A post in the Raised Quiverfull series.
Part 1: Introductory Questions
Please introduce yourself before we get started. Are you married or unmarried? Are you in school, holding down a job, or staying home? Do you have children? What religious beliefs or lack thereof do you ascribe to today? Provide whatever additional information you like.
You can call me Sierra. It isn’t my real name, but I use it to protect the identity of my family and former friends. I am 25 and have been out of fundamentalism since 2006. I am currently in a History Ph.D. program in a Midwestern university, and hold a master’s in history from one of England’s big two. I am engaged to my partner of five years, and recently adopted a puppy. I can say without reservations that 25 has been the best year of my life.
How did your parents first come under the influence of Christian Patriarchy/Quiverfull teachings? What leaders did they follow and what publications did they receive?
I was not born into fundamentalism. My mother was an ordinary evangelical and my extended family was made up of lapsed Catholics. We went to various non-denominational Bible churches as my mother searched for her spiritual home. I was enrolled in kindergarten but taken out after three months. I was a sensitive, gifted child and was absolutely terrified of school. It didn’t help that the local public school was a hotbed for bullies and my teacher was so hardened from the battle that she offered no sympathy or advice. I was frequently sent to the principal for antisocial behavior, where I would sit and quietly lick a lollipop while he asked me questions. At home, I began having night terrors and insomnia, and physically fought my mother when she brought me to school. She decided that I just wasn’t ready and began to investigate homeschooling as a way to postpone my entry to school for about a year.
We happily floated along in the homeschool bubble for about a year, and my mother discovered that her own childhood dream of being a teacher could be satisfied by teaching me. She decided to keep me out for a few more years, always determined to send me back for high school. Then the world came crashing down.
When I was 7, my mother had a miscarriage. She had been trying for a second baby for as long as I’d been weaned, and this one was a son. She fell deep into mourning and leaned on one of her homeschool friends for support. That friend was a fundamentalist.
We were rapidly sucked down the rabbit hole of Christian patriarchy and quiverfull as my mother began attending a church that followed the charismatic fundamentalist preacher William Branham. Branham is a virtual unknown now, but was one of several healing ministries in the mid-20th century who attracted millions (50,000 at a time) to enormous tent meetings. He preached extreme patriarchy, arguing that the world would end because women voted in the wrong president and that a woman who works is a disgrace to her family. He also preached the end of days, divine healing and a mystical union of the believer with Christ. Although he was deeply plugged in to postwar evangelical culture, influencing men like Billy Graham, he was ultimately abandoned by the evangelical community when he began preaching things they deemed heretical, such as the return of the spirit of Elijah and John the Baptist in the form of a modern Prophet – guess who? Evangelicals no longer speak his name, and most now have no idea who he was. But his ideas diffused throughout Christian culture (the idea, for example, that women will bring down the apocalypse by voting for the antichrist or that a shepherd breaks a lamb’s legs to keep it from wandering astray). People who follow him explicitly have over 1100 of his sermons recorded and transcribed and read them frequently. They call themselves believers in the “Message of the Hour,” or “in the Message” for short.
My church subscribed to the usual evangelical-fundamentalist literature: Above Rubies, Beautiful Girlhood, I Kissed Dating Goodbye, Mary Pride, Michael and Debi Pearl, Creationist magazines and Apologia textbooks. We were not involved with Bill Gothard, but we would have fit in perfectly at one of his seminars.
In what ways was your family a “typical” Christian Patriarchy/Quiverfull family? In what ways was it “atypical”?
My family was solidly atypical for Christian Patriarchy/Quiverfull. I was an only child. My father was an unbeliever. My mother was the tie that bound me to fundamentalism. It proved to be quite a strong one, as my father’s unbelief unfortunately coincided with a controlling, abusive personality who lived up to all the stereotypes of what “worldly” men were like. I clung to my mother and fell down the hole with her.
Part 2: Living the Life
What sort of a church did your family go to while you were growing up? Were the other families who attended the church also involved in the Christian Patriarchy/Quiverfull movement?
My church [Branham’s The Message of the Hour] practiced the patriarchy it preached. Most families were also quiverfull, although their children tended to number in the high single digits. In addition to the patriarchy, submission, courtship and purity culture, we lived by extremely strict dress codes. Skirts had to cover the knees while sitting and be loose enough to reveal nothing. Pants were forbidden in every context. Shirts had to be loose, long and absolutely not sleeveless. Hair could not be cut, even trimmed. All makeup was forbidden. Piercings were forbidden. Painting nails and wearing jewelry were treated with suspicion.
