God's Babies: Natalism and Bible Interpretation in Modern America
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1. Natalism: A Popular
Use of the Bible

“Because we’re Christians, we believe our commandment is to be fruitful and multiply … big families are what God would have us to do.”

(Strand)1

Should I choose to have a large family and add even more people to a crowded planet? ... I think that we can safely count ‘be fruitful and multiply’ among the few divine commands that we have fulfilled.

(Sleeth)

Diverse interpretations and applications of particular Bible verses have shaped American Christian ideas about a religious duty to reproduce biologically, and concepts of ideal family size. This book compares historical and contemporary Christian receptions of Old Testament verses that speak about human fecundity. The receptors initially capturing my attention were Protestant Evangelicals advocating larger family size (an ideology that I call “natalism”) in contemporary America. Having found over a dozen popular books from that genre I observed that the verses cited most often are “be fruitful and multiply, fill the earth” (Genesis 1:28), and the verses from Psalm 127 quoted below.

Sons are a heritage from the LORD, the fruit of the womb a reward. Like arrows in the hand of a warrior are the sons of one’s youth. Happy is the man who has his quiver full of them! He shall not be put to shame when he speaks with his enemies in the gate. (Psalm 127:3-5, RSV)

The natalist books and articles also cite over a hundred other Old Testament verses that portray human fecundity as a blessing. I refer to these collectively as the “fruitful verses,” and they are listed in the appendix. I explore some of them in detail later.

Definition and distinctions

Natalism is an ideology that advocates a high birth rate within a community.2 The central message is that parents should have additional children. That is the most obvious manifestation, but there are various parameters that affect birth rates and efforts to influence these can also be part of the natalist agenda.3 Demographers call these the proximate determinants of fertility and they concern women’s lives. Given that women typically have childbearing potential for about thirty years, the main parameters are the number of years in which women are susceptible to pregnancy and the time interval between successive births. These are determined by the age at which childbearing starts and the spacing between births.

In traditional societies the parameters were governed by the proportion that never marries, the age at marriage,4 the interval before widows remarry, physical infertility, and duration of the decline in fertility immediately after birth (postpartum infecundability), which can be extended by prolonged breastfeeding. How much other methods of family planning were used in pre-modern societies is uncertain (Juttë 29-38). In the last half century new contraceptive technologies have become very significant, but other factors still contribute to limiting births. Late marriage is less important than it once was because with a small ideal family size most women complete their family despite starting later. But in natalist subcultures aspiring to fecundity, youthful age at marriage again becomes important. All the factors noted above are levers potentially usable by natalists to influence their community’s birth rate.

Figure 1. Age-specific fertility rates from Coale and Trussel (Wood 44),
illustrating the significance of age at marriage.

A minor factor but one with rising significance is medical treatment of infertility. For example, Susan Kahn finds that a “convergence of pronatalist social pressure, rabbinic permission, and economic accessibility makes fertility treatment all but inevitable for infertile ultraorthodox women in Israel” (294). By contrast, I have not found advocacy of fertility treatment among Protestant natalists, and some oppose it as unnatural.5

My use of the word natalism does not include accidental effects on birth rates but only refers to intention6 and ideology. I make a distinction between effect and motive: described below are ideas which in practice affect birth rates but which are not necessarily intentionally natalist. Any of these ideas can be held independently or in combination with others. The ideas are, first, that marriage is normative, and most people should marry; second, that youthful marriage is the ideal; third, that seeking to reproduce is essential to the constitution of a valid marriage; and fourth, that engaging in a conjugal act without a willingness for that act to result in reproduction is perverted. Also relevant are negative attitudes to particular interventions, notably abortion, artificial contraceptives,7 and vasectomy. In practice any of these ideas may increase birth rates, for example by disparaging singleness, lowering the age at first birth, stigmatizing the childless, and hindering family planning. However, they should not be classified as natalist unless the writer’s motives include a desire for high fecundity.8 Any of these ideas could arise from motives other than natalism; for example, advocacy of youthful marriage might only aim at minimising pre-marital sexual relationships. If the expressed concern is only about promiscuity, self-harm, fornication, selfishness, or killing the unborn, then the idea is not natalist, even if based on the same Old Testament fruitful verses.

A small minority of Protestants condemn contraception. Many of these are also natalist,9 and I call them unlimited natalists.10 The idea that all conjugal acts must intend reproduction is called procreationism. Kathy Gaca (94, 255) finds its roots in Pythagorean eugenics, as transformed by Philo, adopted by Clement of Alexandria, and moderated by Augustine, for whom fallen marital sexuality is a venial sin excused by the good of offspring. That is far from natalism (Augustine preferred permanent marital abstinence to reproduction, as chapter 5 will show), and modern Catholicism is not even procreationist since it now permits Natural Family Planning (NFP) as implied by Casti Connubii in 1930 and clarified by Pius XII in 1951 (Zimmerman 8). Humanae Vitae in 1968 contrasts two couples who are both “attempting to ensure that a child will not be born”; that is, both have contraceptive intention, but only the couple using a method of timed abstinence is deemed to be acting morally. The use of NFP is compatible with planning a small family size. Conversely, most Protestant natalists accept the routine use of contraceptives for timing and spacing births while also advocating larger family size.11

The condemnation of intentional childlessness is not necessarily natalist. Some modern Protestants believe that the “unitive and procreative ends of marriage” must not be divided, and they argue that this applies at the level of the whole duration of a marriage (Mangina 476). The implication that a deliberately childfree marriage is wrong is emphasized by Thielecke and others (Poulson 154). Where that is the only reason, urging such couples to have a child is not natalist, but the same exhortation if rooted in a desire for higher birth rates would be natalist; and it could be a tactical step prior to urging higher reproductivity. The same is true for all of the ideas I noted as incidentally affecting birth rates. When they appear in writings that also advocate high fecundity, they function as part of a natalist agenda.

Why study popular reception of the Bible?

One type of justification is that study of differing interpretations across times and places illuminates the range of possible interpretations. It also enables exploration of hermeneutic issues such as popular awareness of the distance between ancient and modern worlds and how this affects application. More radically, Fernando Segovia calls for “critical analysis of all readers and readings, whether located in the academy or not” and argues that popular reception is “as worthy of analysis and critique as the readings emerging from prominent scholars” (13). The Blackwell Bible Commentaries series has shown that for many texts and historical periods the study of reception can be profitable. However, given the huge range of popular interpreters and the extent of Scripture, the choice of material must be justified.

Impact, the real-world effect of reception, is the other type of justification for this kind of research.12 Elizabeth Schüssler Fiorenza advises that “scholarship must acknowledge the continuing political influence of the Bible” in a world where many people assert “the public claims and values of biblical texts” (16). Beneficial effects of Scripture’s reception warrant study, but so do harmful effects. There is an ethical responsibility for scholarship to analyse cultural uses of the Bible. Kenneth Newport, investigating reception of John’s Apocalypse13 by Seventh Day Adventists after the disaster at Waco, finds the “eisegesis continues, and so, in all probability, does the danger of some further flare-up,” and so because of potential effects the “scholarly community has a duty to understand this chemistry” (200). The impacts noted by researchers in this genre are not usually quantifiable, and proving causality from biblical reception to behaviour is difficult if not impossible.

