God's Babies: Natalism and Bible Interpretation in Modern America
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2. Protestant Natalism in the U.S.

History can be divided into periods before and after the decline of premature death, and especially the collapse of infant mortality. In the pre-modern period a community’s survival required on average at least five successful births from each woman (Livi Bacci 156). Given that some experienced infertility, and that many mothers died prematurely (often as a result of childbirth), the remainder had to bear rather more. I will treat separately the attitudes toward fertility of three stakeholders: parents, national rulers, and religious leaders. For parents, especially fathers, the benefit of numerous offspring was obvious: for agricultural labour, domestic service, and support in old age. Cultural norms operated to encourage fertility, and a natalist ideology was only likely to be articulated in situations where the level of fecundity desired by other stakeholders diverged significantly.

Rulers had wider horizons than parents: they perceived rivalry between nations and a struggle for political existence or dominance. David Daube has shown that fecundity was often advocated by civic leaders, and occasionally promoted by laws. For example, Spartan rulers imposed financial penalties and disgrace on bachelors, and fathers of four sons or more were exempted from tax (Daube 13). The state wanted a surplus of sons for its army: Rome in 403 BC imposed a fine on unmarried men and Plutarch ascribed this to a need for children to replenish military losses (18). During the Roman Republic two Censors were responsible for updating the census, and in 102 BC one of them spoke “On the Need for Matrimony” to preserve the state (27). A century later, emperor Augustus “penalized childless men, whether married or not, and rewarded the prolific with tax exemptions,” supposedly to save Rome from invasion (31). There was a particular worry about perpetuating the aristocracy, whose members often did not see much benefit in large families, and much of the Roman natalist legislation, which used inheritance penalties, was aimed at them. In societies with a dominant class, or ethnic divides, state natalism was often aimed at a favoured group, and its flip side was a desire to limit numbers of another group, as reflected in the story of Pharaoh killing Israelite male babies (Exodus 1).

Pre-modern religions usually included elements of natalist ideology. For example, Sampradayas Hinduism allowed men to divorce infertile wives (Coward 140), and a verse in the Quran commends “women who are loving and very prolific for I shall outnumber the peoples through you” (Kaufmann 122). Partly this reflected the surrounding culture, and many texts promise fertility as one of the rewards for religious loyalty. In retrospect we can see ways in which some religious rules had demographic effects, but it is unsafe to assume the motive was demographic. Where contemporary explanation (the best guide available) survives, it usually points to cultic or moral reasons. For example, many religions forbade contraception and abortion but the reasons given were the sanctity of life (including seed), a father’s rights, and concern about promiscuity. Demographic effects can be incidental to rules with other motives. One also finds religious rules whose effect is to reduce fertility. For example, to disallow divorce when one spouse is infertile reduces births because the fertile partner might otherwise remarry and reproduce. Similarly when young widows were encouraged not to remarry (as in early Christianity), or immolated at their husbands’ funerals (according to the custom of Sati within early Hinduism), that curtailed the possibility of further reproduction during a second marriage. So though religions did sometimes reflect the familial and national desire for fecundity, other concerns were often more important.

Modern natalism

After the unprecedented modern decline in mortality rates,53 combined with urbanization and longer schooling which made offspring less profitable, parents had less incentive to aspire to having a large number of children. There was now a larger gap between the goals of parents and rulers. Industrial barons’ desires for plentiful and cheap labor should not be overlooked, but the stronger impetus came from rulers when they felt threatened by other nations, or when imperial ambition was ascendant. Episodes of natalism in France were stimulated by the humiliation of the Franco-Prussian war in 1870 and the peril of the Great War (Camiscioli; Barusse). Later natalism in Italy was driven by nationalism. Benito Mussolini, the Fascist leader, lamented that “1929 marks the demographic collapse of the nation” (Ipsen, 1996: 173), and in 1937 his Grand Council claimed that Italy’s most serious challenge was the “demographic problem … as without life there is neither youth nor military strength nor economic expansion” (178).54 Mussolini’s 1928 essay Numero come forza (Strength in Numbers) argued:

The birth rate is not simply an index of the progressive power of the nation … it is also that which will distinguish the Fascist people from the other peoples of Europe as an index of vitality and the will to pass on this vitality over the centuries. (Ipsen 66-67)

Italy’s new penal code in 1930 defined the sale of contraceptives as a “crime against the race” (74), and Fascist policies to reward mothers and provide maternal health care were financed by a special tax on bachelors (73). While speaking to “summarize Mussolini’s population policy,” a deputy of the Fascist government called for the “condemnation of bachelorhood” and also for the “condemnation of barren and low fertility marriages” (87).

