Before this week, when reality star and conservative political activist Joshua Duggar admitted to molesting several underage girls, including his own sisters, what most people knew about the Duggar family could be counted on two fingers: They have 19—19!—kids, and they’re extremely religious Christians.

But the Duggars are different than your standard evangelical Christians—they’re followers of a particularly scary fundamentalist sect known as the Quiverfull movement, which adheres to a deeply patriarchal and highly authoritarian set of beliefs about gender and culture. What does that mean, exactly? Here’s your guide to the Quiverfull movement and some of its heavy hitters.

The Quiverfull Movement

“Quiverfull” is very new. Newer than Scientology, in fact. Starting in the 1980s, its ideas have mostly spread through homeschooling and networking with other similarly minded Christians—which is why the cult-like movement has taken root as social media and internet access has exploded in the past three decades. That, and the fact that they’re literally multiplying, should make you at least a little bit afraid.

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On the surface, Quiverfull follows your typical radical evangelical principles—every word of the Bible is taken literally, traditional gender roles and “family values” are emphasized, and the secular world is alternately scorned and feared. But followers of Quiverfull take one key tenet and let it shape the rest of their beliefs: Birth control is evil. They want to have as many children as possible, in order to build a pint-sized fundamentalist Christian army. The Quiverfull movement takes its name from this verse from Psalm 127 (KJV):

Lo, children are a heritage of the LORD:
and the fruit of the womb is his reward.
As arrows are in the hand of a mighty man;
so are children of the youth.
Happy is the man that hath his quiver full of them:
they shall not be ashamed,
but they shall speak with the enemies in the gate.

Each child is an arrow in their quiver, and they’re going to try to shoot it right at you.

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Ultimately the scariest aspect of Quiverfull is that it’s not just one specific Christian denomination or church: Quiverfull families are all over America, in churches everywhere. That’s why it’s nearly impossible to tell how quickly their numbers are rising. They tend to congregate in fundamentalist evangelical churches, but Quiverfull families could really be found in any traditionalist Protestant denomination. It’s their mission to push more and more people toward their rigid and reactionary view of Christianity, and to eventually outnumber anyone who disagrees.

See, the “having a lot of kids” aspect of the Quiverfull movement is just the tip of the iceberg. Catholics, Mormons, and certain groups of conservative Jews also believe in having a lot of kids and not taking birth control. Duggars, along with the rest of the Quiverfull movement, turn having kids into a political statement. They want to out-reproduce Muslims, and see the quantity of children they put out into the world as a maternal mission statement.

Struggling with infertility issues? Sorry about your “empty quiver,” but according to the Quiverfull faithful, God doesn’t believe in fertility treatments, and your barrenness is probably the result of your sinful heart. Only the woman is at fault for any problems reproducing. Men are, of course, blameless. Would giving birth be a dangerous health issue for you? They’ll encourage you to get pregnant anyway—because dying in childbirth is a virtuous death by which you can become a martyr.

If it seems like the evangelical right isn’t progressing forward along with the rest of the world, it’s probably because—along with the right-wing values of the Tea Party—these patriarchal and oppressive ideas have wormed their way into the mainstream evangelical churches. It’s not only the Duggars; the Duggars are just the most famous example.

And here’s what they—the reality-television family idolized by Christian fundamentalists—believe.

Women must obey the orders of men, in all cases

Aren’t all religious Christians anti-feminist? No, not at all. But Quiverfullers are. And while ultra-conservative views on childbearing have long been present in many religions, Quiverfull’s anti-feminism traces itself back to a woman—a self-described former feminist—who brought the movement to the forefront three decades ago.

In 1985, a writer named Mary Pride published a book called The Way Home: Beyond Feminism, Back to Reality, which detailed her journey away from the second-wave feminism of the ’70s and into what she perceived was a woman’s Biblical place in the home, and the commandment to fill the house with as many of her husband’s children as possible.

Pride insisted that no woman could possibly find true happiness without submitting to her vision of Christianity: Relinquish control of your womb to God, and exist only to please your husband, give birth, feed everyone, and educate your children in the home—almost certainly without having received any formal higher education yourself.

From the moment a Duggar in possession of a vagina is born or married into the family, she falls under the control of Christian Patriarchy. The wife is forever under the authority of her husband, and a daughter is completely subservient to her father until the day he finds a suitable husband to take up the role. The women of Quiverfull are never supposed to disobey their male authority figure, ever, even if it’s something they find immoral. Because they think God would rather you kill a guy because your husband says so than to disobey the orders of a man.

Women aren’t supposed to work outside the home, and if the father can’t find anyone for his daughter to court and marry, they have to live at home to take care of the other children. (Sorry, Jana Duggar.) College? What’s that? There’s no room for individuality for men or women when you’re immediately dictated into a role based on the kind of genitals you have.

