Review: 'Quiverfull - Inside the Christian Patriarchy Movemement'

Monday, 22 November 2010

For those of you who have heard the term ‘Quiverfull’, the term might conjure up an image of the Duggar family, stars of 19 Kids and Counting. Although the Duggars don’t refer to themselves as ‘Quiverfull’, they’re the faces often most associated with the movement because they’re the most famous example of many of the things the movement stands for - foregoing birth control, homeschooling, living debt-free, courtship and betrothal, rigid gender roles, Christian fundamentalism.

The Duggars and their rise to fame are mentioned a couple of times in Kathryn Joyce’s 2009 book Quiverfull: Inside the Christian Patriarchy Movement. But for the uninitiated, this fascinating account of a belief system that’s very much growing in popularity provides an insight into the lives of many more families and personalities – and with it, a clearer picture of how the patriarchy movement is distorting Christianity. Joyce was able to do a lot of research for her book by looking at blogs and forums representing both people who are very much a part of the movement and those who have left it. With many fundamentalist organisations having a major online presence and many families choosing to showcase their lives through blogging, the internet is an important source of information and for keeping in contact with likeminded friends.

But in recent years, blogs and forums with a different flavour have started to appear. Those discussing the spiritual abuse within the movement and the way it has ruined lives. Those discussing help and healing for women deeply hurt by its teachings, like No Longer Quivering and Quivering Daughters. It’s when you read these that you start to wonder just how much the movement lives up to idyllic image portrayed by the Victoriana-obsessed Vision Forum, the blogs full of pictures of beaming families with ten children.

Joyce has divided the book into three sections – dealing with ‘Wives’, ‘Mothers’ and ‘Daughters’ and the way the teachings impact their lives. She provides particularly thorough explanations of the interpretations of scripture influencing the patriarchy movement – which is helpful because it makes it easy to see, from a Christian point of view, where undue emphasis is being given to some things and where many, many extra-Biblical ‘rules’ are being employed and considered ‘essential’ to living a God-centred life (stopping women from attending university, advising them that they should not vote or learn to drive). This enables us to see how adherents’ core beliefs centre on reformed theology, for example – as well as the importance given to Reconstructionism.

The one word repeated over and over to wives is, of course, ‘submission’. Submission in a way that’s completely different to what’s generally taught in more mainstream churches. And so we see a move from ‘Wives, submit to your husbands’ to being able to call your husband ‘Lord’, catering to his every whim at the drop of a hat, revering him as the ‘priest of the home’, blaming yourself for his shortcomings and above all, never, ever criticising him (to his face, or to friends and family). All this promoted by women’s ministries, books and retreats, usually under the banner of ‘Titus 2 training’. We meet Debi Pearl, author of Created to Be His Helpmeet and wife of Michael, whose controversial teachings on ‘child-training’ have made headlines following the death of a young girl. She firmly believes that love is not a feeling but a voluntary act and prides herself on never questioning her husband, believing that women exist to fill their husband’s sexual needs whether they want to or not and teaching them that female friendships are ‘dangerous’.

What hope is there for a woman trapped in such a situation with an abusive husband? These teachings put so little focus on a husband’s duty to love, respect and care for his wife and could clearly encourage domineering and violent personalities. She’s discouraged from having close female friends, discouraged from discussing marital problems and told that she must do whatever her husband wants, when he wants. As the final chapter in the ‘Wives’ section illustrates, trying to seek help from the church can end up causing untold misery.

Joyce talks to Jennifer Epstein, who wanted to deal with her marital problems within a church setting – interestingly, the very church run by Vision Forum president Doug Phillips. Jennifer maintains that Phillips branded her a ‘whore’ and a ‘Jezebel’, barred she and her husband from taking communion and insisted that she adhere to a set of rules which included letting her husband plan out her schedule of household activities in advance and refraining from having theological discussions with men. Eventually, the family were excommunicated from the church and ‘shunned’ by their friends.

Later in the book Joyce talks to Cheryl Lindsey Seelhoff about her experiences of church discipline, which involved giving leadership access to her emails, bank accounts and post. Considering the churches discussed in the book take the view that leadership cannot be criticised and that ‘gossip’ of all kinds is prohibited, it’s interesting to read of the very public ways they have shamed and exposed members of their congregations. Email campaigns, sister churches contacted to spread the word about these ‘sinners’, shunning and interference from other church leaders. It’s clear that there’s a deep vein of hypocrisy which goes far beyond members being accountable to church leaders, having them counsel them on their problems. The women Joyce interviewed for the book had numerous shocking and moving stories to tell about the way leaders in the movement exert control.

