How I spent 16 years in an abusive, conservative Christian cult — and finally escaped
If you have not heard of the Quiverfull movement, I’ll sum it up by saying that Quiverfull is an all-encompassing vision of a big, happy, godly family which affects every aspect of a so-called True Believer’s life. Probably the most recognizable Quiverfull family in America is reality TV’s Duggar family of 19 Kids and Counting fame.
You’ll find Quiverfull families in nearly all types of churches in every community. Quiverfull is simply the “pro-life” idea that truly godly families will “trust the Lord” with their family planning. Children are viewed as unmitigated blessings (“As arrows in the hand of the mighty man, so are the children of ones youth, happy is the man who hath hisquiver full of them:” Psalm 123), so couples are willing to have as many children as the Lord chooses. All methods of conception control are considered a lack of trust in God to provide for the “children of the righteous.”
At the heart of Quiverfull is patriarchy: the ideal of biblical headship and submission. This is the belief that by God’s perfect design, the father is the head of the home. The father serves as protector, provider and shepherd for his wife and children. He is primarily responsible for the wife’s and children’s physical, emotional and spiritual well-being and with such responsibility comes the (divinely granted) commensurate authority over the members of his household. According to this view, God works through the father and he serves as an intermediary for his wife and children. Honor, obedience and submission are highly valued qualities because they are necessary to maintain order and work together to accomplish the Lord’s vision for a godly family.
This emphasis on patriarchy guarantees that, to the degree in which a Christian family puts Quiverfull ideals into practice, the family is living a dysfunctional relationship dynamic which necessarily involves mental, emotional and spiritual abuse.
This was my life for over 16 years. Shunning birth control resulted in seven children, who we homeschooled and sheltered from “godless society.” But these days, I think Christian fundamentalism is just as bizarre as you do. After deconverting, I started a blog, No Longer Quivering, as a way to process my Quiverfull life and try to understand how I’d come to embrace such a fanatical lifestyle. Over time, NLQ has grown into a movement of women escaping and healing from spiritual abuse. I’ve met many people whose lives and families have been devastated by this ideology, and the stories they tell are heartbreaking.
Why Do Christians Become Extreme Fundamentalists?
The Quiverfull lifestyle is extremely demanding and completely overwhelming for the devoted Christian women who are determined to fulfill their God-given purpose of being godly wives and mothers. They’re submitting to their husbands, having a baby every other year, homebirthing, homeschooling, cooking from scratch, and earning extra money with a home business. They are almost completely cut off from “unsupportive” friends and family, and they never use babysitters so they have their children with them 24/7. Why would any woman want to live this way?
Most of the women come from chaotic family backgrounds and are seeking the security of “biblical family values.” Many are married to control freaks or men who aren’t really pulling their weight in the relationship, leaving the women to find a way to make the marriage work. In his book American Fascists, Chris Hedges says that the Religious Right is built on social despair, but if you ask the women who are actually living the Quiverfull life, they will tell you they’re doing it for the children.
I believed I was doing it for my children. Quiverfull moms take seriously the ideal that children are an unmitigated blessing from the Lord. They desperately want to welcome those babies and give them the very best life possible, both now and in eternity.
But there’s another factor at work that most Christian women haven’t thought much about, though it has a tremendous influence on the way they choose to live out their Christian faith.
I know you probably won’t be surprised when I tell you it’s money.
The Quiverfull worldview and lifestyle which I felt that I had carefully considered and thoughtfully adopted is, in actuality, a product called “Biblical Family Values” which is being aggressively marketed as an investment to safeguard our loved ones from becoming collateral damage in today’s “War Against the Family.”
That’s right. “Traditional Family Values” is a product and we bought it big-time.
The picture above is from a Christian homeschooling convention and curriculum fair in Texas which I found on the website of a Quiverfull family that sells creation-science materials for Christian homeschoolers. The caption beneath the photo of the vendor hall reads: “Needless to say, we spent a good amount of money at that hall. But this is the price of tuition for a homeschool family. It is an investment in our sons’ education and character.”
Among Christian books, the “Christian living” subcategory, which includes relationships and parenting, is one of the most popular and profitable. A 2008 Packaged Facts report, titled “The Religious Product Market in the U.S.,” cites ‘the culture wars’ as one reason for this overall growth. Paranoia fueled by biblical predictions of the end times is another. Contemporary evangelicals are convinced that we are living in the last days and are terrified for the spiritual safety of their children.
When we recognize just how lucrative the Biblical Family Values movement is, it is easy to predict a phenomenal increase in Christian fundamentalism. I would often remark that “this family vision is spreading like wildfire,” all the while oblivious to the fact that there’s big money to be made in selling family stability and security. These desperate moms and dads, many of whom have come to Christianity as refugees from dysfunctional homes, are scared for the future and looking for answers as they scramble to raise their children in an environment healthier than the ones they experienced as kids.
What Is Spiritual Abuse?
When visitors read the stories of women who have escaped the Quiverfull movement, one question that is frequently asked is, what is spiritual abuse? What distinguishes “spiritual” abuse from regular forms of physical, emotional, and mental abuse?
In spiritual abuse, a person’s faith and ideas about God, the supernatural, and the afterlife, get intermingled and entwined with relational and behavioral choices so that the situation is not only about the way a person thinks, acts, and relates. It is primarily about the condition of your soul.
Let me tell you what makes spiritual abuse so devastating: The more a Christian woman cares and the harder she tries to live according to biblical principles for godly womanhood, the more she, her husband, and their children suffer.
