The Quiverfull: The evangelical Christians opposed to contraception

Sarah Dawes and her children
Sarah Dawes, of Derbyshire, and her "quiver full" of children

A Christian evangelical movement where followers avoid contraception and have as many children as they can is spreading to the UK. They are The Quiverfull, writes Cat McShane.

"Get married. Have a quiver full of kids if you can."

So said unsuccessful presidential candidate and father-of-five Mitt Romney in a recent speech to graduates. It was a conscious echo of Psalm 127.

The psalm - where children are compared to arrows for war - is the inspiration for the Quiverfull movement.

"Like arrows in the hands of a warrior are sons born in one's youth. Blessed is the man whose quiver is full of them. They shall not be put to shame when they contend with their enemies in the gate."

Christians in the movement believe in giving up all forms of contraception and accepting as many children as God gives, both as a sign of obedience to God and in a bid to ensure the future of the faith.

In the US, Quiverfull families frequently reach up to a dozen children with the numbers of adherents in the tens of thousands. But now the movement is gaining popularity in other countries.

In the UK, where the average family size is 1.7 children, this makes couples who follow its teachings stand out.

Vicki and Phil have just had their sixth child. "I feel this is the normal [situation] God created and God initially wanted, and that actually society has gone a little skew-whiff," says Vicki, of south London.

Vicki and Phil were both raised as Christians, but came to Quiverfull ideas after they were married. Early on, they used contraception, but after Vicki responded badly to the contraceptive pill, they began merely avoiding sex during Vicki's most fertile time of the month. From there they decided to do without contraception completely.

"Over time, we realised that actually if He [God] wants to conceive a baby during that time, and he made her naturally desire her husband more, maybe that's what he'd prefer us to do," she says.

In common with other Quiverfull families, Vicki had to wait for her husband to come round to her ideas.

"He saw it wasn't such a scary thing to do after all, and that God wouldn't overwhelm us with more than we could handle. One baby at a time arrived, and we were handling it, so we felt our marriage was being blessed by this choice and we continued."

The movement is growing in the UK through informal social networks and the Christian homeschooling community. Doug Philips, a leading American Quiverfull figure, is behind the organisation Vision Forum, a major provider of home education materials.

Vicki and Phil were encouraged by the teachings of Nancy Campbell, a Tennessee-based preacher influential in the movement. Her ministry, Above Rubies, advocates motherhood as a woman's highest calling. Its magazine is distributed to more than 100 countries worldwide, with a circulation topping 160,000.

Vicki found out about the ministry through a blog by a mother and began subscribing to the magazine and attending Campbell's annual retreats. This year's European tour saw Campbell visit six countries in a month, preaching at women-only and also family retreats attended by like-minded couples and their burgeoning broods.

Campbell believes that many women have forgotten their biological, and for her, God-given function. "He created her with a womb. And in fact that's the most distinguishing characteristic of a woman. In the American Webster's 1928 dictionary, it says that woman is combination of two words: womb and man. She is a womb-man."

But there's more to the Quiverfull mindset than a love of big families. It's based on a backlash against the growing acceptance of birth control and feminism within Christianity.

Sarah Dawes, 34, from Derbyshire, has six children. She had worked in an office and a shoe shop before embracing the Quiverfull life. "I always wanted a big family, but when I read Above Rubies it was like drinking when you're thirsty," she says.

Dawes says that her career didn't offer her any comparable fulfilment. "If you look at the children you're filled with so much love for them that even if it's a rough day there's nothing better. You don't get that from a job."

Quiverfull ideology also advocates a return to "traditional" roles in the home, where women are wife and mother first of all. They are their husband's "helpmeet", designed to support him as head of the household and primary breadwinner.

Dawes's husband Damian, who is self-employed, admits the pressures of raising a large family on a single income can be stressful. "They're all great kids, but sometimes it's a bit overwhelming and you think, how am I going to pay?"

He has doubts about continuing to follow Quiverfull teachings on family planning. "I don't want any more at the moment. I'd like to have a break."

Vyckie Garrison and her children after the birth of her youngest child
Garrison nearly died after the birth of her last child

One woman who tested her faith in Quiverfull to the limit is Vyckie Garrison, a mother of seven. Once a cornerstone of the Quiverfull movement in the US, she left in 2008. Her website No Longer Quivering is described as a "place for women escaping and recovering from spiritual abuse".

Garrison suffers from a rare bone condition that made pregnancy dangerous. Her husband had a vasectomy after baby number three. But after reading Campbell and other Quiverfull authors, her ideas and the vasectomy were reversed.

Garrison continued to get pregnant against all medical advice, almost dying with the birth of her last - and seventh - child. But for a true believer, dying in childbirth is supposedly a noble act, she says.

"I really believed that I wouldn't die unless God willed that I die, and if he did then I would accept that, because obviously he's the smart one, and has the big picture and knows the whole plan."

There are plenty of critics of the Quiverfull beliefs. Heather Doney, who grew up in a Quiverfull household in the US, says the emphasis on men leading the house is a problem.

Heather Doney as a child - and in 2012
Heather Doney - pictured left as a child - grew up in a Quiverfull household

"Absolute power corrupts absolutely. In these situations you're giving the man ultimate power - you're saying the only one that can check his power is God," she says.

Within the Quiverfull movement, having larger families is part of a broader plan.

"Mothers determine the destiny of the nation," Campbell says. "We're in a battle for the kingdom of God and the kingdom of darkness. And our children are all part of that battle."

Campbell believes there are specific groups of people with high birth-rates that she is worried will soon outnumber Christians. "We are limiting our children. And then we are allowing other cultures to come into our nation who are having a lot more children than us.

"Gradually, down the line, the culture is going to change, without anyone doing anything except having children, or not having children," she says.

Back in south London, affecting the destiny of the nation was something Vicki could identify with. "I do think I'm raising my children to be future voters, and possibly to be future politicians, the MPs."

The Womb as a Weapon will be broadcast on the BBC World Service on 18 May at 19:32 GMT. Listen back via BBC iPlayer radio or download a podcast.

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