In the U.S., the birth rate began falling around 1800 (Haines and Steckel 679) as a result of Christian people’s decisions about marriage and parenting, and despite denominational rules against contraception. A gap between the reproductive ideals of people and rulers had appeared but leaders ignored it for some decades. Eventually fear prompted a natalist reaction because in some ethnic and religious groups fertility decrease had begun earlier or advanced faster, resulting in relative differences in rates of population growth. U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt warned old-stock Americans against “race suicide” due to low fertility. Their dominance within a growing U.S. population was demographically eroding due to higher fertility among recent immigrants (May 61). Roosevelt in 1907 claimed that in history “the wealthier classes tend to die out precisely because of the low birth-rate” and judged that those who “refuse to have children sufficient in number ... are criminals.”55 He affirmed that “the type to be standardized is not the family from one to three, but the family of four to six.” In a 1905 speech, Roosevelt deemed the “man or woman who deliberately forego these blessings” to be as contemptible as the “soldier who runs away in battle.”56

U.S. Protestant natalism in the early decades of the 20th century reflected the nationalist, racist, nativist, and eugenic ideas that many held at that time. For example, in 1905 Lutheran Witness, the journal of the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod (LCMS), approvingly reprinted Roosevelt’s speech (Graebner, 1969: 309). Such ideas were not uniquely American: in England a report on contraception by the 1908 Lambeth Conference, the international assembly of Anglicans (Episcopalians), lamented “a decline in the birth-rate … most marked among the English-speaking people, once the most fertile of races.” They observed that in a typical U.S. city with immigrants from southern and eastern Europe, “two-thirds of the families belong to the native stock and one-third to foreign stocks; but of the children born two-thirds belong to the foreign stocks and only one-third to the native stock” (Davidson, Lambeth Conferences 399-400). These Anglicans warned of a “danger of deterioration whenever the race is recruited from the inferior and not from the superior stocks. There is the world-danger that the great English-speaking peoples, diminished in number … should commit the crowning infamy of race-suicide, and so fail to fulfil that high destiny to which in the Providence of God they have been manifestly called” (Davidson, Lambeth Conferences 402). Natalism driven by eugenic concerns about nation, race, and religion was a mainstream idea among Protestants in the early 20th century.

For some, natalism coincided with anti-contraception, but these were separate ideologies. Most of the Protestant criticism of contraception in the late 19th century focused on the danger of sexual immorality and did not feature natalism. Anthony Comstock, the architect of U.S. laws (including a federal law in 1873) banning the distribution of contraceptives, was motivated to protect young people from vice and obscenity (Carlson, Godly Seed 27): many people were anti-contraceptive without being natalist. Conversely, a leader of the Evangelical Alliance, Josiah Strong, came to accept family planning as a eugenic necessity for poor people in the “Appalachian South,” while maintaining a natalist ambition for civilized Protestants such as the “New England stock” to increase their reproduction to advance the Christianization of the world (cited in Carlson, Godly Seed 73). In moving away from anti-contraception, he was a forerunner of the modern natalists who permit family planning.

Hiatus and renaissance

In the mid-20th century anti-contraceptive ideology and natalism both went into recession, and a consensus emerged that it was acceptable for parents to plan small families. At the level of denominational policy this change was pioneered by the worldwide Anglican Communion at the Lambeth conference in 1930. Eventually all the major denominations accepted the use of family planning by married couples (Goodson 355-56), including the Methodists by 1939 (in the UK, and by 1956 in the U.S.), the Church of Scotland in 1944, and the Dutch Reformed Church in 1952 (Spitzer and Saylor 459). Pius XII in 1951 permitted family planning for Catholics on condition that specific methods were used. The most conservative groups, such as the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod,57 were slower. According to a 1953 survey, a quarter of LCMS laity were either unsure about or definitely opposed spacing children or limiting family size by any means, even by abstinence. However, by the mid 1960s most LCMS members accepted family planning (Graebner 327).