We only had Sunday services for most of my tenure there, because we were poor and rented a YMCA building. Special meetings like communion, footwashing, fellowship and prayer meetings were held occasionally in people’s homes.
In many ways, every Christian Patriarchy/Quiverfull couple has a different dynamic. What sort of a dynamic did your parents have? Was one more sold on the Christian Patriarchy/Quiverfull ideology than the other? Or, if you grew up in a broken family, how did this affect your experience?
My parents’ dynamic was one of antagonist and martyr. My mother submitted to my father and he took full advantage. My church taught that wives of abusers could win them to Christ by refusing to fight back. Divorce was also considered invalid, because it could not dissolve an oath made before God. There was no way out.
How often did you, your siblings, and your parents read the Bible? Were you guided by your parents or pastors in how to interpret the Bible, especially certain passages, or were you generally free to form your own ideas about what the Bible said?
I was raised to read the Bible every day and have a personal relationship with Jesus. My mother did not supervise my reading, however. I was taught how to interpret what I read by comparing it to what Branham said in his sermons (which I read along with the Bible) or by absorbing our pastor’s interpretations in church on Sunday.
What role did race play in the Christian Patriarchy/Quiverfull community in which you grew up? Were there any black or hispanic families? Were they treated differently?
My church was solidly multiracial. Black families were not treated any differently from white families, as far as I could tell. The church did fetishize the Spanish language and would commonly ask Hispanic men to sing praise songs in Spanish before the service. We also attracted a Korean mother and daughter. The main difference between white and nonwhite believers in my church was homeschooling. Racial minorities did not homeschool, probably for economic reasons. My church regarded racial diversity as a positive sign that God’s Word was universal, but maintained a strict policy against interracial marriage.
Part 3: A Gendered Childhood
How many siblings did you grow up with? Did responsibilities in your family differ by gender, with the girls having certain chores and the boys having others? Explain.
I had no siblings. My father performed no chores. My mother and I ran the house.
If you were an older daughter, do you feel that you were expected to play “mother” for your younger siblings? Explain.
Since my interactions with other boys and girls came mostly from other families in my church, I’ll answer this question as it pertains to them.
Older daughters in my church absolutely were mini-mothers to their younger siblings. They constantly sought out young children to “practice” on. For my part, I had no interest in raising children and avoided the other girls out of boredom. The result was that the little children loved me and pursued me because I treated them like they were my age.
In what ways were boys and girls in your family expected to dress or act differently from each other? Were there certain things it was appropriate for girls to do but not boys, and vice versa?
Since my interactions with other boys and girls came mostly from other families in my church, I’ll answer this question as it pertains to them.
Boys wore pants. Girls wore skirts. Boys weren’t allowed to have hair past their ears. Girls weren’t allowed to cut their hair at all. Boys were expected to play rough games, climb trees and run around. Girls were supposed to sit quietly and talk to each other. Friendships across the sexes were heartily discouraged.
In what ways were boys and girls in your family raised differently vocationally (i.e., the boys pushed toward careers and the girls pushed toward homemaking)? How did this play out as you came of age (apprenticeship, college, staying home, etc.)?
Since my interactions with other boys and girls came mostly from other families in my church, I’ll answer this question as it pertains to them.
Boys were raised to gain a skill to support a family. More education than that was frowned upon. Girls were taught that they could grow up either to be mothers or at-home caretakers for their aging parents. The result was that boys were encouraged to pursue their studies and get good grades, and when girls mentioned their academic achievements they were told not to lose sight of their “highest calling.” Girls were frequently forbidden to go to college, and if they did, they took courses like photography and music so as to “edify” their future families.
I always wanted to get a job and be independent. I didn’t want to get married or have children. Older women in the church frowned upon this and aggressively promoted materials and activities like Beautiful Girlhood, Above Rubies, sewing circles, babysitting, etc. One woman went so far as to tell me that I needed to get over my anorexia because if I didn’t gain any fat, I wouldn’t be able to have babies. I told her that was just what I was hoping, and I’m pretty sure I made it onto several “prayer lists” later that day.
Part 4: Homeschooling
Why and when did your parents originally decide to homeschool? Did their reasons for homeschooling change over time?
My mother decided to homeschool me because I was terrified of school. I was in kindergarten for three months in a room with an aging, unsympathetic teacher and a bunch of rowdy boys who bullied me. I was a sensitive child, and couldn’t handle it. I had insomnia, horrible nightmares, anxiety attacks, random fits of crying, and was generally miserable. I was also a gifted child who had known how to read for three years and was bored to death by the lessons we were doing. My mother (prudently, I think) decided to take me out of school for a year and let me mature a little bit before being put back in that environment. Then my mother met a fundamentalist and hit it off with her (as I hit it off with her son, Sven) and we were sucked into that family’s church. Once we were part of the Christian Patriarchy movement, my mother’s reasons for homeschooling me changed from getting me a head start academically and letting my social skills catch up to protecting me from worldly influences.