Different kinds of impact may be of interest to readers depending on their particular concerns or academic discipline. Most of the impacts arise when larger family sizes are achieved, but some arise regardless of that. For example, from a Feminist perspective, Kathryn Joyce and theologian Catherine Keller were concerned at the role natalist ideology plays in reinforcing gender roles within complementarian14 and patriarchal subcultures. Pastorally, there may be concern that parents who become convinced (through books or other media) that natalism is “biblical” but are unwilling to raise their reproductivity may suffer false guilt. Alternatively, if a couple complies with this perceived duty and achieves high fecundity, then other concerns arise: such as effects on individual women, and on siblings in large families. Among unlimited natalists there may be detriment to women’s education, to the care of siblings, and in extreme cases even unsafe pregnancies.

When some types of religiosity more than others are associated with larger family size, over time that affects the composition of the national population.15 Last century this changed the U.S. religious landscape. A study of the 20th-century shift within U.S. Protestantism from mainline to conservative dominance used GSS data to compare the contributions of causes to that shift (Hout, Greeley, and Wilde). They found that “higher fertility and earlier childbearing among women from conservative denominations” was the primary cause, more important than the combined effect of conversion and changing allegiance (469). Differences in fertility between religious groups in the U.S. continues. A Pew Forum survey in 2007 found the proportion bearing three or more offspring was 6% among “Mainline Protestants,” but 9% among “Evangelical Protestants” (Pew, “Religious Landscape” 68). Analysis by Skirbekk, Kaufmann and Goujon (298) of GSS data from 2000 to 2006 also found significant differences.16 For example, the birth rate of “Liberal Protestants” was lower than that of “Fundamentalist Protestants”: the average number of children per woman was 1.84 and 2.13 respectively (298).

Figure 2. Total Fertility Rate for selected categories of religious affiliation in the U.S., “estimated from GSS data on children ever born to women aged 40 to 59 for the period 2000–2006” by Skirbekk, Kaufmann, and Goujon (297-98).

That may seem a small difference, but within a generation a gap of that magnitude can have a large effect on relative numbers. An earlier study found in 1992 that around half of the Fundamentalist Protestant fertility differential was due to earlier marriage (Mosher, Williams, and Johnson 211).

The discipline of political demography is interested in compositional change within a nation because it can have political consequences. For example, among “white” Americans there was a strong 0.78 correlation between voting in the 2004 election for George W. Bush and having a larger number of offspring (Goldstone, Kaufmann, and Toft 202). However, that Republican white fertility advantage is balanced out by Democratic gains from immigrant support. The “fertility gap would need to widen and persist for the better part of a century before partisanship could be seriously affected” (Kaufmann, Goujon, and Skirbekk, “American Political Affiliation” 54): but long-term higher fertility is exactly what Protestant sectarian natalists plan.

Any subculture with fertility above the national average will, if offspring choose to follow their parents’ affiliation, slowly increase its share of the national population. Phillip Longman (an American liberal)17 laments the low birth rate of liberal Americans and contrasts it with those “who believe they are … commanded by a higher power to procreate” (2004: 5). He warns that “Tomorrow’s children … will disproportionately be descended from … patriarchal religion,” and he claims this “helps explain … the gradual drift of American culture … toward religious fundamentalism” (59). Longman calls on liberals to raise their fecundity. Eric Kaufmann, though he also predicts fundamentalist predominance in the U.S., considers that the prospect of “a population footrace between seculars and fundamentalists is a much greater threat” because of the consequences it would have for ecological sustainability (263).

While there has been interest in the effect of religious natalism on relative proportions of different groups within the U.S. population, there has until now been little concern about its effect on the total population. Yet when considering U.S. ecological impact that simple aggregate, population size, is more important than its composition. There are various ways of measuring the ecological impact of consumption, but all place U.S. citizens near the top of the world league. Greenhouse gas emissions in 2010 were 17.6 metric tons per person (World Bank). Multiplied by a U.S. population of 317 million, that amounts to U.S. emissions being roughly a fifth of the world total. In the U.S. there are more births than deaths; in 2008, for example, there were 4.25 million births and 2.47 million deaths (Census Bureau): a large annual natural increase. One contribution to ecological sustainability would be for U.S. births to fall rapidly to population replacement level (Ruether, 2001: 221). I refer here not to a so-called “replacement level” Total Fertility Rate of 2.1 (which the U.S. has had since 1970), but to the actual number of births and deaths becoming equal.18

Figure 3. Annual births and deaths in the U.S. (1919-2011). Based on data from the National Center for Health Statistics, with thanks to Robert Anderson and Amy Branum. Graph produced by Alla Hoffman. Data source: http://www.cdc.gov/nchs/data/statab/natfinal2003.annvol1_01.pdf http://www.cdc.gov/nchs/nvss/mortality_products.htm

Most segments of U.S. society are trending to lower fertility, but Protestant natalism has played a part in keeping the birth rate higher than it would otherwise be. As the graph shows, the number of births has been well in excess of the number of deaths each year in the U.S. The gap narrowed in the periods 1920-35 and 1960-75, but since then progress toward stabilizing U.S. population has been painfully slow.

How many people are persuaded by natalist exegesis, and what effect does it have on ideal family size, or age at marriage? The data to answer these questions numerically does not exist, so I rely on impressions and indirect evidence. Kathryn Joyce estimates the number who self-identify as Quiverfull in the U.S. is in the “low tens of thousands” (Joyce, 2009: 134), but that is only a subset of natalists: those who reject family planning. Broader natalism has been noticed by David Brooks, a New York Times columnist, who reported on a “spiritual movement” which he called “natalism … sweeping across the United States.” He observed that they “tend to marry earlier” and “they are having three, four or more kids.” He noted that they “attend religious services more often” (a measure of religiosity) and also that “many are willing to move to find places that are congenial to natalist values.” The observation of a tendency to marry younger is supported by a 2004 analysis of the National Survey on Family Growth which found that the probability of (first) marriage by age twenty in the U.S. is 17% for Mormons and fundamentalist Protestants, compared to 9% for mainline Protestants, and only 5% for Catholics (Lehrer, 2004: 718). The link between Protestant fundamentalism and the proximate determinants of higher fertility is clear.

The effect of religion on fertility is debated. The “characteristics hypothesis” argues that apparent effects of religion are really the result of a difference between members and non-members in characteristics such as income and years of education. There is also the circular effect by which women with children self-select by attending church more (Hackett, 2008: 6). In the U.S. however multivariate analyses have found that higher fecundity is only partly explainable by characteristics such as occupation, income, place of residence, or education (Hackett; Lehrer; McQuillan; Hayford and Morgan). Religiosity is an independent variable, but the mechanisms of its effect on fertility are unclear. Some point to beliefs relevant to reproduction; others emphasize a religious group’s norms for gender and family. Hackett finds the most powerful mechanism is that women participating regularly in church meetings “are exposed to a congregational reference group that influences their thinking about ideal fertility, fertility timing, and motherhood” (8). Obviously this raises a question: why did the group have distinctive thinking in the first place? Natalism plays a part in Protestant fertility as a mechanism, and it is perhaps also an independent factor.

The “doctrine hypothesis” is not easily testable because the large national surveys did not ask about reproductive doctrines. Some social scientists have used “biblical literalism” or “religious intensity” as proxies for such belief, based on their assumption that literalist orthodoxy is natalist, but this is flawed: two people equally literalist and intense may interpret the same biblical text differently. There is little evidence for the role of biblical interpretation, but research by Patricia Goodson and Christopher Ellison is suggestive. A survey of ministerial trainees at ten American Protestant seminaries found that “differences in the interpretation of Genesis 1:28a … lie at the center of current Protestant debates over family planning” (Ellison and Goodson 514). They tested three statements about how Genesis 1:28a “should be interpreted.” The first was “a command from God for people to have as many children as they can.” The second was “a blessing from God, and people can decide how many children they wish to or can have.” The third was “a general mandate for humans to procreate, and each couple makes their own decision as to how many children they will have” (518).19 Stronger agreement (on a 1-5 scale) with either the first or second statement was associated with more negative attitudes to family planning. They also found that inerrancy20 belief strengthened that negative attitude among those choosing the first two interpretive options (520). Only the third statement about Genesis 1:28, as a general mandate, was associated with more positive attitudes to family planning.