By the 1960s most Evangelical leaders also accepted family planning. At a symposium in 1968 sponsored by Christianity Today and the Christian Medical Society, 25 scholars produced a “Protestant Affirmation on the Control of Human Reproduction,” which is an Evangelical consensus statement. It affirmed that “partners in marriage should have the privilege of determining the number of children they wish to have” (Spitzer and Saylor xxviii). Another section, entitled “The Christian in an Over-Populated World,” stated that: “control of human reproduction demands the attention of Christians from the standpoint of the desperate needs not only of individuals and families but also of nations and people. This Affirmation acknowledges the need for the discriminating involvement of Christian people in programs of population control at home and abroad” (xxxi). The reference to human numbers and to overpopulation indicates that this was not only a change in attitudes to contraception, but also a shift away from natalism toward acceptance of smaller family sizes.

From the 1950s to the early 1980s, advocacy of large family size by Protestant writers was rare. In 1966 John Warwick Montgomery (a Lutheran), while arguing in favour of allowing family planning, also indirectly used the New Testament text Hebrews 2:10 in support of his natalist ideas:

The burden of proof rests, then, on the couple who wish to restrict the size of their family; to the extent possible and desirable, all Christian couples should seek to ‘bring many sons unto glory.’ After all, as Charles Galton Darwin informs us, those who restrict their birth rate will ultimately be engulfed by those who do not: ‘homo contracipiens would become extinct and would be replaced by the variety homo progenitivus.’ The Christian application of this principle is obvious. (Montgomery 582)

Natalist ideas derived from Old Testament verses featured in Christianity Today as late as 1960, with E.P. Schulze arguing that since the “command, ‘Be fruitful and multiply’ has not yet been repealed ... let the omniscient Father of us all determine the size of our families” (Carlson, Godly Seed 126). After that, one has to venture into Reconstructionism, a fringe movement seeking enforcement of Old Testament laws, to find natalist statements by its leaders Rousas Rushdoony in 1974 and Gary North in 1982. Charles Provan observed about this period that “some theologians spoke out against the limiting of children by Christians until fairly recent times. And now, opposition to birth control is almost dead” (Provan 3).

Then in the late 1980s the near-consensus among Evangelicals was breached. One natalist rejoiced in 1989 that “more articles and books are coming out agreeing with the teachings of Scripture on large families” (Morecraft 9-10). Tracing this development, Patricia Goodson identifies Pride and Provan as significant advocates who gained a hearing among conservative Evangelicals. She points to an issue of Christianity Today in 1991 which carried articles for and against family planning, as the breakthrough into the mainstream (Goodson 357).

Chapter 1 listed my primary sources, publications in English since 1985 in which natalism is a major theme and is supported with biblical citation and exegesis. It is appropriate to treat these as distinct from early 20th-century Protestant natalism, since they represent a renaissance after a long hiatus, among people whose parents had small families and accepted that as the modern norm. Sproul, the son of an influential Calvinist, confesses that “I began, like most modern evangelicals, believing that God had blessed the church with the gift of birth control … to limit the size of our families so we can be about His work” (Sproul 42). There are qualitative differences: most of the old ideas and biblical citations are rehearsed, but new arguments and more Scriptures are now added to the natalist arsenal. Back then natalism could be found among Protestants in many European countries, but now it is distinctively North American.

Some critics find in today’s U.S. natalism a revival of the nativist natalism of the early 20th century. For example, Miguel de la Torre observes Albert Mohler’s lament that “we are barely replenishing ourselves” and argues logically that since the U.S. has had large annual natural increase in population (almost twice as many births as deaths back when Mohler made that claim), Mohler’s “we” must be referring to whites and is “white supremacy code language” (Torre 103-05). I do not think so: Mohler’s odd claim was probably based on his mistaken assumption that a Total Fertility Rate around 2.1 is equivalent to “barely replenishing.” Monica Duffy Toft claims that in Quiverfull the “specter of ‘race suicide’ ... while rarely stated explicitly, infuses the rhetoric of the movement” (Goldstone, Kaufmann, and Toft 220). But in my view this characterisation misunderstands the new natalists. They dislike racism, and even nationalism is less prominent than it used to be. The natalist Allan Carlson judges these features of old Protestant natalism’s character as “problems which a pronatalist policy must avoid” in future. He regrets that Missouri Synod Lutherans supported the race suicide scare in 1905, and that “churches have also fallen back at times on the nationalist temptation” (Carlson, “Be Fruitful” 28). Carlson considers that for Christianity (and for the other Abrahamic religions) these “nationalist and racial arguments contradict their universalist claims,” and so “pronatalism is legitimate only as a consequence of their theologies: as a response to God’s command in Genesis” (29). That is the new reformed natalism in a pure form.