Briefly describe your experience being homeschooled, including the amount of interaction you had with other homeschoolers or non-homeschoolers (socialization) and what sorts of textbooks or homeschool program your family used (academics).
My mother tried out a lot of different curricula with me. We started out using Bob Jones, Abeka, Rod and Staff, and others I can’t remember. I hated all of them. They were boring and their religious message was painfully overt. Eventually we settled on Sonlight, which both of us liked for academic content and for the creativity of their approach. I generally did my school work in the morning, finished up at noon and went outside to play. I saw other children 3-4 times a week at church, homeschool meetups, visits between stay-at-home moms, field trips and days at the park. I’m an introvert, so I never felt like going a day or two without another child around was a hardship. I read for pleasure, did creative writing of my own, and generally entertained myself. When I got to college, I needed remedial math and never went beyond geometry and algebra II. My verbal skills were always off the charts, however, from all of my writing and reading.
What do you see as the pros and cons of having been homeschooled? Do you feel that your homeschool experience prepared you well socially? Academically?
When I was a teenager, I did have serious social anxiety. It coincided with the depression and poor body image I developed after puberty. Since my church didn’t allow me to do anything about my looks (no makeup, no hiding my zits, no filling in my sparse eyebrows, no trimming my hair, no wearing fitted clothes) I was mostly very self-conscious and ashamed of my appearance. I also was the target of a lot of hostility from boys at Christian camps I went to, and the girls thought I was too weird and ignored me.
Now I consider myself 100% normal and confident. I can start up conversations with strangers. I know how to handle myself in a group of my peers, and I’m frequently the one starting up the loud music and cracking open the beer. I think I’m actually pretty fun to be around. I’m comfortable public speaking. This all came about through an excruciating five years of training myself to get over my social anxieties, however. I actually think going to public school would have made it worse, since I would have been faced every day with people I thought were normal and I would have been a serious loser with my baggy denim skirts and frizzy mane. By the time I got to college, I was already transitioning to listening to normal music, wearing tighter clothes, and trimming my hair. By my sophomore year, I was wearing jeans and makeup.
Do you perceive of your academic or social abilities differently today than you did when you were being homeschooled?
I am much more confident in my intelligence and ability to use my creativity to make meaningful contributions to society. Although it was not homeschooling precisely that undermined my confidence, my church damaged my vision of myself severely. Homeschooling simply made me unaware of my potential. Since I was so depressed in high school, I think that going to public school would have made the problem worse because I would have had bad grades. Homeschooling gave me a very flexible timeframe for my lessons and kept me from giving up on myself. When I got to college and found that I performed well, it blew my mind. I was preoccupied with figuring out the limits of my intelligence, so I pushed myself to the max and graduated summa cum laude. It was amazing to finally realize that I wasn’t stupid or awkward or insignificant.
I would never homeschool a child past elementary school, because I would want my child to have experiences that bind generations together. I want my child to listen to popular music, wear shorts, hang out at the beach, swear and play sports. I want my child to go to prom and graduate in a big pompous ceremony. I want my child to have friends of all genders, races and sexualities. I want my child to have expert teachers.
I would consider homeschooling a very sensitive child for the first year or two, and I would thoroughly check out any school (public or private) that was within reach before enrolling. My child would probably have a more balanced homeschool education than I did, since my partner is into math and science and those are my weak points.
Part 5: Purity
What were you taught about physical purity, emotional purity, and courtship and dating? How was sex education handled?
I was taught that all physical contact with the opposite sex was off-limits. A couple in my church bragged that they had never held hands before their wedding. We even had to wear big baggy dresses or shirts into the pool with other girls for modesty. We were not allowed to have “special” friends. We were to treat the person we wanted to court like any other person until our fathers gave the okay to start courting. Courting was 100% supervised, and we were not supposed to say the words “I love you” until after our engagement. We were taught the usual nonsense about how non-virgin girls are like dirty lollipops and how boys who found us attractive were sex-addicted predators. An ideal mate was so lost in God that he or she never even noticed your existence.
My “sex ed” was the book “Almost Twelve” and a short chat with my mom.
Did you participate in a parent-guided courtship? If so, what was your experience? If not, why not?
I did not court. My “intended” (how scandalous!) was not allowed to court until he graduated from college. By the time he did, I had left the church and cut off contact with him.
