This post reviews Kathryn Joyce, Quiverfull: Inside the Christian Patriarchy Movement (Boston: Beacon Press, 2009).
Joyce, a freelance journalist based in New York City, here pens an important book on one of the most dynamic subcultures within the homeschooling world: “quiverfull” families where father is patriarchal lord, mother is submissive breeder of as many children as God provides, sons are trained to be arrows used in battle against secularism, and daughters are given a sex-specific home education to prepare them to be obedient wives and dutiful mothers.
This is such an important book that I intend to devote three blog posts to it. In this first one I will summarize the book’s contents. In a second post I’ll draw out some of its insights and and offer some critique. In the third, I’ll break with my normal protocol and offer more personal reflections precipated by the book’s content. But first for the summary:
Joyce is a left-leaning social commentator whose work has appeared in such outlets as The Nation and Mother Jones. When I began the book I was expecting a hatchet job not unlike some of the anti-Theocracy books that came out a few years ago. But to my surprise and delight Joyce provides a remarkably sensitive and nuanced depiction of the movement, drawing not only on published works by movement leaders but on extensive interviews with Quiverfull women. The most alarmist elements of the book in fact are the recommendation blurbs, some of which lack the poise and sensitivity of Joyce’s text.
The service provided here is invaluable for those of us not intimately involved with the movement. I wish the book had been available when I was writing my own. It is very difficult to keep up with developments within this subculture–I’ve often felt a bit lost reading the polemics at various blogs because I didn’t understand the backstory. Joyce’s book gives the backstory.
Though she covers a wide range of individuals and organizations, the common thread running through Joyce’s book is Doug Phillips and his Vision Forum. Phillips is the son of Howard Phillips, a Nixon-era Republican operative who eventually broke ranks to form the Constitution Party. Doug Phillips is only one of the leaders profiled in this book who are second generation conservative leaders–others include R.C. Sproul, Jr. and Jonathan Falwell, son of Moral Majority founder Jerry Falwell.
The Quiverfull movement is thus, for Joyce, a strategic shift away from the older tactics of the Christian right of the 1970s-1990s which stressed electoral politics. Instead, this newer breed of leaders has taken James Dobson’s “focus on the family” message to its most extreme and logical conclusion. Phillips and others profiled in the book are aiming at fostering Christian revival not through government policy or even through evangelism but through demographic transformation.
Convinced that secular, feminist, liberal Americans tend to have few if any children, Phillips and his allies know that if they can raise up enough families who believe what they believe and who have as many children as biologically possible, in a few generations they will be the majority in the United States (and in Europe. Joyce has a couple of chapters on the spread of this movement abroad).
To achieve the goal of Christian cultural victory by demographic transformation, however, one must convince Christian women to sacrifice whatever individual goals they might have had for their lives and instead commit themselves wholly and unwaveringly to bearing as many children as possible. And since conservative Christians have learned by painful experience how easy it is for Christian kids to be corrupted by the world, these mothers will also have to educate these children at home. They must also ensure that the children are not led astray by lax or lukewarm Christians at the well-meaning but misguided megachurches that dominate suburbia. Instead, they will join house churches or other small congregations of the like-minded, where the men will lead and the women will be silent, just like the Bible teaches.
What emerges gradually from Joyce’s in-depth reportage is a rich depiction of the complex and complete alternative culture that Quiverfull families have created for themselves. Joyce chronicles a wide array of influences that have collectively created this alternate society, from antecedents like Rousas Rushdoony, Francis Schaeffer, Bill Gothard, and Charles Provan to founders like Mary Pride, Michael and Debi Pearl (of No Greater Joy ministries) and Nancy Campbell (of Above Rubies fame) to current luminaries such as Martha Peace, Phillip Lancaster, Rachel Scott, Carmon Friedrich, Dawn Irons, Rick and Jan Hess, and many more. She also covers the mainstreaming of these sentiments in the Southern Baptist Convention, in the more scholarly works of Allan Carlson and Phillip Longman, and in high-level discussion of declining European birthrates.
Knowing that exposure to the wider world will be a serious temptation toward apostasy, Quiverfull families have crafted a totalistic environment that completely cocoons their kids off from influences their parents deem harmful. This cocooning, for the girls at least, lasts a lifetime. As children they are taught to shun the “feminist” message of self-actualization and instead, in the words of the Botkin sisters, to recognize that “we have no selves that are worth being loyal to.” Girls are the property of their fathers until their fathers pass them to their husbands, sometimes even with a bridal price involved.
One of the many remarkable things about this movement is how commercial it all is. Mothers who flag in their zeal to keep having and rearing more and more children are offered a vast domain of advice books, conferences, support groups, and so on. Phillips’ Vision Forum website is mostly a series of advertisements for products. This makes perfect sense given that families in the Quiverfull movement are encouraged to have home-based businesses and to live debt-free if possible.
A final theme Joyce discusses in depth is the tendency in such communities to judge a husband’s infidelity or physical abuse as an understandable if regrettable response to some failing in the wife. Wives are instructed to be sexually available and alluring at all times so the husband is not tempted to find satisfaction elsewhere, and physical abuse is often judged to be the result of a wife’s failure to be properly submissive and deferential to her husband’s wishes. Joyce tells several stories of women who, fed up with such teachings, have left the quiverfull movement.
In my next post I’ll go beyond this summary to share some of the books insights and offer a few of my own scholarly reflections.