Why did Protestant natalism revive?

Explanations of the natalist renaissance among U.S. Evangelicals, the timing of its rebirth, and why it flourishes in the 21st century can only be speculative. Natalism may be a reaction to the common questioning of traditional expectations about lifestyle. Watters suggests that until recent decades Protestant couples simply reproduced “on autopilot” (26) because they took for granted that marriage included rearing children. The proportion of married couples choosing not to have children has increased in the churches as well as outside. So the implicit and cultural methods of promoting fecundity among members have had to be reinforced by the articulation of explicit arguments for (higher) reproduction.

The competitive aspect of natalism is linked to perceptions of a culture war reflected in the rise of the religious right during Reagan’s presidency (1981-89). Concerns persist about shifts in the relative sizes of different religious groups in the U.S., where in 1776 over 95% of the population was Protestant. Now it is about 50% and will probably fall to 37% by 2043. The change in recent decades has been due to rises in the categories labelled Secular and Latino Catholic (Skirbekk, Kaufmann, and Goujon 303). Immigration to the U.S. since 1980 has been at its highest level since the early 20th century, which coincidentally was the era of the old wave of natalism. More recently (since 2001), a different perception of Islam as a serious competitor to Evangelicalism, and a worry that the national characters of America’s allies will be changed by relatively higher Muslim fertility (the “Eurabia” scare), have exacerbated the competitive mindset of some Evangelicals.

Perception of the efficacy of endogenous growth compared to evangelism may provoke natalism. Akin and Mohler confess that studying Baptist membership data stimulated their thinking on family size (Wax). Houghton cites the World Christian Encyclopedia (Houghton 77), in which church growth data is tabulated under two headings: “Conversion” and “Natural” (Barrett, Kurian, and Johnson). For the period from 1990 to 2000, global annual Christian increase is estimated as 2.5 million by conversion, and 22.7 million by natural means. The editors assume that natural increase is a factor “over which religious bodies have relatively little or no control” and that “rarely are they aware of it as a cause of their growth” (475). To the contrary, natalist writers are well aware of this factor, and they believe it can and should be influenced.

Particularly with regard to the anti-contraceptive ideology held by unlimited natalists, one event which contributed was the emergence of abortion as a moral issue for Protestants in the 1970s. Narratives by some women indicate there has been a conveyor from pro-life movements into the Quiverfull movement (Garrison; Joyce 140). Pride argues that the past acceptance of “limiting family size” was implicitly “refusing to consider children an unmitigated blessing” and led inexorably to the legalizing of abortion (Pride 75-77). French suggests that campaigning against abortion while permitting family planning is incoherent because both are anti-life practices that stem from “love of self” (French 51, 53), and predicts that anti-abortion campaigns will not succeed until they also embrace anti-contraceptive teachings.

So any attempt to explain the timing of the renaissance of U.S. Protestant natalist teaching should consider a combination of long-term trends affecting both church leaders and the married couples who are expected to deliver the babies. For the latter, average U.S. fertility had fallen in the 1970s to its lowest level, so the gap between the wider culture and church expectations was exacerbated at a time when church women were also delaying childbirth and finding new career opportunities. Meanwhile the leaders and visionaries became more concerned because of trends such as the culture wars, the polarizing of politics, and Protestantism’s loss of demographic dominance within the U.S. population.

Reception of Christian Scriptures

Since the “primary object of the reception critic will be to study how the Bible actually has been understood” (Klint 91), I will give detailed attention to biblical citations in the primary natalist sources. To go beyond an impressionistic approach, every quotation and citation of biblical texts in support of a natalist argument was systematically catalogued in a database. The most popular text is “be fruitful and multiply,” with 23 references to Genesis 1:28, a feature in all my sources.58 The next most popular is Psalm 127:3-5, with 18 references. It is cited by seven of the sources. I also observe that brief online presentations of natalism which cite only one or two Bible texts usually choose one or both of these.