It seems likely that currently in the U.S., belief in inerrancy is associated with natalism, but this is not inevitable: it depends on the specific biblical interpretation adopted. That can be shown through an historical example. Donald and Jo Parkerson studied an 1885 town directory from the midwestern U.S. which recorded socioeconomic and religious affiliation data for each woman, and the dates of all children born, not just survivors (Parkerson, D. and Parkerson, J. 55). They classified religious affiliation as pietist (analogous to Evangelicalism), liturgical (Catholic and Episcopal), or unchurched. They found pietist women had a lower fertility at 2.92 compared to liturgical women, who had 3.94 children each. After marriage, pietists delayed their first child longer, for 32 months, and between a second and a third child they delayed over 4 years on average (59). Using diaries and devotional literature they found “causal links between the ideas of 19th-century evangelical pietism and conscious family limitation” (50), specifically the women’s desire to gain time for personal sanctification, a duty of intense Christian upbringing that resulted in “fewer children of greater spiritual quality,” and a confidence that evangelism would grow the church (61). Those pietists were as inerrantist as any Evangelical today, but they were also pioneers of family limitation. This suggests that biblicism21 does not necessarily lead to natalism. Biblical inerrancy has no fixed relation to one option in interpretation. For many other verses biblicists accept typological and figurative exegeses, and reception history shows cases in which individuals or large groups of biblicists have altered or abandoned a particular interpretation (Boone 45).

Debating biblical interpretation is not a waste of time. Kathleen Boone notes, with regard to political issues, that many liberal observers assume that conservative Christians are “hiding behind the Bible” and “cynically manipulating a sacred text to garner divine sanction” for their own agenda, but she judges those Christians to be sincere. Similarly, I will take at face value natalist confessions that the primary motivator of their belief and practice is the Bible. Kathryn Joyce was told by a leader of the Quiverfull movement that a troubled mother asked their online forum to give her “a reason – besides the Bible – why one should be Quiverfull. The answers were quick and pointed: “apart from Scripture, there’s really no reason … Kids are great and all that, but in reality, it’s all about the Bible” (Joyce 169).

Biblical interpretation may be culturally shaped, but it has transformative power in itself. Richard Hornok (a limited natalist who regarded the forbidding of family planning as legalistic and wrong ) for his D.Min. project implemented a teaching program, with tests before and after delivery to a class of Evangelicals drawn from local churches.22 The program resulted in “a significant attitudinal shift toward the biblical perspective” (Abstract) as defined by Hornok. In answer to the question, “Which one factor is most important in determining the number of children one has?,” the percentage responses from his “experimental group” were as follows (Hornok 140):

Factor

% Before

% After

Health

22

19

Desire to be a parent

33

38

Financial

15

4

Career

0

0

Age of parents

0

0

Combination of above

11

0

God’s Will/Desire

15

27

Even more striking was the change in what they considered to be acceptable reasons for family planning. Whereas before the program the responses had been 77% for “complete freedom” and 23% for “selfless reasons only,” after Hornok’s classes only 13% chose “complete freedom” and 87% now considered that only “selfless reasons” could be valid (Hornok, 1993: 138). This suggests that without any change in cultural context, the presentation of a new exegesis can change ideas about God’s view of reproduction.

The U.S. audience for natalist exegesis is large. The population of the U.S. was 317 million in 2013 (Census Bureau). Around half are Protestant, and (according to a 2011 Gallup poll) among Protestants 41% affirm that “the Bible is the actual word of God and is to be taken literally, word for word,” compared with 46% who affirm that “the Bible is the inspired word of God, but not everything in it is to be taken literally,” and 10% who affirm that “the Bible is an ancient book of fables, legends, history and moral precepts, recorded by man” (Jones 2011).23 The U.S. homeschool movement, among whose teachers the natalist renaissance began, has over a million children within its ranks according to the U.S. Department of Education, and Kathryn Joyce considers this an under-estimate (Joyce ix).

Natalism has been presented as a solution for ecclesiastical anxieties. For example, the Great Commission Resurgence, a declaration by the Southern Baptist Convention in 2009, warns in its tenth and final clause that: “Too many Southern Baptists have embraced unbiblical notions about marriage and family. Too often we believe that children are a burden rather than a blessing and smaller families are more ‘responsible’ than large families” (SBC). The lead author, Daniel Akin,24 interviewed after its launch, said: “Dr. [Albert] Mohler has pointed out ... You can almost document the decline of baptisms within the Southern Baptist Convention as the decline in the number of children that Baptists have” (Wax). When recruitment is disappointing, natalism can seem attractive to far-sighted church leaders in a context of denominational rivalry and U.S. culture wars.

Natalism is also amenable to secular anxieties and may be co-opted by those concerned about the geopolitics of demography. Nationalists, racists, and nativists25 desire to strengthen their nation or ethno-linguistic group. Corporations have an interest in growing their pool of labour and customers (Longman, 2004: 41). Birth rates could be raised through progressive policies such as extensive maternity leave and subsidized childcare (Brewer, Ratcliffe, and Smith 261), but those are expensive for governments (Rivkin-Fish 708), so the promotion of natalist ideology may be regarded as a cheaper option. Given that secular appeals to patriotic duty have in recent history been ineffectual in raising fertility, to harness religious natalism could look attractive to secular natalists. Also, alliances of interest might influence family policies in the U.S. (which has given tax credits for additional children since 1998) and that would amplify the influence of natalist preaching.

The prospect of Evangelical natalists spreading their ideas in the U.S. is their primary significance, but it is also possible that their example and influence might disseminate natalism to international Evangelical and Pentecostal movements. A pattern of diffusion from U.S. teachers to other nations has been observed in the case of the Prosperity Gospel. For example, the influence of Kenneth Hagin, T.L. Osborn, and other American prosperity teachers has been detected in the UK, Sweden, and Nigeria (Gifford; Coleman 120). Natalism could spread in a similar way; for example, Allan Carlson has organized international events promoting the “Natural Family” (Buss and Herman 3). I have not discovered natalist publications from the UK, apart from a few pages in a book from the Society for the Protection of Unborn Children’s (SPUC) Evangelical wing (Anonymous 34-39), but there may be a small UK natalist movement which I have not detected because it has no home-grown literature.

Scope and primary sources

This project does not evaluate all recent natalism that draws on biblical texts. The scope of my search for primary sources was guided by my interest in the recent renaissance of natalism as an articulate ideology among people whose parents and grandparents had small families, and who live in nations that have long experience of low infant mortality. Here I am not interested in the cultural valuation of high fecundity that was ubiquitous in pre-modern societies and persists today in traditional cultures, though it is slowly fading. That is sustained more by kin and peer pressure than by preaching. Examples in the U.S. include the Amish and Hutterites. It persists in some less industrialized nations, but even if I had found natalist reception located in those places,26 it would have been outside the scope of my project.

