Righting America

A forum for scholarly conversation about Christianity, culture, and politics in the US
Quivering Families, An Interview with Emily McGowin: Part I | Righting America

by Emily McGowin with William Trollinger

Emily Hunter McGowin has a PhD in theology from the University of Dayton and MDiv from Truett Seminary. Her work is at the intersection of religion, theology, and ethnography. Her book, Quivering Families: The Quiverfull Movement and Evangelical Theology of the Family, will be published by Fortress Press in May 2018. Her work has also appeared in Ecclesial Practices and New Blackfriars. She serves as deacon and theologian-in-residence at Church of the Resurrection in Arvada, CO. You can learn more about Emily at her website

Before asking why you chose to write about Quiverfull, we should probably ask a more basic question: What is Quiverfull?

The term originally comes from Psalm 137:3-5: “Children are a heritage from the Lord, offspring a reward from him. Like arrows in the hands of a warrior are children born in one’s youth. Blessed is the man whose quiver is full of them.” During the rise of the Christian homeschooling movement in the U.S., some leaders began to teach that Christians have a moral obligation to have large families, educate their children at home, and practice male headship (or “biblical patriarchy”). If the Bible teaches that children are a divine reward and a “full quiver” of children is a blessing, they asked, why would Christians seek to limit the number of children they have? The more, the better! As far as I can tell, some time in the late 1980s and early 1990s, families who embraced this way of life began calling themselves “Quiverfull.” So, by the time Kathryn Joyce published her book Quiverfull: Inside the Christian Patriarchy Movement in 2009, it seems the term had been in use for 15-20 years.  

In the book, I use the term Quiverfull to refer to a subculture of American evangelicalism identifiable by the three practices mentioned above: pronatalism, homeschooling, and gender hierarchy. Pronatalism means that they are forgoing all family planning and seeking to have as many children as possible. Homeschooling means they are educating all of their children in the private family home, under the leadership of the mother, from pre-school through high school (and sometimes beyond). Gender hierarchy (or patriarchy) means they subscribe to explicit male headship in all spheres of life and teach their children accordingly. I suggest imagining the three elements of Quiverfull like circles in a Venn diagram: it’s where they overlap that Quiverfull discourse is found.

Of all the things you could have researched, why Quiverfull?

At first, I was simply interested in Quiverfull on a personal level. The movement came to my attention when I was a first-year doctoral student. I had a toddler and another baby on the way. I was juggling a lot of responsibilities, living on a grad student stipend, and struggling with my dual vocation as a mother and scholar. While Sheryl Sandberg was telling women like me to lean in to their careers, Quiverfull mothers were leaning in to an elaborate form of domesticity focused on raising godly children. I was fascinated by their willingness to live out their ideals in such a thoroughgoing way. Also, their commitment to patriarchy seemed to be at odds with the mother-centered and mother-directed nature of their daily lives. I wanted to explore their lived religion at a deeper level and take their domestic work seriously.

Alongside my personal interest in Quiverfull, I had also been inspired by a number of theologians like Mary McClintock Fulkerson and Christian Scharen who employ ethnography to better understand and learn from the lived religion of Christian communities. The Quiverfull movement seemed like an ideal subject for ethnographic research because (1) Quiverfull is a decentralized movement with no structured leadership or canon of authoritative texts and (2) most practitioners live out their faith in the private home, at a significant distance from the notable leaders that get most of the attention. I say in the introduction that because of their TLC reality show, 19 Kids and Counting, the Duggar Family is known as “Quiverfull royalty.” But they are to real life Quiverfull families what the Real Housewives of New Jersey are to housewives. There are similarities, of course, but they only go so far. I knew ethnography would help me better understand the complexity of Quiverfull lived religion and help me make it more intelligible to outsiders.

At the center of your project is two years of in-depth interviews with Quiverfull mothers. What was it like to interview the women of this movement?

Speaking to the mothers of the movement was my favorite thing about the project. I think people in general are infinitely complex and interesting. Even beyond that, though, the women I interviewed were remarkably forthright, especially regarding their doubts and struggles. I had assumed there would be some attempt to gloss over things or make things seem easier than they are. But, right from the beginning, they were eager to tell the nitty-gritty truth about their daily lives. The hospitality they extended to me—sharing their lives and families at such an intimate level—made my work as a researcher much easier. Of course, that also made it challenging to be critical sometimes, as I was worried about their feelings. At the same time, though, my concern for them as a personal level caused me to take even more seriously the obligation to handle their words with care. It was vitally important to me not to mischaracterize or do violence to their stories.

What are you hoping your readers will learn from your book?

I want curious outsiders to understand Quiverfull as a form of evangelical lived religion in America. I think I’ve provided enough historical and cultural detail to help readers understand the movement in a general way. More than that, though, I want readers to think more deeply about the way Christian constructions of motherhood, childhood, and “the family” contribute to or undermine the flourishing of real families in the U.S. My major premise is that Quiverfull practice constitutes an intensification of longstanding American evangelical tendencies toward individualism and privatization. I think these tendencies are not only against the grain of the Christian tradition (broadly conceived), but also fundamentally bad for families in real life. So, I hope my readers are encouraged to think more critically about the way Christians conceive of and practice family in America today.

So, would you say your book is pro-Quiverfull or anti-Quiverfull?

Can I say both and neither? I am quite critical of Quiverfull practice in the book but I hope it’s also clear that I’m deeply sympathetic to some of their concerns. For example, I resonate with their desire to help Christian families raise their children with a vibrant Christian identity. But, I find their exclusive focus on the family problematic. In some cases, the nuclear family has even come to replace the church entirely. But in the Christian tradition you can’t understand the family rightly without the church. And, practically speaking, children need to be initiated into the practices of a larger, flesh-and-blood faith community in order to develop a Christian identity. The private family alone is not enough.

Thinking more broadly, I also share Quiverfull concerns about the stability and health of American families in our tumultuous cultural moment. But the answer on offer from Quiverfull is to focus exclusively on the ordering of the private sphere with no consideration for the environmental factors that can help or harm families in a big way. They seem to believe if more people would simply conform to their particular blueprint of the family, which is hierarchically arranged and inwardly focused, then society would be transformed for the better. But that’s simply not the way it works. There are large systemic, social issues that must be addressed, along with private, personal issues. We need to be discussing matters like healthcare, education, and maternity leave policy alongside issues of personal responsibility, household debt, and “grit.” It’s both-and, not either-or.