Image: Josh Duggar with Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas)

Premarital sex is sinful, and women are temptresses—who must also be sexually available to their husbands

One line of argument you might hear is that Josh Duggar didn’t know it was wrong to molest girls or that he didn’t know what he was doing. He comes from a culture in which women are forbidden from showing their shoulders in case it causes their brothers to stumble, where they aren’t allowed to dance or front hug their own siblings—so how would he not know it’s wrong to fondle their breasts and genitals?

Don’t let anyone tell you this. The Quiverfull fundamentalist Christians are obsessed with sex. It’s the ultimate sin: They’re always thinking about it, and they’re always categorizing what’s wrong and what’s right.

This isn’t a particularly arduous task because the list of what’s right is pretty short: Heterosexual, vaginal sex between a biological male and a biological female is the only permitted kind of sex, and it can occur only in the bonds of holy matrimony with the intent of procreation. That’s pretty much it.

And women are obligated to give it up to their husband whenever and wherever they want it. Michelle Duggar herself relegated this advice to her daughters Jessa and Jill, on Today.

“In your marriage there will be times you’re going to be very exhausted. Your hubby comes home after a hard day’s work, you get the baby to bed, and he is going to be looking forward to that time with you. Be available. Anyone can fix him lunch, but only one person can meet that physical need of love that he has, and you always need to be available when he calls.”

Modesty and purity are of the utmost importance for a young lady until she gets married—and then she’s expected to turn into an on-demand sex slave robot. That’s definitely what Jesus wanted out of his followers.

As it turns out, this kind of obsessive regulation doesn’t lead to healthy attitudes toward sex, and this isn’t the first time that someone from the Quiverfull movement has gotten himself involved with sex-related accusations. In 2014, a group of women claimed they were sexually harassed by Bill Gothard, creator of the Institute in Basic Life Principles, an organization which provided Duggars with their homeschool curriculum. Gothard denied the allegations but was still forced to resign. His curriculum, however, remains the cornerstone for many Quiverfull homeschool educations and includes advice for victims of sexual assault that lays the blame on them, rather than on perpetrators.

Image: Josh Duggar with Gov. Scott Walker (R-Wis.)

Parents control their children’s lives

The Duggars, like most Quiverfull families, aren’t allowed to do anything fun, ever. With all the chores, and children, they probably don’t have time, but even if they did, their extracurricular activities would be completely controlled. The kids can’t listen to any music that makes you want to dance, even terrible Christian rock, so it’s pretty much just hymns and classical music. They can only read approved Christian books. Their internet access is strictly controlled, and the television is a thing TLC pays them to be on, but not a thing that they actually watch. (In 2009, EOnline estimated that they make at least $25,000-$40,000 an episode, not counting additional television appearances on other networks.)

And if you’re one of the lucky Duggar children who has a phone, but doesn’t live outside the home yet, you have to copy your parents on every text you send. Lame, mom and dad! Plus, all the fashion choices you make are going to be dictated by them too. For the girls, that means your clothes are constantly policed for modesty (plus no jeans, and no short hair); for the boys, dad shirts and 1950s haircuts for the rest of your life.

Forget about alcohol, going to the beach, hanging out with anyone who isn’t part of your specific belief set, or Halloween. All of that can cause you to sin. So when the Duggars take communion, they partake in a literally watered-down version of Jesus’ sacred Last Supper: grape juice and a thin styrofoam wafer.

Image: Josh Duggar with former governor of Florida Jeb Bush

Families must be self-sufficient—no schools and no government assistance, no matter how many kids

Being able to support yourself is a good thing. But like everything, Quiverfullers take it to the extreme. All children are homeschooled, so they won’t be influenced by the big, scary world of heathens, and Quiverfullers are told to live debt-free and without government assistance—you wouldn’t want the secular government interfering in your personal life, would you?

And while the Duggars can easily afford their children, that’s simply not true for all Quiverfull families. Former Quiverfull adherent Cheryl Lindsey Seelhoff said in a 2009 interview with Newsweek:

“The Quiverfull movement holds up as examples families like the Duggars, the Doug Phillips family, the Michael Faris family—all men of means. But for every family like this, there are ten or fifty or one hundred Quiverfull families living in what most would consider to be poverty. Quiverfull families are one-income families and believe the father should be the provider and the mother should be caring for hearth and home.”

This kind of cut-off, patriarchal, self-sufficient culture makes it hard for people to report sex abuse in their communities: The outside world is seen as being inherently untrustworthy, and the families try to handle as many problems as possible in the home without relying on external institutions. Even after repeated instances of abuse, Josh Duggar was never formally charged or turned into the authorities. He got a “stern lecture” from a state trooper who happened to be a family friend, and also happened to be a pervert who was later arrested on child pornography charges himself. And it’s rumored that neither Josh nor the victims received any therapy from licensed professionals.