So far, so unsettling. However I don’t think it’s until the book’s second section that you can clearly see how very damaging and, let’s be honest, cultish the patriarchy movement is because it pervades all areas of life. Dealing with ‘Mothers’, it charts the growth of Quiverfull from a few Christians criticising birth control and abortion to the aggressive natalist tactics we see today, often accompanied by the old saying that ‘the hand that rocks the cradle rules the world’.

Quiverfull leaders often teach that women must give birth to as many children as they can, view nonprocreative sex as an abomination and see all their offspring as future soldiers in a war against culture, Satan, left-wing politics and all of Western civilisation. All this thinking is bound up in fear of a ‘demographic winter’ and the belief that white Christians need to be having more children in order to attempt to outnumber Muslims. Prominent patriarchal leaders have denied accusations of racism but the fact is that the organisations they’re part of often have distinct links with kinist groups.

Some adherents are more zealous than others and indeed Joyce claims there’s a worry among some Quiverfull women that their acquaintances have idolised childbirth to the extent that they correlate number of children with holiness and suffer greatly with depression and feelings of uselessness when their childbearing days are over. Terrifying as it is it’s not hard to see how such an extreme way of thinking can foster the idea that miscarriages and morning sickness are due to personal sins which must be repented of. Identity is often heavily influenced by the centuries-old teachings of women being weak and easily led, incapable of knowing what’s best for themselves.

And it’s not just the teachings on childbirth that are causing problems. Something I’ve talked about in a previous blog post is how the compulsion to raise large families in a debt-free, agrarian lifestyle is leading to severe poverty for Quiverfull families. It’s important to note that although very fortunate families such as the Duggars and the Phillipses are the public face of the movement, their comfortable existences are not the norm for those families attempting to build their own homes and grow their own businesses while clothing, feeding and homeschooling an ever-expanding family as well as exemplifying ‘frugal living’.

When fundamentalists get coverage on feminist blogs it’s often down to their attitudes surrounding daughters – purity balls, elaborate betrothal rituals, much talk of ‘authority’ and ‘stay at home daughterhood’, along with very vocal rejection of ‘equality’ and the women’s movement. Understandably it makes a lot of people uncomfortable. Joyce’s research into the ‘Daughters’ of Quiverfull focuses mainly on Geoffrey Botkin, a leading light in the Vision Forum ministry and father of Anna Sofia and Elizabeth – effectively VF’s ‘poster maidens’ for unmarried Biblical womanhood. Through their book, DVD and website , Visionary Daughters, they provide teaching on their way of life, centred as it is on homemaking, serving their father and preparing for the day when they will ‘transfer’ to being under their husband’s authority.

Anything that contradicts their lifestyle is ‘feministic’ and therefore wrong. They state that women need to eschew university, jobs and living alone. In case you’d missed out on the somewhat uncomfortable undertones, Joyce talks about the Vision Forum Father/Daughter Retreat, at which young women are set ‘tasks’. These tasks have previously involved a blindfolded obstacle course - so they can learn to respond more effectively to their fathers’ verbal commands – and ‘intimacy-building’ tasks where they must shave their fathers or tie their shoes.

Now Geoffrey Botkin is a man who’s dedicated time to producing an Excel spreadsheet plotting his imagined descendants for the next two centuries. At the culmination of his personal ‘200 year plan’ he hopes to have 186,000 male descendants, all of them believers exerting influence on society. He doesn’t count his female descendants because they, of course, are destined to be part of the 200-year plans of other men. There happens to be a website which focuses on helping young people to overcome ‘Botkin Syndrome’. At this point I really don’t think any more needs to be said.

Joyce’s intention with Quiverfull is not to mindlessly criticise and insult, but to express genuine concern about these churches and groups and what they’re doing to people. As she says, strict followers number in the tens of thousands but the conservative Christian homeschooling movement is reaching millions and ‘converting’ many to more extreme beliefs along the way. And it's not just confined to the USA. This year, the UK branch of women's ministry and magazine Above Rubies, which typifies the beliefs of the movement, held two conferences in Britain. They were fully booked. Joyce has been criticised by Christians who see her writing as being biased by her ‘liberal’ views but it’s clear that the abusive mindset being perpetuated by some of these groups and churches should be a concern to Christians as well, not just the liberal atheists they so often view as ‘the enemy’.