My particular concern is the unchallenged spread of natalist teachings among English-speaking Evangelicals in wealthy developed countries whose large ecological footprints make any rise in fertility significant for ecological sustainability. This audience is unlikely to be influenced by sources in languages other than English or with a provenance outside Evangelicalism, so those two criteria guided my scope. Even when I searched in bibliographic databases for natalist Old Testament reception regardless of provenance, the substantial sources found came from U.S. Evangelicalism. Subsequently my search in “grey literature” concentrated on that sector.

Catholic natalism exists in the U.S. today. In the 19th and early 20th centuries nationalist Catholic natalism was strong in France (Camiscioli; Barusse) and Italy (Ipsen). In recent decades, Catholic natalist publications have been rare and the few instances (e.g. Weigel) do not make substantial use of Old Testament verses. Jason Adams, in a book which carries commendations by three Catholic archbishops, includes Old Testament citations in connection with anti-contraceptive teaching, but not for natalism, which only features in a quotation from the Catechism: “Scripture and the Church’s traditional practice see in large families a sign of God’s blessing” (Adams 19). The book’s collection of homilies by bishops and priests offers one other instance: a claim that small families mean fewer vocations (Adams 111). Even if relevant Catholic sources had been found they would have been outside my scope, but Catholic natalism is a significant topic in its own right.

Eastern Orthodox natalism exists today in Europe and Russia, perhaps having persisted from the early 20th-century manifestation observed by Fagley (Fagley 164), or resurgent because of Orthodoxy’s location in states of the former Soviet Union which have the world’s lowest birth rates. For example, in 2007 the Patriarch of Georgia, Ilia II, promised to baptize personally any child whose birth order was third or greater, and has been credited with a subsequent increase in Georgia’s birth rate (Esslemont). I have found no recent source with substantial natalist Old Testament reception, but Orthodox theologian David Bentley Hart, lamenting U.S. moral decay and commenting on the “culture war,” suggests that:

Probably the most subversive and effective strategy traditionalists might undertake would be militant fecundity: abundant, relentless, exuberant, and defiant childbearing. Given the reluctance of modern men and women to be fruitful and multiply, it would not be difficult, surely, for the devout to accomplish – in no more than a generation or two – a demographic revolution. … if it is a war we want, we should not recoil from sacrifice. (Hart 81)27

My project is limited to reception within Christian communities as my method for evaluation uses comparison with Christian tradition. Therefore, although natalist reception of the Torah by Haredi Jews exists, it is outside my scope. Similarly natalism among Mormons (Latter Day Saints) is excluded as they have distinctive doctrines linking salvation and reproduction, which differ from Protestantism. Secular natalism is resurgent in Russia (Rivkin-Fish, 2010) and Italy (Krause and Marchesi), and often the biblical allusion “go forth and multiply” appears, but it is excluded by my selection principle that Old Testament reception must be substantial.

Even with this limited scope, the quantity of natalist reception of the Old Testament online and in sermons is huge. A general rule for research on modern popular reception is that it cannot be exhaustively surveyed but only sampled. The criteria for sampling must be explicit, and the selection representative. Most natalists have fewer than five children, but those with ten or more are spectacular and attract greater attention.28 I excluded blogs and other informal online material due to their quantity. The primary sources identified here include all books and journal articles which contain substantial presentation of natalist biblical reception.29 Some chapters within monographs on other topics were found,30 but a systematic search for them was not attempted. The sources are all written by conservative Protestants, all from North America.31 One might expect sources from other strongholds of conservative Protestantism around the world such as Australia and South Africa, but I did not find any. Kaufmann (161-63) mentions the Laestadian Lutherans of Finland, and the Orthodox Calvinists of the Netherlands, as practising what he calls sectarian “endogenous growth,” and perhaps future researchers will explore natalist teachings produced outside the U.S.

My primary sources, all those in which natalism is a major theme and is supported with biblical citation and exegesis, are by Mary Pride, Allan Carlson, Charles Provan, Max Heine, Samuel Owen, Calvin Beisner, Rick and Jan Hess, Nancy Campbell, Douglas Wilson, James and Shannon French, Craig Houghton, Steve and Candice Watters, R.C. Sproul Junior, Robert Andrews, Rachel Giove Scott, and Doug Phillips. The sources are mostly from ecclesiastical publishers. Other authors including Albert Mohler, Daniel Akin, Tim Bayly, Richard Hornok, and John Jefferson Davis have produced articles, chapters, or shorter sections of writing that express natalist ideas.

Occupationally, most authors of the natalist sources work as pastors or in Christian education or other ministries. Beisner, Wilson, Owen, Mohler, Akin, and Davis are academics in theology, ethics, or history, based at Christian seminaries and colleges.32 Carlson is an academic historian currently leading a think-tank. Sproul, Wilson, Bayly, and Hornok are ministers. Some work in media, for example Heine was a newspaper editor, and Campbell edits the women’s magazine Above Rubies. Geographically the authors are almost all based in the U.S., in states that include Tennessee (Campbell), Alabama (Heine), Texas (Hornok), Kentucky (Mohler, Watters), North Carolina (Akin), Virginia (Sproul), and Washington (French). So they are better represented in the Southern states, less so in the Northeast, and only one was outside the U.S.: Craig Houghton in Canada. Denominationally, many natalists belong to congregations that are independent or affiliated to small connexions. Of those with links to larger established denominations, there are strong contingents of Presbyterians (Beisner, Sproul, Phillips), Southern Baptists (Mohler, Akin, Watters) clustered at seminaries under neo-Calvinist influence, and Lutherans (Carlson, Provan). Craig Houghton is an Evangelical Baptist, and Nancy Campbell’s husband is a Pentecostal pastor. Doctrinally all are conservative Evangelicals, and many are associated with Calvinism. Many are post-millennial, but Hornok is pastor of a church affirming pre-millennial doctrine.

This project adopts a categorization proposed by Daniel Doriani.33 He observes that Christians fall into “three camps,” which are first, those who consider family size a matter of personal preference; second, those who commend larger family size but allow family planning; and third, those who say “let God plan your family” and also “stridently lobby for large families” (Doriani 26). The second and third camps are both natalist. Doriani offers the labels “large but limited” and “unlimited” for these two camps. The former are planned natalists, or rather plain natalists who do not also subscribe to anti-contraceptive ideology. Of the seventeen writers listed above, I classify eight as unlimited natalists: Pride, Provan, Hess, Campbell, Scott, French, Houghton, and Sproul.34 The remainder advocate large-but-limited families: Carlson, North, Owen, Beisner, Heine, Hornok, Wilson, Davis, Watters, and Mohler.

Figure 4. Venn diagram illustrating the difference between the two ideologies: natalism and anti-contraception.

Conrad Hackett classifies U.S. Christians in four categories with regard to natalism. Two of his categories correspond to what I call unlimited and limited natalists: Hackett calls them “Extreme Patriarchal Natalists” and “Moderate Patriarchal Natalists” (Hackett, 2008: 11). Hackett identifies a third group which he labels as “Religious Malthusians” exemplified by the U.S. Episcopalian presiding bishop Jefferts Schori and the Southern Baptist minister Oliver Thomas (13). A fourth group, the silent majority of U.S. Christians, is labelled by Hackett as “Implicit Natalists” because they “do not explicitly promote a particular fertility ideal” but they do “implicitly encourage childbearing” (17), and if there are “women in the congregation who are steadily advancing in their childbearing years without producing any children, other members may ask when they plan to have children, thus promoting the unwritten natalist ethic” (18). Since those in the “Implicit” category do not articulate any natalist interpretation of Bible verses, they are outside the scope of this book.