How do you feel about purity and courtship teachings today? Have you rejected some parts of it and kept other parts of it? How do you plan to handle these issues with your own children?
I have nothing but contempt for the purity doctrines I was raised with. They made me fearful and self-hating. I despised my body as it developed curves, because my church taught that a woman was responsible for sending a man to hell if he lusted after her. I bound my breasts and starved myself to avoid becoming a sexual being. I begged forgiveness so often for masturbation that I became convinced that I was a reprobate and my conscience had been seared – in other words, I was past forgiveness for the repeat transgression. I felt like damaged goods after leaving because I had dared to love a boy (secretly and from a distance – I don’t think he even knows now). My upbringing made getting into my first relationship extremely difficult, since I had to contend with feelings of inadequacy for never having dated and raging jealousy over the girl my partner had dated three years before we even met. Nothing good came of purity culture for me. Oddly enough, none of this actually affected my having sex; I had a good first experience with the same partner I’m with now, and was completely ready and guiltless when it happened. And no, I’m still not married and it’s not a big deal to me. I think it’s because sex was so taboo that I never even thought about it. It wasn’t an option, so it didn’t even cross my mind.
Do you feel that the purity and courtship teachings you were raised with still have lasting impact on your life today? If so, how?
The good news is I think those issues can be completely worked through. I have dealt with the issues I wrote about above. The only lasting effect for me is that I absolutely detest long skirts. I can’t wear them. Anything below my knees gives me horrible flashbacks.
Part 6: Questioning
How were you first exposed to “mainstream” American culture? What were your first impressions?
I was always envious of mainstream American culture. Although I was taught to despise “worldly” people, and did absorb some disdain for sports and shopping culture, I mostly just wanted to be normal. I secretly liked the Backstreet Boys when I heard it at my cousins’ house. I really wanted to cut my hair and wear jeans. I was not a girly girl and would have been much more comfortable in pants. My church was always so focused on the apocalypse that I loved the comfort of being with ordinary people who weren’t worried about demons, being in the Rapture, or the end of days.
What first made you question the beliefs you were raised with? Was this initial questioning a frightening or liberating experience?
I had always questioned the submission of women implicitly, but staved that off by telling myself “that’s just the way it is.” I was awash in fundamentalism at home, however. My mom listened to recorded sermons every day, and I overheard them. Just the sound of the pastor’s voice would strike fear and submission into my heart. Getting to college and living outside my parents’ house where I didn’t have to listen if I didn’t want to enabled me to finally have enough breathing room to think for myself about what I believed. I had never realized that I didn’t have that space before. It was liberating.
What did you struggle with most when you were in the midst of questioning and/or leaving Christian Patriarchy/Quiverfull ideology? What was the hardest part?
The hardest part of leaving was the fear of divine retribution. I was taught that anyone who “blasphemed the Holy Spirit” (by rejecting the Truth) was damned in this world and the next. My church told stories of kids walking away and ending up alcoholic, riddled with STDs and dying young. I was convinced that if I said anything bad about my church I would physically die.
Among those you grew up around who were also raised with Christian Patriarchy/Quiverfull ideology, what proportion has remained in the movement and what proportion has left?
I am the only one of my circle of friends who left.
Part 7: Relating to Family
How did your parents and siblings respond to you questioning/rejecting their beliefs? How did those you grew up with respond?
My dad thought I was on his side. He thought I was going to be all about money and sex. He was wrong. My mom thought I was going through a phase, then got angry and called me a bitter, hateful person, and eventually came to accept me. She bought me a pair of jeans last year!
What is your relationship with your parents and siblings like today? What is your relationship with those you grew up with who remained in the movement like?
Leaving meant cutting off contact with all friends from my church. I’m now back in touch with a few of them, but our relationships are a little awkward.
For those who are no longer Christian, are you “out” to your parents or siblings? If so, how did you do it and how did they respond?
I’m not really a Christian anymore, but I might as well be. I still believe in spirits, if not actually a monotheistic God. I consider my relationship with the divine one of friendship rather than subordination or worship. My spiritual life is much more about connecting with the earth and cultivating a spirit of kindness than any kind of dogma. “Coming out” to my family or friends about that would make no sense. Besides, I still believe most of what I did before about living: I find Jesus’ words inspirational even though I’m no longer fixated on his death.
Part 8: Adjusting
Do you still feel as though you are “different” or that your past experiences emotionally isolate you from society?