Some natalists limit themselves to a few verses, probably due to style and academic caution. Mohler frequently alludes to the Bible but makes few direct citations. For example, his article on “Deliberate Childlessness” mentions “His mandate revealed in the Bible” and asserts that “The church should insist that the biblical formula calls for adulthood to mean marriage and marriage to mean children.” Most likely those are allusions to Genesis 1:28. The same short article has one biblical citation, of Psalm 127. R. C. Sproul devotes a chapter to Psalm 127 and also refers to Genesis 1:28. Allan Carlson, in three articles presenting Protestant tradition as natalist, eight times either quotes “be fruitful and multiply” or cites it, and alludes once to Psalm 127, commending “those who have opened their lives to bringing a full quiver of children into the world” (Carlson, “Freedom” 196; “Be Fruitful” 18, 21, 26; “Children” 21, 24, 25). Dan Akin asserts that “we do have a culture mandate to be fruitful and multiply” (Wax). In his “Axioms” sermon (Akin 15), Akin rebukes the idea that “less is better” and cites Psalms 128 and 127, as well as Deuteronomy 6:1-9 with regard to children’s education.

Other natalists range widely across the Bible. The number of distinct Old Testament texts cited by each remaining writer is: 10 by Owen, 14 by Houghton, 18 by Provan, 23 by Pride, 29 by Watters, 34 by Heine, and 104 by Campbell. These sources between them refer to 157 distinct Old Testament texts.59 Psalm 128, with its imagery of material prosperity, marital fecundity, and long life, is cited 9 times in five natalist sources.

You will eat the fruit of your labor; blessings and prosperity will be yours. Your wife will be like a fruitful vine within your house; your children will be like olive shoots around your table. ... May the LORD bless you from Zion; may you see the prosperity of Jerusalem all the days of your life. May you live to see your children’s children – peace be on Israel. (Psalm 128, NIV)

Deuteronomy 28:4-11, which includes fecundity among the blessings Israel will receive if they are faithful to God’s commandments, is cited 7 times. “Blessed shall be the fruit of your womb and the fruit of your ground and the fruit of your cattle, the increase of your herds and the young of your flock” (Deuteronomy 28:4, ESV). Genesis 35:1-12, the Onan narrative, is cited 6 times but only by unlimited natalists.

There are four texts which appear four times each. Deuteronomy 7:13-14 promises a blessing similar to chapter 28, but adds: “You shall be blessed above all peoples. There shall not be male or female barren among you or among your livestock” (ESV); Jeremiah 29:4-6 urges those exiled in Babylon (perceived as relevant to Christians living in a secular country) to marry and increase; Psalm 112:2 is favoured by those linking fecundity and prosperity; and Malachi 2:15 is cited by those who want Christians to multiply. Five texts appear three times: a blessing of Abraham (Genesis 17:2); the blessing of Rebekah (24:60); a promise that “none shall miscarry or be barren” (Exodus 23:26, ESV); a prophecy of “more children” (Isaiah 54:1, NLT); and the value to kings of a large population (Proverbs 14:28). Of the remainder, 29 texts feature twice, and 109 texts only once.

Counting all citations in contexts of natalist argument across the catalogued sources, Old Testament references are four times more frequent than New Testament references. When compared to the relative sizes of the two Testaments, a ratio of 3.7 to 1, this suggests a usage which is nearly proportionate. That was a surprising result for me, as after an initial reading of the sources I had judged that natalism was mostly based on the Old Testament, except perhaps for 1 Timothy 2:15 and 5:14. It shows the methodological value of systematic data analysis, which indicates that 42 distinct verse-ranges are cited from thirteen New Testament books. It is, however, beyond the scope of this book to consider natalist use of the New Testament, except where it is cited to justify their use of the Old Testament.60

Natalists defend their application of Old Testament verses to Christianity. Provan is aware that “some may think that we quote the Old Testament too much,” and in response he observes the New Testament has “1600 references” to the Old, and that “Paul gets his rules on sexual matters right out of the Mosaic Law” (Provan 3). Sproul, in support of his claim that Old Testament ordinances are not abolished for Christians (Sproul 8), cites Matthew 5:18: “not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished” (ESV). The dispensational distance between the Old Testament and Christianity is discussed by the writers, and some minimize this. Campbell argues that in general the “truths … in Genesis are never altered throughout the rest of the Bible, only enlarged upon,” because we do not have “a God who changes His mind halfway through His written word” (Campbell 22, 116). Though most admit that some details of instructions in the Old Testament are inappropriate for Christian application, they claim that paradigmatic biblical principles are unchanging and that marital fruitfulness is one of those principles.