Do the primary sources have any influence in persuading people to natalism or reinforcing their practice? One test, albeit only relevant to the unlimited type, was a survey of posts from a Quiverfull forum over a two-year period ending in January 2011. These include testimonies of how individuals became convinced and recommendations of books for enquirers.35 Hess, Pride, and Campbell feature, for example one writing “I read the book [by Hess] and was convinced” (September 2009); and another mentioning “This book [by Pride] was such a God-send. It answered so many of my questions” (December 2010). One wife read the books by Campbell and Hess to her husband and “halfway through A Full Quiver he was convinced” (February 2010). Often the books are part of a long enquiry: Pride’s “The Way Home was the start of a lot of thinking for us” (September 2010). A list of books recommended by the forum included those mentioned here and also the audio version of Charles Provan’s book (April 2010). However, the Bible is cited far more than any other source as the decisive influence.36

There is a small secondary literature on a few of these primary sources, limited to those published before 1990. There are two critical articles37 focused on individual natalist sources: Mary Pride’s book was critiqued by Jeffrey Meyers38 in 1997, and Charles Provan’s book by James Jordan39 in 1993. Pride, Provan, and Hess (all three writers from the unlimited camp) are critiqued by Daniel Doriani, and briefly by Patricia Goodson (“Ethics”). The critics focus on the sources’ condemnation of family planning, which from a pastoral perspective they regard as legalistic and harmful. Jordan emphasizes that “nowhere does the Bible forbid family planning” (Jordan, 1993: 3). Meyers warns that Pride “continues to provide the intellectual foundation” of a movement to forbid family planning and “because of Pride’s book this subject has become a controversial and divisive issue in American Evangelical and Reformed churches” (Meyers, 1997: 4, 9). The widest coverage of natalist sources is in Richard Hornok’s D.Min. thesis, which gives most attention to Pride but also looks at Provan, Heine, Owen, and Davis (the last two being limited natalists). Hornok’s question is whether it is “permissible to space and limit the number of children one has?” (Hornok, 1993: 4), and since he is himself a limited natalist it is not surprising that while Hornok critiques legalism, he does not criticize the core of natalist ideology, the advocacy of large family size.

The fruitful verses and Christian reproduction

While there is little secondary literature specifically on the primary sources, other commentators do look at Christian reception of the Old Testament fruitful verses and consider what might be appropriate for modern application. Raymond van Leeuwen,40 writing in Christianity Today in 2001, warns readers against those who claim that God has “commanded married people to have children,” who “claim Genesis 1:28 … as a proof text,” and who also “argue on the basis of the created order” (Leeuwen, 2001: 59). Leeuwen’s main concern, however, is their forbidding of contraception (Leeuweun, 2001: 60) rather than their natalism.

Kenneth Magnuson41 writes out of pastoral concern for infertile couples who feel obliged to pursue fertility treatments due to a belief that not doing so would disobey God. He quotes a Jewish woman who lamented that “I am an akarah – a barren woman … I hear the words … P’ru ur’vu. God’s command to be fruitful and multiply has been given again.” He finds that “a similar understanding of Genesis 1:28 is held by some Christians” (Magnuson, 2000: 26, 38).

Those who have considered interpretation of the fruitful verses in connection with the issue of population include Richard Fagley42 in 1960, David Yegerlehner in 1974, and Susan Power Bratton43 in 1992. None of them cite any recent natalist advocates (and the first two predate all of my natalist sources), but they allude to natalist arguments and biblical reception from earlier years.

Fagley begins with problems of global demography and development. He surveys attitudes to family planning in world religions before turning to the Bible, and then to a history of ideas in Christianity’s major branches. He considers the rate of population growth (in the 1950s) too rapid and calls for “responsible parenthood” (Fagley, 1960: 5). He commends Protestantism for adapting to demographic reality, but sees problems in other religious groups. He cites a 1937 pro-fertility Orthodox writing from Greece (164) and refers to a “fertility cult” in 1950s Catholicism, supplying three examples (180, 185). These “would serve as a mother lode of valuable material. I refrain from exploiting it, however, since I cannot convince myself that it is more than a passing aberration” and also, as a Protestant, he is “reluctant to make sectarian points” (184). Of the arguments of the “pro-fertility parties,” he briefly observes that they hope for “economic miracles” and “fall back on trust in divine providence” (184), but he does not say whether they use Old Testament texts.

Yegerlehner, a Methodist minister, observed in the early 1970s that “abundant human fertility is a cause for great alarm” (2), and so there is “little room for ‘Be fruitful and multiply’ … in contemporary theology.” He aims to discover “possible meanings for our generation” rather than simply ignoring this “word of God” (3), and he continues that “we are by no means free to assume that the commandment to ‘be fruitful and multiply’ no longer applies … or that it can now simply be overlooked as ‘fulfilled.’” He knows his readers are wary of “an enthusiastic literal understanding” but reassures them that the “Old Testament ideal … need not be thrown in our faces as a text which prohibits population control” (211).44 In his later chapter surveying “Contemporary Reactions,” he alludes to natalist writers.

Bratton developed a “Christian ethic for human population regulation” (26). Her book is mostly concerned with demographic history and sustainability, but a chapter entitled “Abraham’s Seed: The Bible and Reproduction” observes that “in favor of large families, Christians often confidently cite God’s instructions to Adam and Eve … [and] a superficial application to family life suggests that Jews and Christians should have as many children as possible” (42). Elsewhere she critiques five arguments whose provenance is “specifically Christian,” including a claim that to limit one’s family size “disobeys biblical commands to be fruitful and multiply and disregards biblical valuing of children,” but Bratton cites no source (130-31). The only natalist writing that she cites is by Harold Brown in a 1985 Christianity Today editorial where he “criticized denominations with declining birth rates and suggested Christians from industrial nations ought to meet biblical mandates to reproduce” (Bratton 124). The interval since 1992 would alone justify revisiting this topic as there have been developments in Near Eastern archaeology, Biblical Studies, and ecological footprint analysis since then.

Theory and methodology

I derived the methodology used here first by looking at examples of academic engagement with popular interpretation of the Bible, and second from discussions of theoretical issues associated with this genre. At a consultation outlining a framework for a commentary series on biblical reception published by Blackwell, John Sawyer pointed to Hans Jauss and Rezeptionsaesthetik as offering a theoretical basis, and David Parris has worked on adapting those ideas from literary disciplines for use in biblical reception.45 However, the methodology is not yet well established and one practitioner, Stefan Klint, writes of “reception criticism” that “how this is to be done in practice is far from self-evident, since no specific methodology or theoretical framework yet exists” (Klint 89). That is especially true for any effort to not only analyse but also evaluate popular reception. Such combinations are rare. On the one hand, some scholars signal that their work was provoked by popular reception of certain Scriptures, but without discussing those receptions directly they move to construct alternative interpretations.46 On the other hand, those who analyse popular biblical reception usually refrain from evaluating it exegetically. I will consider approaches to analysis now, and afterward will return to the question of how one might evaluate a popular interpretation of Bible verses.

Analysis of reception

The foundational task is to examine the use of Scripture in the reception. This begins with the identification of which Bible verses are quoted, cited, or alluded to. For this project a database of reception in selected primary sources was constructed to facilitate analysis of the use of Scripture in natalism.47 The various arguments were classified, and uses of bible verses were coded to the argument supported wherever that was discernible. The relative importance of different verses in the scheme of reception was weighed not only by frequency of citation but also by an assessment of how verses function in the major natalist arguments. Then the common features and differences between the two types of natalist (limited and unlimited) were identified. A large part of chapter 2 is devoted to these tasks.