These women who take “biblical family values” to their logical extremes are phenomenally strong, and are single-mindedly determined to follow God’s path no matter how difficult and painful the journey may become.
Stretch the meager grocery budget so you’ll have money left to buy homeschool curriculum for half a dozen kids? Sure, no problem! Clip coupons, learn to barter, garden and raise chickens and rabbits, sew your own diapers and menstrual cloths, teach the kids to dumpster dive, “repurpose” absolutely everything? That’s easy! Cook three meals a day from scratch to feed a dozen for less than $150 per week? It’s tricky, but doable! The Lord provides! Push your body beyond endurance with perpetual pregnancy, childbirth and breastfeeding? “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me!” Home school, home business, practice hospitality by home churching, and keep up with the mountains of laundry? Quiverfull moms are masters of delegation. Cut yourself off from all support systems of mom, sisters, even fellow church women to protect your family from their compromising “feminist” influence? Well yeah, because Jesus is with me always and the Holy Spirit is my comforter. Love and submit to an overbearing, controlling husband? Quiverfull wives yield with grace.
So yes, the most fundamentalist Christian women are strong, courageous, resourceful, smart, and determined. Unfortunately, they are also seriously delusional.
When a Christian woman is convinced that there is redemptive value in crucifixion, she will not only find “contentment” in what should be intolerable circumstances but find spiritual meaning and divine purpose in her own and her family’s suffering. This sort of mental gymnastics can easily manifest as a form of Stockholm Syndrome when victims who believe that they have no options or way out. They delude themselves into feeling they do have a certain amount of control when they “choose” to embrace, support and defend their captor. It is oddly empowering to a trapped person to say, “This is what I want. Yes, it may be painful, but it is actually beneficial to my spiritual growth.”
Quiverfull leaders are masters at spin. Playing on the sincere desire to serve the Lord wholeheartedly, they use the scriptures to convince women that they want nothing more than to stay home, have lots of babies and serve her husband—even if these choices might cost her everything. In today’s world of seemingly unlimited choices for women, making the best choice can be an overwhelming responsibility and it’s very tempting for evangelical women like Michelle Duggar to choose to have no choice.
As a devoted Christian woman, my life verse was Job 13:15: Though He slay me, yet will I trust Him. My entire Christian life always clashed with who I am as a person: my personality, desires, goals, interests, and talents. I love to study and learn as much as possible about everything, but for over 25 years, I confined my intellectual life only to what was “biblical.” I gave up a full scholarship at a secular university and went to bible school instead. I’m a natural leader, but I submitted to my (now ex) husband who would rather have a root canal than make simple decisions. I suck at teaching kids, but I homeschooled for 17 years. I wanted a career counseling victims of domestic violence, but I quit college and my job to be a “keeper at home.” In high school, I flunked Home Economics, but as a Quiverfull mom, I learned to sew baby slings and bake bread from the wheat berries I ground in my VitaMix.
Even in matters of life and death, I trusted. Due to a genetic bone condition, I have some health issues which make pregnancy and childbirth literally life-threatening for me. But I was so convinced by the “pro-life perspective” that I was willing to risk my life rather than “play God” by deciding for myself whether another human soul should come into existence through my womb. Motherhood was my mission field, and missionaries often put their lives at risk to spread the good news.
Quiverfull women push themselves beyond all reasonable limits to endure extreme circumstances of deprivation, overwhelming workloads, ruined health, emotional overload, and they carry huge burdens of guilt when they can’t keep up with their quiver full of blessings. Because I have been intimately familiar with the Christian fundamentalist woman’s manner of thinking, this martyr mentality makes me feel sick to my stomach. It’s particularly nauseating when you consider that women are knocking themselves down trying to maintain a lifestyle which was manufactured by greedy, controlling men who don’t actually care about the well-being of their wives and children at all.
I mentioned earlier that “biblical marriages” which follow the patriarchal model, with husband as the head and wife as submissive helper, are by definition dysfunctional and abusive. That’s because you cannot have a healthy, mutually beneficial relationship which is based on hierarchy and a substantial imbalance of power. The rigidity and restrictiveness involved in maintaining strict gender role-based relationships will result in narcissistic assholes for husbands and manipulative martyrs for wives.
Abusive situations are disconcerting enough, but when an abused woman is also required to figure out what God would have her do, the result is an overwhelming entanglement of spiritual discernment, trust, judgement, hierarchical authority, sacred vows, and spiritual-mindedness which thoroughly complicates and convolutes the perspective of literally every practical consideration.
The question the victim asks herself is no longer, He is hurting me and my children; what should I do? Instead, it becomes, He is hurting us, but if I take matters into my own hands, am I really trusting the Lord? Does God have a greater purpose for my suffering? Have I prayed enough? Is my heart right with God? And on and on and around and around, until the woman is thoroughly overwhelmed and paralyzed by indecision. She cannot even say for sure whether or not she’s being abused, and she never gets around to addressing the only truly relevant question: What should I do?
Of course, the victim is given every assurance that God loves her and wants only the best for her and will supernaturally intervene on her behalf. The most insidious spiritual abuse occurs when the victim begins to facilitate and even inflict abuse upon herself. After all, she “reasons” that if God wills her suffering, it must be right and ultimately good, and therefore, why would she want to alleviate or prevent it?
She stops looking for a way to escape the pain, and instead learns to live with it, welcome it, and even thank God for it.
Leaving an abusive relationship is challenging enough, but when you have half a dozen or more kids and no marketable job skills or work history, getting out is extremely hard. But Quiverfull women are already used to doing the impossible, so when it comes to rescuing themselves and their children, “extremely hard” actually feels like a relief.