It's hardly a typical scene from the suburbs. The Bortel home outside San Antonio, Tex., counts 12 members—parents David and Suzanne and their 10 children, ranging from 13 months to 15 (the 20-year-old married and moved away)—all crammed into a four-bedroom house that trembles constantly with activity. Everything revolves around the home: Dad works there, the kids are schooled there, the youngest three were born there. The family uses a 15-passenger van to get around, and at night, the kids climb into multiple sets of bunk beds. David and Suzanne hear the same questions repeatedly. So for the record: No, they're not Catholic. Yes, they've heard of birth control. And no, they're not crazy. In fact, they'd happily welcome a twelfth child. "It's about obedience to God," says David, 38. "The Bible says that God is the only opener and closer of the womb."
The Bortels form part of the "quiverfull" movement, a small but growing conservative Protestant group that eschews all forms of birth control and believes that family planning is exclusively God's domain. The term derives from Psalm 127:
Behold, children are a heritage from the Lord,
The fruit of the womb is a reward.
Like arrows in the hand of a warrior,
So are the children of one's youth.
Happy is the man who has his quiver full of them.
Back in 1995, when the quiverfull.com Web site was founded, it had only 12 subscribers; today, the site, which is administered by the Bortels, has more than 2,600. Many followers have abandoned mainstream churches in favor of smaller nondenominational congregations of like-minded families. A cottage industry has sprung up in support of them. There are books like "A Full Quiver," by Rick and Jan Hess; Web sites like blessedarrows.com, which raises funds for couples to have reverse vasectomies or reverse tubal ligations; and scholarly treatises like "The Natural Family: A Manifesto," put out by the Rockford, Ill.,-based Howard Center for Family, Religion & Society and the Sutherland Institute, a Mormon think tank. "We're still on the fringes," says Jan Hess. "But it is much more embraced than it was before."
Quiverfull beliefs are absolutist. Purists don't permit even natural family planning methods, such as tracking fertility cycles (the only form of birth control condoned by the Roman Catholic Church). Also taboo: any form of artificial fertility treatment. "The point is to have a welcoming heart," says Mary Pride, a mother of nine whose 1985 book, "The Way Home," celebrated a return to traditional gender roles. It has sold about 80,000 copies and has inspired many quiverfull families. "You shouldn't be unnatural in going to a fertility clinic or in trying to avoid having children by regulating when to have sex with your husband," says Pride.
Beyond such purists, the anti-birth control message appears to be gaining ground among some evangelicals. Albert Mohler, president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, has become one of its most prominent advocates. "If a couple sees children as an imposition, as something to be vaccinated against, like an illness, that betrays a deeply erroneous understanding of marriage and children," says Mohler. "Children should be seen as good by default." His stance isn't as extreme as that of quiverfull followers; for instance, he condones the use of condoms for married couples in extreme circumstances, like illness. Still, Mohler's views are considered "an oddity" in mainstream Baptist circles, according to Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Convention's Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission. Land admits, however, that Mohler has certainly expanded his following. "He is seen as the popularizer of a position that is still very marginal, but 15 years ago, it wouldn't have even been discussed," says Land, adding that he knows of at least two former students who had reverse vasectomies after hearing Mohler's arguments.
There's a curious twist to all this. "What quiverfull looks like is a group of Protestants who are more Catholic than the Catholics," says John Green, a senior fellow at the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life. Protestants have tended to embrace the contraceptive revolution that began in the 1960s. But recently, some conservative evangelical leaders—alarmed by what they deem a "contraceptive mentality" that has separated the act of sex from procreation—have begun to question mainstream Protestant stances. One possible explanation for the shift in thinking: the alignment between evangelicals and Catholics on some social issues, says Brad Wilcox, assistant professor of sociology at the University of Virginia. "The increasing cooperation of Catholic and evangelical leaders on abortion and same sex marriage has allowed some cross-pollination where evangelical leaders are starting to become familiar with Catholic thinking on the family."
Whatever the roots of their beliefs, adherents appear to be speaking up more. Some prominent quiverfull followers have recently helped raise the movement's profile. Among them: Jim Bob Duggar, a former Arkansas state representative, and his wife Michelle, who have 16 children and have been featured on several Discovery Channel documentaries. In September, a group of 250 Catholic and evangelical anti-abortion activists met in Chicago to launch an attack on birth control. They argued that contraceptives such as IUDs and the pill have an abortion-like quality because they might prevent implantation of a fertilized egg. Meanwhile, the Howard Center and the Sutherland Institute put out their manifesto on "The Natural Family," which encourages couples to be open to "a full quiver of children." That publication formed the basis of a "Natural Family Resolution" adopted by the town of Kanab, Utah earlier this year. Though nonbinding, the resolution drew on the manifesto's language in promoting the family as the most important social unit.
These activities have encouraged more discussion of quiverfull ideas among conservative Christians. Stephanie Coontz, director of research for the Council on Contemporary Families, says she has increasingly noticed articles on the subject in the Christian press. Part of the reason, she argues, is that conservatives are reacting to revolutionary changes in women's social roles and seeking to re-impose a more traditional order. "The rhetoric is getting more shrill because people are getting more desperate," she says. "It's a backlash that I don't feel will triumph. In the past, large families were helpful economically, but today, they become a disadvantage, especially to younger kids who don't get as many resources."
Don't tell that to Ken and Devon Carpenter. They live on 21 acres outside of Nashville, Tenn., with their 8 children, ages 1 to 15. The Carpenters are what some have described as "back-to-the-land" Christians, typical among the quiverfull community. They embrace homeschooling, grow some of their own food and reject television in favor of evening family time singing or reading. Though Ken admits life isn't always easy—last spring, all eight kids came down with chicken pox at once—he says the family became "exponentially happier" after relinquishing control of Devon's womb to God. He's counting on his eldest daughter Peyton, 12, to carry on the tradition. She "will stay under my covering until I turn her over in marriage to a God-honoring young man," he says. Hopefully, he adds, they too will reap a full quiver.