Image: Josh Duggar with Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.)

Who’s Who in the Quiverfull Movement

Obviously the Duggars are the most notorious Quiverfull family out there. But they’re hardly the only recognizable reactionaries. Here are a handful of the movement’s leading lights:

Bill Gothard, the previously mentioned former director of the Institute in Basic Life Principles, has ties to Mike Huckabee, Sarah Palin, and former Georgia governor Sonny Perdue. In the 1980s, Bill’s brother Steve Gothard was forced to resign from IBLP after his extramarital affairs with several secretaries cam to light. In 2014, more than 30 women who worked as administrative assistants at the IBLP as teens accused Bill Gothard of having sexually harassed them or acted inappropriately; some said he fondled or kissed them. Gothard, who has never married, released a statement saying “I have never kissed a girl nor have I touched a girl immorally or with sexual intent.” Recovering Grace, a site for former Gothard followers, has several long and fascinating articles about the now disgraced minister.

Doug Phillips, son of Howard Phillips (leader of the U.S. Constitution Party), served as director of Vision Forum Ministries, one of the many Quiverfull-affiliated ultra-conservative evangelical organizations that helps produce anti-science, pro-Biblical patriarchy “educational” materials. Phillips was a close friend of the Duggars and fundamentalist actor Kirk Cameron—but was forced to step down from his position in late 2013, saying he had a “lengthy, inappropriate relationship with a woman”; the following April, that woman, a 29-year-old named Lourdes Torres-Manteufel who had worked as a nanny for Phillips’ children, sued Phillips for manipulating her and using her as a “personal sex slave.”

Nancy Campbell runs the ministry “Above Rubies” and is author of the book Be Fruitful and Multiply. Her ministry’s magazine has a circulation of over 160,000 to 100 countries, and she regularly holds international tours to give women’s conferences for churches. Her beat? Shaming Christian women into procreating by telling them they’re going against God’s will if they don’t, and encouraging couples who have had vasectomies and tubal ligation procedures to have them reversed.

The Human Toll of Quiverfull

It’s easy to laugh at the retrograde and irrational ideas of the Quiverfull adherents, but as Josh Duggar, Bill Gothard, and Doug Phillips have shown, the movement’s anti-feminism and authoritarianism can very easily elide, excuse, and hide abusive behavior.

Before the Duggars, the most famous Quiverfull parents might have been Rusty and Andrea Yates. Rusty encouraged his wife to continue having more children, regardless of the fact that a doctor had strongly advised against it: Andrea was experiencing mental breakdowns, suicide attempts, and hospitalizations caused by postpartum psychosis during previous births. After her husband left her alone despite a doctor’s orders to never leave her unsupervised, Andrea Yates drowned all five of her children.

So given that Quiverfull presents a real danger to the women and children forced into it by abusive husbands and fathers, what happens to those who leave? People who exit the movement are often shunned by their families, with limited or no communication after they escape. Maybe their parents “forgive” them, but they don’t ever welcome them back with open arms, just as they are.

In January of 2015, Radar Online reported that that Evelyn Ruark, Michelle’s older sister who happens to be a lesbian, was broke and filing for bankruptcy. Due to her “lifestyle choice” of having a longtime female partner, the Duggars were unwilling to dip into their reported $3.5 million in order to help. Interesting, considering what 1 John 3:17 (ESV) says about that:

But if anyone has the world’s goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God’s love abide in him?

However, Michelle was happy to record a transphobic robo-call to play in the ears of the Fayetteville, Ark., public to inform them about the dire effects of an anti-discrimination ordinance that was being considered by the Fayetteville City Council. She warned the public that putting “men” in ladies’ and girls’ restrooms would permit them to come in contact with sexual predators. Oh, the irony! Much to her delight, the measure was repealed in late 2014 after originally being passed earlier in the year.

So while Christians strike up a call to forgive Josh Duggar for molesting five underaged girls, that doesn’t mean his actions should be excused, or the family used as an example of holy redemption while the stories of the survivors aren’t even mentioned. It’s more unforgiving of the victims he sexually assaulted to let this pass without consequence. Redemption and forgiveness aren’t a justification to continue failing the casualties of this culture who are made to feel like it’s their fault for “tempting” their abusers in the first place. An attack on Josh Duggar is not an attack on all of Christianity: it’s an attack on the fundamentalist sects that continue to condone or even help to create this behavior in the first place.


Contact the author at jcm.the.writer@gmail.com or follow her on Twitter @notreallyjcm.