I feel like I’ve finally achieved normalcy. I don’t feel slighted or deficient for my upbringing. I’m grateful for what I learned and trying to use it by speaking out and by incorporating my understanding of religion in my academic work. I feel totally integrated in society now, and I’m having a ton of fun doing all the things I could never do: blaring rock music, wearing bikinis, playing with makeup, driving my own car to my own job, and studying and speaking what I think. I love being a teacher, too, because it’s so nice to express my thoughts and cultivate a respectful discussion where I can advise younger people and hear their thoughts.
Since most of the world doesn’t understand Quiverfull/Christian Patriarchy culture, do you feel this creates barriers in friendships or in romantic relationships? Do people have a hard time understanding you and your past?
I’ve found that most of the dynamics I grew up with in my church are also experienced by worldly people. My “normal” friends have dysfunctional family dynamics where one partner dominates another (even without the Bible telling them to). They have problem siblings and sexual double standards. They are sometimes overprotected and forbidden to do things like date or go to prom. They are raised in other religions (one Catholic) that load them up with existential guilt, too. Basically, I don’t think there’s anything all that special about Christian Patriarchy that can’t be understood by “normal” people.
What do you think is the biggest way being raised in a family influenced by Christian Patriarchy/Quiverfull ideas has influenced who you are today?
My background has made me very thoughtful. I used to write endless essays trying to convince myself of things my church believed. It taught me a lot about who I was and what I wanted, even if those things were “wrong” to my church. I became an academic because I never stopped thinking about how and why the world was the way it was. I believed in my heart of hearts that women were equal with men and that submission was a moral wrong. That never changed, although I masked it with flowery Biblical ideas.
My experience of being the “wrong” kind of woman has also given me a lot of sympathy for LGBTQ kids and kids of color who grow up being hated for who they are (and great respect for the adults they become). I know what it’s like for your heart to tell you who you are and everyone else to tell you that you’re the opposite of what you should be. Anyone who’s had that experience is my kindred spirit.
How did you perceive your childhood at the time compared to how do you see it now?
When I was a little kid (up to age 10) I thought my life was pretty awesome. I had more free time than public-schooled kids, I had a beautiful woodsy backyard and lots of books to read. Church didn’t really sink in until I was 11 and got my period. Then I absolutely hated my life. I started listening to the apocalyptic stuff and the vicious condemnations of worldly women. I started realizing that I would be expected to submit to a man and be endlessly pregnant and that led me to think suicidal thoughts on a daily basis. I fantasized wildly about other planets where women were allowed to have lives and the Gods didn’t create people just to burn them alive for thousands of years. I was convinced I was a “vessel of destruction” destined for hell.
Now, I think my childhood crashed and burned at puberty. I think it’s because the prospect of womanhood in my church was so horrible, looked so much like slavery, that I would rather have died at 10 years old. I’m glad I didn’t, of course, because the other planets I dreamed about exist right here! But in retrospect, I would never live those years again.
Do you sometimes wish to go “back”?
The only things I miss about growing up fundamentalist was the large “extended family” it provided. I have been able to recreate this with my own friends, but I don’t have other older adults in my life. I miss having extra sets of “parents,” but I would never go back. I couldn’t go back without losing my soul.
Part 9: Helping Others
What advice do you have for other young adults currently questioning or leaving Christian Patriarchy/Quiverfull ideology?
Trust yourself. You know what’s right and wrong, and it’s not what people are telling you. Who you are is not evil. You will not become a heroin-addicted psychopath if you leave your church. You can be whoever you feel like you are underneath it all. It’s your choice. It’s your life. Start living it as soon as you can. (And no, that doesn’t make you “selfish.”)
What was most helpful to you when you were questioning and/or leaving the Christian Patriarchy/Quiverfull movement?
Having my ideas respected. The idea that somebody actually might want to listen to me was earth-shattering. That’s why college helped propel me out: I started realizing that I wasn’t just some idiot who didn’t know her place. I had actual, valuable contributions to make to the world.
What helps you the most today?
Everything. The universe. The world is so exciting! I love being part of nature and not feeling like the world is going to end – those trees are still going to be there in a hundred years. I love music, all kinds – rock, some hip-hop, and definitely Florence and the Machine. I also love the sun on my skin and the way the wind whips through freshly cut hair. I love unapologetically wearing mascara.
What suggestions do you have for those who might to help friends or relatives who grew up/are growing up in families influenced by the Christian Patriarchy/Quiverfull movement?
Don’t be afraid to challenge their beliefs, but be prepared for them to hate you. The most helpful people for me in college were the ones who frankly told me they didn’t understand and I wasn’t being rational. I got mad and stayed mad with them for months. But I never quit thinking about what they said, and it changed my life.
Sierra blogs at The Phoenix and the Olive Branch.