Reception critics look at how readers’ interpretations are shaped by cultural context. One aspect is the particular framework of doctrine and hermeneutics through which the readers’ reception is worked out. This helps one discern the internal logic and “the integrity of the system when seen from the point of view” of the receptors (Newport 155). Another aspect is immediate historical context, including the political interests of interpreters and their sociological situation. That is peripheral to my approach and has been done for the Quiverfull type of natalist by Kathryn Joyce, who makes only brief comments on biblical usage (Joyce 8, 134). Chapter 2 briefly considers aspects of the U.S. cultural context of natalist writers.

Some reception studies investigate the historical development of a reception and explore its continuity with or divergence from earlier interpretation. An effort to trace natalism’s genealogy systematically would be interesting but is not attempted here, though a brief comparison with early 20th-century natalism is offered in the next chapter. I have chosen to focus on one aspect of genealogy: the use of Luther’s writings by natalists who claim him as a forerunner. Some natalists do not cite Luther, some quote Protestants from the early 20th century, and a few claim no historic root apart from Scripture. However, reception theory as developed by Gadamer suggests that influential past interpreters do shape subsequent reception even if the reader has no direct knowledge of those past writings, because they all stand in the stream of Christian reception. This applies to natalists, their audiences, and their critics. Chapter 3 will investigate to what extent Luther was a forerunner of Protestant natalism.

Evaluation of reception

Many studies of popular reception stop after analysis without adding exegetical evaluation. This raises the question of why evaluation might be considered inappropriate, and there are two different answers coming from opposite perspectives. One is based on a strong distinction between scholarly interpretation and popular reception. For example, historian Kenneth Newport judges that “eisegesis is more or less endemic” in “contemporary non-critical biblical studies” (Newport 23). From this viewpoint, popular interpretation that differs from the modern scholarly consensus is simply in error, and if its implausibility is sufficiently obvious, or if existing works of biblical scholarship address the exegetical issues raised, then it does not warrant an additional labour of evaluation. For example, Newport points his readers toward particular commentaries on Revelation where they can discover why Adventist reception is eisegesis.48 In the case of natalism, however, its core interpretations are not obviously implausible,49 and the brief attention given to modern application in Old Testament commentaries is divided between critics and supporters of natalism.

The other argument against evaluation arises from post-modern approaches that level readers by refusing to privilege academic over popular interpreters. Fernando Segovia argues that “informed readings can no longer be perceived as hermeneutically privileged” (Segovia, 1995: 15). Daniel Patte recommends that “different readings proposed by ordinary readers should be welcomed and affirmed as legitimate” (Patte, 1995: 11). This could be taken as a reason why evaluation of interpretation should not be attempted. I suggest, however, that equal respect for “ordinary readers” should not exempt their readings from evaluation. If it is worthy of analysis, then it is also worthy of critique. Stefan Klint is not averse to evaluative critique in principle, for although he claims that reception criticism is primarily a “descriptive task, rather than a normative one,” he speculates that it may optionally “also include some kind of theological evaluation and application for the modern situation” (91).

The problem is establishing a method to evaluate popular biblical reception. There are various models for doing this. For example, Anglican tradition suggests a triad of Scripture, tradition, and reason. Richard Bauckham argues that to evaluate modern uses of Scripture (in politics) requires parallel awareness of multiple contexts. “If a biblical text is not to mean whatever we want it to mean, we must pay disciplined attention to its original and canonical contexts. But if it is to mean something for us, we must pay equally disciplined attention to the contemporary context” (Politics 16). While this does not provide a ready-made method, it suggests that evaluation should be multifaceted and multidisciplinary.

Walter Moberly in a chapter opposing Christian Zionist interpretation of Genesis 12:3 offers a valuable practical example of how to combine analysis and evaluation of popular reception (Moberly 162-78). He brings together five components to accomplish this: description of the popular reception through quotations from a representative sample of Zionists; analysis of its roots in past Dispensationalism; comparison with the “plain sense” of the verse in its original context; comparison with New Testament reception of the same verse; and the contemporary context of U.S. and Middle East politics.50 These five correspond methodologically to the five remaining chapters of this book: description of natalist reception; roots in Luther; the Old Testament in its context; Augustine and his Christ-centred understanding of fruitfulness; and the contemporary context of ecological crisis.51 The first two help toward understanding the popular reception, while the latter three enable a robust evaluation of reception as none is sufficient alone.

Ancient Near East

In the task of evaluating popular applications of Bible verses, historical-critical exegesis by biblical scholars has a foundational role. Ideally it should describe and delimit the range of meanings that a text could plausibly have had for its writers and original readers. Knowledge about many aspects of the ancient Near East, such as agriculture, demography, economics, religion, and politics, has advanced in recent decades, mostly owing to archaeology. To determine the “plain sense” of a text, scholars deploy various critical techniques (Barton 7), including consideration of a verse’s canonical relation to its book and the rest of the Old Testament and its theologies. That serves as a baseline, for without it a text might mean anything anyone wants it to mean (Thiselton 1). Biblical scholarship is, however, insufficient in two ways.

For some biblical texts, though biblical scholars do narrow down the number of plausible meanings to a few, they do not achieve consensus and cannot arbitrate between the remaining options. For example, when scholars have criticized natalist reception of “be fruitful and multiply,” the most common argument is that it is not a command but (only) a blessing (Van Leeuwen; Tucker). This claim, however, is not agreed by all scholars: many do identify it as a command. This is discussed in detail in chapter 4. More broadly, ideas about the meaning of the fruitful verses can still vary widely: they can be construed as cultural pragmatism, or as an accommodation to a prosperity cult, or as ethnocentric and competitive xenophobia, depending on differing views about the emphases of Old Testament theology.

A more fundamental problem is that the “original meaning” of an Old Testament verse (even if it were accessible and agreed) is not a suitable guide for Christian behaviour. Sawyer writes about other instances of objectionable popular reception that often “their crimes are not against the original meaning of the text, indeed, the interpretation may on occasion come very near it” (Sawyer, 2006: 4). This is a dispensational problem: the “raw” meaning of an Old Testament verse should not prescribe Christian application. However, this does not detract from the preliminary importance of historical studies. Gadamer uses the example of legal hermeneutics, in which the jurist works to “mediate between the original application and the present application” (Gadamer 325), and he argues that anyone “seeking to understand the correct meaning of a law [today] must first know the original one … but here historical understanding serves merely as a means to an end” (326). While the capability of modern biblical scholarship to fulfil even this limited role is debatable, it surely offers the nearest approach one can make towards a discernment of the “original meaning” of Old Testament texts. As such it is the first step toward evaluation of popular biblical application.

Christian tradition

The second step is to draw on classic Christian reception of the same verses. This is helpful in a number of ways. Dale Allison makes the minimal claim that “sometimes the [modern] exegetical tradition has forgotten what it should have remembered” (237), so past interpretation is a deposit of wisdom that is profitable to consult. Sawyer identifies a more general utility because “awareness of the many meanings that a text has when read … down the centuries, has great heuristic value in the process of establishing and evaluating a meaning” (Sawyer, 2004). When we face disputes between modern Christians about conflicting interpretations, argues John Lee Thompson (221), it is not only helpful but necessary to converse with earlier Christians, though we should not assume there was a patristic consensus or “paleo-orthodoxy” that can be used to decide between conflicting modern receptions (Tanner and Hall). Since we face the dispensational problem of deriving moral guidance from the Old Testament, it would be foolish to neglect patristic Christian wisdom gained from long wrestling with precisely this problem. Their “spiritual” exegesis developed christological and other methods for transforming the often unedifying acts, words, and attitudes of the Israelite patriarchs into lessons suitable for the church. Attention to historical reception, as featured in this book, helps provide some continuity with classic Christian thought.

