What is Quiverfull? For an outsider, they are a difficult group to pin down: there's no single denomination and no leader. Even the term "Quiverfull" is contentious, with many members rejecting the title, which derives from a Psalm in which children metaphorically are referred to as arrows. Instead, what binds this elusive Christian movement together is a radical emphasis on male authority and big families. Women are encouraged to throw away their birth control and submit to their husbands.
Former member Suzanne explains: "Quiverfull families believe that they have to trust the Lord with their family planning… It's based off the idea that God intends to fill your quiver and blessed is the man whose quiver is full of arrows." Another ex-member, Vyckie Garrison, calls Quiverfull "pro-life rhetoric on steroids." I spoke to both women about why they joined, life as a true believer, and what finally pushed them to leave.
"Back in the early 90s, my youngest child was very ill," Suzanne tells me. "I was kind of at my wits' end, because I thought I was going to lose my child. I was in that 'let's bargain with God' stage." She and her husband found a church and decided to remain after their daughter recovered. Over time, however, the group became increasingly radical. Despite her doubts, Suzanne was emotionally vulnerable after her daughter's brush with death and found it difficult to leave.
"I'm a failed Quiverfull mama," she tells me. "I had nine miscarriages the years we were part of the Quiverfull movement." She was blamed by the community for the miscarriages. "It would be things like, in a prayer circle, they would say 'Please let's pray for our dear sister Suzanne, that God reveals to her the unconfessed sin in her life. That will lead to her having a child.'" She was told going to the doctor was idolatry.
So why stay? "Because in many ways, I felt like I had a family for the first time in my life. I thought I had strong connections to others and it was like we thought we were doing God's work." Eventually Suzanne's medical problems forced her to have a hysterectomy. Fearful for her health, her husband began pressuring her to leave. She followed him out of the group reluctantly. "They teach you total submission to your husband," she says, "so my husband wanted to leave, I submitted, and I went with him."
Like Suzanne, Vyckie Garrison was once a devoted Quiverfull wife and mother. "I obviously drank the Kool-Aid all the way to the bottom on the cup," she laughs. Why she was attracted to Quiverfull? "Probably my messed up background," she says. "I don't think anybody really gets into Quiverfull unless they have some major issues to begin with." Vyckie tells me her home life was unstable as a child. "That made me look for answers, look for security. I wanted to have a formula for having a good life and not fucking it up." For her, this was the appeal of religion. "I thought that's what I got through the Bible, oh look here, this is what God wants."
The group's focus on pregnancy had terrible health consequences for Vyckie. She had serious complications after trying to have a home birth following three C-sections. "The whole hospital staff was just appalled about my physical condition. They were like, why? why did you even take this risk when you could have just gone to a doctor?" That didn't stop her. "I did it again. And that time I did have a home birth, my last one. I had a partial uterine rupture and again, almost died, almost lost the baby. The doctors were all like, why are you even doing this? You have to stop."
"It's been long enough but I'm beginning to think I was insane," she tells me. "But in my mind I was just being completely dedicated to God and his word. I used to say that Quiverfull was this really powerful head trip. It's more of a mindset than anything." Unlike most cults, there is no single charismatic leader in Quiverfull. However, Vyckie explains, "it's definitely the cultic mindset and what's happening is that each family becomes its own little cult."
Fear of the devil kept her in the church. "You're talking eternity, you believe that there is a literal hell, there is separation from God, that your children are going to be tormented forever," she tells me."Just to have that assurance, that confidence, that you're in the will of God and he is going to protect you and protect your children, that was my main motivation. I really wanted the kids to be okay, I wanted them to have that spiritual safety."
Quiverfull also offered a way to improve her troubled marriage. As a fundamentalist, she says, "you can't divorce, because God hates divorce, [so] you've got to find a way to make it work." Submission seemed like a solution. The husband is supposed to be head of the household "and it's like okay, I know I can't change him but what if I can influence the one who can change him. So it's like you're trying to obligate God to fix your husband through your submission." Vyckie continues: "You think that by controlling yourself you're actually influencing spiritual entities to work on your behalf, it's a mega-twisted coping mechanism."
Eventually, she said, "It all got to me." She was isolated, her marriage was failing, and her children were unhappy. "I'm thinking, for all this effort, things should be going way better than this." At the same time she began an email correspondence with a secular uncle, trying to explain her religious convictions. "The more that I tried, the more I realized unless you actually believe this premise, that the Bible is the living word of God, none of this makes sense. It fact, it's kind of weird and twisted." Finally, she says, "I went and re-examined everything and after a while, I realized I just don't believe enough of this to be able to call myself a Christian any more."
Vyckie divorced her husband and put her kids in school. "I just started doing regular life," she says. In a mark of how much her life has changed, she's received the Atheist of the Year award from the American Atheist Association. Today, Vyckie and Suzanne run the blog No Longer Quivering. The site has become the main online hub for people leaving the movement. After years of submission, both women are fighting back.
Follow Dylan Brethour on Twitter.