Most High. I was raised as a Catholic and came from a relatively large family, seven children total. The joke in my family is that we were not planned, just ‘good Catholics’. 50 years ago, I think most Catholics would be what you called, Providentalists, but only by default.

    What I find most interesting is your desire to paint broad lines of “us vs. them” beliefs. I know couples of every label you mentioned in both the Catholic and Christian camp. My assumption is that they are living out their lives as they see fit to honor God, is it really necessary to ‘scoot away from the table’ from them? When we finally get Home, the first thing to be stripped away will be labels. Perhaps we could try to understand each other now since we will one day live together for eternity.

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