Richard Fagley and Susan Power Bratton, in their researches on Christian ideas about human fertility and population, do consider the Early Church Fathers briefly, but without much expectation of finding helpful insights. Instead they are portrayed as being part of the problem. “Augustine’s condemnation of both contraceptive method and contraceptive intent leaves little room for any kind of family limitation in his doctrine” (Fagley 174). Bratton considers that “the Western church chose a generally pronatalist stance” for married people and sent a “mixed message on procreation” (Bratton 76-77). Both critics treat anti-contraceptive ideas as if they were natalist, and they accept the stereotype of Christian asceticism as a two-tier system whose ideal was a small celibate elite shepherding a flock of married people who were expected to breed prolifically. That picture may have been true of 19th-century European nationalist versions of Catholicism, but it has been unfairly projected back on to Augustine and the patristic period.

This part of my method puts questions arising from contemporary issues to historical Christian writings, trusting that they can offer insights unavailable elsewhere. Gadamer confesses that: “I must allow tradition’s claim to validity, not in the sense of simply acknowledging the past in its otherness, but in such a way that it has something to say to me” (Gadamer, 2004: 361). A similar approach called ressourcement (literally “return to the sources”) was pioneered in the 20th century by Cardinal Henri de Lubac as a way of engaging contemporary issues with patristic thought. In recent years the appreciation of patristic exegesis among Protestants has risen (Williams, 2005: 15), as indicated, for example, by the book series published by Baker entitled Evangelical Ressourcement: Ancient Sources for the Church’s Future.

A practical problem for this method is the volume of past Christian reception. Some previous research in my field does consider tradition but takes a broad survey approach. For example, Richard Fagley sweeps through the whole of church history in sixty pages. David Yegerlehner considers nineteen Fathers of East and West from the 2nd through 5th centuries, as well as Aquinas, Hugh of St Victor, Luther, and Calvin. Jeremy Cohen, who focuses only on Genesis 1:28, covers Jewish and Christian reception from the earliest records up to 1500. These broad approaches result in brief summaries with minimal historical context. However, for my purpose, a narrow and deep approach is preferable.

This raises the question of criteria for the selection of past exegetes. Parris points to Hans Jauss’s helpful metaphor which he describes variously as “der Gipfeldialog der Autoren” (summit dialogue) and as “der Höhenkamm der Autoren” (Parris, Reception Theory 216). The imagery is a high ridge of a mountain range where a few peaks define the basic shape of the skyline even though much irregular detail exists between them.52 The idea is that typically a very small number of historical interpreters have been decisively significant in shaping and redirecting a text’s reception (Parris, Reading the Bible with Giants 118, 202). My priority is to include one Early Church Father, as they have a special status in shaping distinctively Christian exegesis, and one of the 16th century Reformers, as many Protestants consider them formative, and even normative, for Christian exegesis. That the InterVarsity Press is publishing two book series on Reformation Commentary and Ancient Christian Commentary testifies to the special status of Reformers and Fathers for Protestant ressourcement.

The patristic representative chosen here is Augustine of Hippo. In a magisterial survey of ancient and medieval reception of the text “be fruitful and multiply,” Jeremy Cohen judged that Augustine made the “single most extensive and influential contribution to the Christian career of Gen. 1:28,” and that later writers up to 1500 added little that was novel to the interpretation of that verse (Cohen 21). The representative I chose from the 16th century Reformation is Martin Luther, who already features in this book as part of the effort to understand natalist reception and its roots; chapter 3 thus has a dual function. These two interpreters sit well together because Luther considered Augustine to be the best of the Church Fathers. Augustine is also the Father most respected by Evangelicals, the potential future audience of natalist preaching.

Contemporary context

The third step in evaluating reception is to consider the contemporary issues that provide criteria for evaluation and signposts for construction of alternative interpretation. Christopher Rowland advises that for “liberation theologians … the test for truth is the effect it has on people’s lives” (Rowland and Corner 42). Any of the various contextual approaches to biblical interpretation that have emerged recently might offer particular critiques of natalism, and I chose an ecological approach. A contextual interpretation must be grounded in Scripture and the Christian tradition before venturing beyond them. David Horrell advises that “to be potentially persuasive … an ecological reading of the Bible would need to demonstrate that it offers an authentic appropriation of the Christian tradition” (Horrell, “Ecological Challenge” 168). He also suggests that while it will necessarily be “innovative,” ecological exegesis should be “coherent (and in dialogue) with a scripturally shaped Christian orthodoxy” and must “learn critically from the history of interpretation” (Horrell, “Introduction” 9). In the final chapter of this book, my constructive ecological interpretation will draw on parts of the Bible beyond the fruitful verses, and further ressourcement from classic (mostly patristic) Christian writings. Horrell argues that “ethical appropriation is necessarily a constructive endeavour, informed by the present context (including science, etc.) as well as by the traditions” (8), and that final chapter will also reflect on how modern science offers wisdom for reception of the fruitful verses, drawing on insights from demography, ecology, and recent calculations of the human ecological footprint and its impact on biodiversity, human welfare, and economic sustainability.

In summary, the next chapter will provide an analysis of U.S. Protestant natalism since 1985. It looks at the context of wider modern natalism, and modern U.S. Evangelicalism. The bulk of the chapter is a detailed survey of biblical reception, and natalist arguments, in the primary sources. Chapter 3 will investigate the possibility that natalism has real roots in one strand of Protestantism, through a study of Martin Luther’s writings in their 16th century context. After that analysis of natalism and its historical roots, the book moves on to three chapters which are three steps leading to an evaluation of natalism. Chapter 4 considers two dimensions of the context of Old Testament fruitful verses: first, the ancient Near Eastern historical setting with its agrarian, demographic, and political aspects; second, the canonical and theological context of the verses as part of a wider divine project for creating a holy nation. Chapter 5 sets Augustine’s thoughts on reproduction and the fruitful verses in the context of 4th- and early 5th-century controversies, and then in ressourcement uses them to challenge natalist arguments. Chapter 6 constructively applies an ecological hermeneutic to the verses, bringing together Christian tradition and contemporary demographic and ecological awareness.


1 The interviewee was Rod Dreher, assistant editor, Dallas Morning News.

2 The synonym “pronatalism” often appears in literature in the fields of history and sociology, for example in the title “Pronatalism, Reproduction and the Family in the United States, 1890-1938” (Lovett). The simple term “natalism” is used by Daniel Maguire in a section titled “The Natalist Thrust of Religions” (316), and is also used by Conrad Hackett. I will use this simpler term.

3 I will ignore determinants such as the age of menopause, maternal mortality, and disease, which either vary little across a modern national population, or are not amenable to change through natalist exhortation at the individual or sectarian level.

4 Phrases such as “age at marriage” continue to be standard terminology in demographic literature, though reproductive relationships other than marriage are included in the data under these euphemistic headings. The term “in-union” is increasingly common.

5 An exception is vasectomy-reversal, which Protestant natalists recommend.

6 Economists use the word natalist differently to refer to unintentional effects that raise fertility. I am grateful to Tim Meijers (Université Catholique du Louvain) for this example: David de la Croix and Axel Gosseries, “The Natalist Bias of Pollution Control.” Journal of Environmental Economics and Management 63.2 (2012): 271-87.

7 Arguably this might not necessarily raise fertility, since well-trained practitioners of Natural Family Planning can apparently prevent conception as effectively as users of artificial contraceptives (Zimmerman).