Her book is an important one. Not all families in the movement experience abuse and cultish control and many lead very happy lives. But when read alongside the forums and blogs providing support for those who have exited the patriarchy movement, the book provides an extremely worrying picture of why we should care about these ‘fundies’, so often lampooned as vaguely humorous ‘nutjobs’ then left to their own devices. We should care because it’s down to them that within Christian culture, ‘the family’ is being not just built up and revered but hurt and destroyed.


sianandcrookedrib said...

this was fascinating thank you hannah!

what really struck me (because of my obsession with novels about the tudors) was what she says about the idea of miscarriages being a sin. this is an idea that is really strong in tudor times, that the woman is responsible for her miscarriage due to her 'sin'.
so, it was assumed a miscarriage was to do with witchcraft for example.

the idea that a modern church is repeating those ideas is terrifying, let alone all the other stuff you mention!

Hannah Mudge said...

Glad you enjoyed reading :)

I didn't know that about the Tudors! The patriarchy movement takes a lot of its theology from the puritans so they're efinitely looking back centuries to get their ideas and this wouldn't surprise me.

katy said...

re: the tudors

i really see a lot of similarities between the quiverfull movement and the fundamentalism it stems from and the evangelical movement of the 16th century. during the reign of edward vi, the evangelical belief system became prominent (many know it as being the belief system of the Grey family, who tried to place Lady Jane Grey on the thrown to preserve the reforms they had initiated in edwards reign).

another link to the tudors is the reappriation of anne boleyn and margeurite of navarre (a contemporary of the tudors) by the quiverfull movement! they attest that both women are wronged by history and are actually models of christian modesty and purity! this is historical revisionism at it's most hilarious, i think.

Hannah Mudge said...

Thanks for that Katy, that was really interesting! That period in history is not my forte and I didn't know that QF people have taken on Anne Boleyn as a heroine! Come to think of it, i think i saw a picture of a QF-esque fancy dress party where a woman was dressed as her and I was quite surprised!

Anonymous said...

Very good review, Kathryn's work is always worth reading. Cough - I got a mention in the book's acknowledgements...

Mark said...

As pertaining to Jennifer Epstein (now Jen Fishburne), a lot of people don't realize that she was more than willing to consort with kinists in her attempts to bring down Vision Forum.

Now, Vision Forum is definitely bad news, but far worse than they are the kinists. Particularly this one kinist out of Branson, MO, who wrote an anti-government book that (the new imprisoned) Kent Hovind used to sell on his website, called "In Caesar's Grip". This guy, Peter Kershaw, is a nasty little buggar of a misogynist bent that has had a behind-the-scenes role in a lot of right-wing subversive groups -be they Matt Trewhella's "Missionaries to the Preborn", R.J. Rushdoony's "Christian Reconstructionism", Alex Jones' "Patriot Movement", and of course kinism. He is most notoriously known as an anti-IRS tax evader, however.

He and Epstein were in cohoots back in the day, until (he claims) she made a sexual advance at him upon visiting his family at their house in Bristol. She and her husband Mark were visiting so as to get marriage counseling from Peter, in addition to plotting out their conspiracy against Vision Forum. What you have to understand is, Doug's father Howard Phillips was good friends with Peter, until Peter got into Christian Identity philosophy. Then when Peter had that beef with R.C. Sproul Jr. back in 2006, he invested in sophisticated Internet proxy devices designed to block your IP number and make it difficult to trace where a blog (or a comment on a blog) is coming from. This allowed him to use multiple aliases, most notably "Frank Vance", to attack any and all ministries connected to R.C. Sproul Jr. (such as the Highland Studies Center, Ligonier Ministries, and the Confederation of Reformed Evangelical Churches). So when Jen Epstein started attacking Vision Forum, he sought her out and the collaborated on destroying that ministry's reputation.

While living in Bristol, Peter was responsible for several church splits, including Saint Peter Presbyterian Church, Abingdon Presbyterian Church, Cornerstone Chapel Reformed Baptist Church, and a little Reformed Episcopal church pastored by Chori Jonathin Seraiah. He'd take his wife Cindy and their family to these churches, befriend people in the congregation, and play intelligence agent with them to try and get information (probably due to his past involvement with intelligence agencies).

If you were to contact any of the pastors of those churches, like Randy McReynolds, they could confirm this.

After causing a lot of controversy in Bristol, he was evicted from his house, and moved back to Branson with his mom, where he is believed to be attending Covenant Reformed Church, pastored by the Rev. Chris Newsom.

His involvement with Epstein, to me, I find highly disturbing, given her now-disdain for patriarchy. So much of what was written on her blog was ghost written by Kershaw.


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