“Like arrows in the hand of a warrior,
So are the children of one’s youth.
How blessed is the man whose quiver is full of them.”
Big families, Jesus, and patriarchy. For outsiders, that’s all there is to Quiverfull. The loosely organized Christian movement is known for its conservative stance on gender. Women are expected to submit to their husbands, raise children, and reject contraception. The movement tends to be insular but I’ve been invited to the Above Rubies Ladies Day retreat in Reading, run by an influential Quiverfull publisher. Most attendees reject the term ‘Quiverfull’ but it’s difficult to know how else to describe them. The women don’t belong to a single denomination or church. Instead, what draws them together is events like this one and a shared set of values. I arrive just as they are sitting down to lunch, the room filled with the nervous hum of strangers meeting for the first time. It’s hard to connect this group of women chatting politely and nibbling appetizers to a movement that’s attracted so much condemnation. So who are these women and why are they here?
The short answer is Nancy Campbell. Alongside her husband Colin, Nancy runs an influential Quiverfull ministry. She’s the creator of Above Rubies, a magazine and website with the strapline “Encouraging mothers in their high calling as wives, mothers, and homemakers.” Her authors, almost all women, share their stories of homebirths and defying pessimistic obstetricians. There are also the familiar Quiverfull themes of prayer, obedience, and faith. But mostly it’s about the babies, each story accompanied by photos of the author’s children. They are invariably lined up, names and ages listed below like prizes, their parents beaming.
Nancy’s editorials tend to have titles like “HELP! How Can I Have Peace in My Home?” and “Jesus Had a Mommy.” In person, however, she is a charismatic, surprisingly powerful presence, with handsome, leonine features. “I have been doing Above Rubies for over 38 years now,” she tells me, “and even way back then we were beginning to feel that pressure from feminists who were beginning to proclaim the message of women getting out of the home. It was pretty traditional before that and then came this whole new message: you’re wasting your time, get out and have your career, this is more important.” Nancy continues, “motherhood is the highest career, it has the most powerful influence…You are raising the children who will be the next generation, you are actually determining the destiny of the nation.”
For Nancy, the wellbeing of society depends on upholding “traditional values,” which rely on gender differences. “God’s original plan was, he made male and female” she tells me, “and His plan was for marriage, and with marriage comes children. That is how we’re meant to live.” This means placing men at the head of the household and pushing back against what she sees as the damaging influence of feminism, humanism, and gay rights.
It’s unclear just how much of Nancy’s philosophy is shared by the women at her retreat. All of them are clearly aware of how they are seen by the outside world and eager to downplay stereotypes. Samantha has a kind face which creases into a suspicious frown when I approach. “I think [Above Rubies] gets misinterpreted,” she tells me. “People think it’s about oppression, which it isn’t. Every single one of us has chosen to be here.” Her expression softens when she talks about her family. “I have the most amazing husband who would do anything for me. He puts me ahead of himself…The idea is Jesus laid down his life for us, and that’s how much a husband is to love his wife. And therefore for me to obey a man like that is a dream.” For Samantha, the public focus on submission and abuse has done nothing but harm. “It’s such a tragedy when there’s so much beauty in this way of life.”
Anna and Mia, two of the younger attendees, also express their frustration about how their beliefs are perceived. Both are married, Anna with two children and Mia with six. Mia is dressed in a modest version of London fashion, wearing a loose plaid shirt and hoop earrings. Her two-year old son toddles around the room, occasionally stopping to grab hold of her leg. “[Nancy’s] not to be regarded as a guru, it’s not a cult,” Mia tells me, “she’s just a source of education, a specialist in the word of God, in the area of motherhood and womanhood.” For her submission is a choice. “We all have equal value. Just like in the workplace, somebody needs to lead and somebody needs to help…We’re equal in what we bring to the situation but someone needs to make the final call.”
Anna agrees, “I think subconsciously, innately, you know you can’t be the man. You wouldn’t want to be something you’re not, it doesn’t fit.” I ask her what she thinks about feminism. “I think it’s is really sad…But it’s one of those movements that the enemy uses to deceive people into believing that we’re all supposed to be the same.” Mia interjects, “if you’re fighting to do so much that a man can do, you’re actually saying that being female is less than being male.”
After lunch, the women gather to watch Nancy preach. She paces across the room, speaking in the rhythmic singsong of American TV preachers. Once she’s finished, the women pass up their questions for her to read. “My husband spends every night watching movies and not spending time with family. What can I do to change this?” “Don’t tell him not to do this,” Nancy advises. “Have you ever noticed when you tell your husband not to do something he’ll go ahead and do it?” The room laughs. Her advice is to think up “one special thing you can do every week” as a family. You must be practical, she admonishes us, “you can’t tell your husband ‘don’t do that.’” Slowly the room pipes up with other advice and a woman shares that her husband also used to escape the family by watching movies. “I feel trapped,” he told her. Eventually she concluded the problem was, “he came home from work and I started moaning.” After that, “I just tried to be pleasant around him.”
Looking around the room at the 50 or so attendees, it’s clear there is no one representative experience for women in Quiverfull. Even a cursory conversation reveals just how much they differ in age, background, and denomination. What brings them together is a deeply conservative faith and love of family. As I turn to leave, some of the babies begin to cry and I wonder what their lives will be like growing up in this community? But for this time in their lives at least, there is no better place to be.
 All names have been changed