8 In demography “fertility” refers to the number of births and “fecundity” refers to a potential parent’s physical ability to reproduce, whereas in medicine the latter is referred to as fertility. I will use both terms as synonyms referring to the number of births.

9 Sam and Bethany Torode are one example of anti-contraceptive Protestant Evangelical writers who were not also natalist. However, they later publicly disowned their earlier rejection of family planning and converted to Greek Orthodoxy.

10 Many unlimited natalists identify themselves as “Quiverfull” (Joyce 134).

11 The possibility of using contraceptives to increase the surviving number of children (in situations of subsistence poverty) is further indication that anti-contraception is not the same as natalism.

12 I will not employ Heikki Räisänen’s distinction between “effect” and “use” of the Bible. He counts the historical impact of a “plausible” exegesis as an “effect,” whereas the impact of a “contrived” exegesis (his example is allegory) he calls a “use” of Scripture (Räisänen 312). This distinction depends on his binary divide between plausible and contrived exegesis, but in my view there is a continuum from more to less plausible.

13 The final book of the New Testament, alternatively titled Revelation.

14 The “complementarian” belief is that men and women typically have different roles. Southern Seminary (where Professor Al Mohler is President), described by Conrad Hackett as “the epicenter of Patriarchal Moderate Natalism” (14), is also headquarters of the Council for Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, a key complementarian advocacy group.

15 Local state populations can also change in composition through differential fertility: a classic U.S. example is the proportion of Mormons in Utah (and neighbouring states).

16 In the U.S. General Social Survey the Protestant categories are fundamentalist, moderate, liberal, and black.

17 Phillip Longman is Schwartz Fellow at the New America Foundation.

18 The anomaly of persistent increase despite “replacement-level” TFR has multiple causes and their relative weight varies from one nation to another. One cause is the tempo effect of the average age of childbearing having risen over recent decades. This stretches the birth total over a longer time period. It means that even if women today had the same number of children as women of an earlier generation, the official TFR would be lower. For example, France in 1985-89 had an official TFR of 1.81, rising to 2.21 if adjusted for tempo. This flaw has been recognized since the 1950s, but none of the proposed alternatives has displaced the established methodology (Bongaarts and Feeney 285).

Another cause of persistent growth with a TFR below 2.1 is falling death rates. In most nations, including the USA and the UK, life expectancy has been rising for decades. Since the death rate has been falling, for total births to match deaths the TFR would have to fall below 2 for as long as life expectancy continues rising, and some years after that. A TFR around 2 would only deliver genuine “replacement fertility” (births = deaths) if other factors had been constant (or cancelled out) for decades past.

19 For my purposes it is unhelpful that in each of the three tested statements an exegesis was combined with an (assumed) application. I would prefer separate testing of these.

20 Inerrancy is the belief that words of the Bible are a gift of the divine inspiration and faultless in all its teachings.

21 Biblicism is a belief in biblical inerrancy, combined with a belief that guidance for all questions of life and conduct today can be found in the Bible, and with willingness to comply.

22 There were 36 people in Hornok’s “experimental group” and others in a control group.

23 By contrast the figures for U.S. Catholics were 21%, 65%, and 9% respectively.

24 Daniel Akin is Professor of Preaching and Theology at Southeastern Seminary, North Carolina.

25 Nativists prefer to maintain a numerical and cultural predominance of “old-stock” inhabitants, i.e. those with an ancestry of a few generations born in that country.

26 There may be natalist preaching among Pentecostals outside the USA (personal communication from Professor John Guillebaud, 13 July 2010).

27 Hart’s phrase “militant fecundity” was later picked up by natalist bloggers. David Bentley Hart is Professor of Christian Culture at Providence College, Rhode Island.

28 One reality TV series, 19 Kids and Counting, about the Duggars, a Quiverfull family, has a weekly average of 1.4 million viewers (Mesaros-Winckles, 2010: 2).

29 The search terms I used in bibliographic databases were fruitful, multiply, fertility, fecundity, reproducti* (asterisk finds alternate suffixes), birth, demograph*, population, contracepti*, family planning, marriage, procreation, sons, and children.

30 The isolated chapters are by Sproul and Davis.

31 All my primary sources were published in the U.S., except the book by Craig Houghton who is based in Canada.

32 I prioritized academics and denominational leaders, therefore Albert Mohler was included even though his articles on this topic are only published online.

33 Daniel Doriani is Professor of Theology at Covenant Theological Seminary, Missouri (http://www.covenantseminary.edu/the-thistle/dr-dan-doriani-to-return-to-covenant-seminary-in-fall-2013/). All links to online resources were active at time of publication, unless otherwise stated.

34 They reject this label, as what they commend is direct family planning by God.

35 The 1000+ posts were mostly about practical matters of childbirth and childrearing.

36 Biblical citations in the forum were not systematically analysed, but it seems the range of verses cited is similar to those appearing in Hess, Pride, Campbell, etc.

37 Both originally appeared in the periodical Contra Mundum, which is published by a conservative Protestant ministry (http://www.biblicalhorizons.com).

38 Jeffrey Meyers is Senior Pastor at Providence Reformed Presbyterian Church. He has a doctorate from Concordia Theological Seminary and is the author of a commentary on Ecclesiastes, published by Athanasius Press in 2007.

39 James B. Jordan is the Director of Biblical Horizons. He has a Th.M. from Westminster Theological Seminary. He is a conservative: his books include Creation in Six Days. A Defense of the Traditional Reading of Genesis One. He has also co-authored with Gary North, a leading Reconstructionist.

40 Raymond van Leeuwen is Professor Emeritus of Biblical Studies at Eastern University, Pennsylvania.

41 Kenneth Magnuson is Professor of Christian Ethics at Southern Seminary, Kentucky.

42 Richard Fagley was Secretary of the Commission on International Affairs of the World Council of Churches, a theologian, and a Congregational minister.

43 Susan Bratton is faculty chair of Environmental Science at Baylor University, Texas. She has a doctorate in Botany with Plant Ecology and an MA in Theology.

44 Yegerlehner identified 101 “fruitfulness verses,” but some are secondary allusions, e.g. “For though your people be as the sand of the sea, only a remnant of them will return” (Isaiah 10:22). Some do not mention fertility, e.g. “the multitude of men and cattle within it” (Zechariah 2:4), and a few lack any reference to quantity, e.g. “I will bring forth descendants from Jacob” (Isaiah 65:9). My comparison with the verses used by natalists shows overlap, though a few are not used while many others not on Yegerlehner’s list are.

45 A new book fills the gap in methodological literature: Robert Evans, Reception History, Tradition and Biblical Interpretation: Gadamer and Jauss in Current Practice. London: T&T Clark, 2014.

46 An example is David Petersen on “family values” in Genesis.

47 The method of construction and tables of detailed results are in the Appendix.

48 Elsewhere in his book, however, Newport does include his own exegetical critique of the Adventist use of type and anti-type.

49 Many instances in the details of natalist exegesis are implausible, but the core idea that human fecundity is esteemed in the Old Testament is plausible.

50 Moberly notes that, given the limits of treatment within a single chapter, he lacks space to consider the second and fifth items.

51 Consideration of New Testament reception of Genesis 12:3 functions in Moberly’s work as an instance of early Christian reception of the Old Testament, and dispensationalism provides the historical genealogy of Christian Zionism.

52 I find the phrase “summit dialogue” unhelpful as my initial impression from the phrase was of key interpreters meeting on a mountain-top, whereas Jauss’ idea is a trajectory across history represented by an Alpine skyline that includes multiple summits.