Some natalists admit the New Testament presents a new spiritual conception of fruitfulness, children, and family. Watters acknowledges the New Testament shift in emphasis, as the “focus on physical children and physical fruitfulness prior to the coming of Christ gives way to spiritual fruitfulness,” but also argues that “Christ’s coming” did not “undo the marital design for physical children” or “nullify the call to be fruitful and multiply” (Watters 40). The imperative to biological fruitfulness therefore continues in parallel with spiritual fruitfulness. On Jesus saying “go and bear fruit” (John 15: 16), Campbell comments that “God longs for fruitfulness and increase in the natural and in the spiritual sense” (Campbell 33, 48). This principle of physical fruitfulness continuing alongside, rather than being superseded by, a New Testament spiritual understanding enables natalists to make use of many New Testament verses, but it is dependent on the foundation of their Old Testament reception.

All the natalist writers affirm that the Bible is inerrant as a guide for conduct. The scripture is “profitable for life” (Sproul 7), and it “tells us how to live” and so “we must follow His instructions” (Owen 29). Chronological and cultural distance between ancient and modern worlds is acknowledged but they all conclude that marital fecundity is an enduring principle. Andrews disagrees with “those who say the Bible was written long ago to ancient agrarian people in a patriarchal society … [and] cannot be applied literally today” (Andrews 361). He allows that applications may vary but insists that the “moral standards are timeless” (362). Heine sees enduring relevance in the “Hebrew family model” (Heine 83). Most natalists admit that in pre-modern cultures rearing children was more economically profitable than it is in U.S. cities today, though Campbell resists this contrast by pointing to God’s parallel promises in Deuteronomy (28: 2-4) of fertility “in the city” as well as “in the field” (44; also in Houghton 35). Heine explicitly bridges the gap between ancient and modern, urging that “Christian couples should treasure their Old Testament heritage … that prizes fertility for the perpetuation of family name” (Heine 84).

Old Testament scholars are quoted within discussions of modern application. For example, the comments by Johannes Pedersen on Psalm 127, reflecting on the Israelites’ affirmation of “the satisfaction and permanence of building a posterity” and their belief that “to fail to have children, therefore, is the destruction of the house” so that “he who has no progeny labours in vain,” are quoted by Heine (72).

Appeals to tradition

Natalist appeals to authority are mostly to the Bible, but also to tradition. When the interpretation of Scripture is disputed, Protestant tradition becomes important. The historical Christian writer most often cited in support of their arguments is Martin Luther, and chapter 3 will focus on natalist appropriation of Luther as a case study of their use of tradition. Elsewhere in Protestant tradition, natalists find support for the argument that (home) economics should not constrain family size. Campbell quotes Matthew Henry (1662-1714), who assured his readers that “He that sends mouths will send meat” (Campbell 136). Hess quotes Adam Clarke, a Puritan theologian (1760-1832), who reasoned that since “God gives children,” therefore also “he will feed them … supporting them by a chain of miraculous providences” (Hess 82). Pride quotes John Kitto (1804-54), an Anglican missionary, who rebuked those who do “not trust God to pay us well for the board and lodging of all the little ones He has committed to our charge” (Pride 36).61 However, the historic emphasis was on admonishing parents to refrain from worry about money, rather than a call to increase reproduction. For example, in context Matthew Henry observes “they are continually full of care, which makes … their lives a burden. All this is to get money” (on Psalm 127).

Quotations from other historic Protestants are largely confined merely to arguments against contraception, which is peripheral to natalism. In this connection, Campbell quotes two early 20th-century Lutherans: Walter Maier and F.H. Knubel, a past President of the United Lutheran Church (Campbell 157). Provan also quotes from many Protestants, though except for two Lutherans most are concerned with immorality rather than demographics. One is John Fritz (1874-1953), the Dean of Concordia Seminary, who in his 1934 work Pastoral Theology judges that “the one-, two-, or three-children family system is contrary to the Scriptures; for man has no right arbitrarily or definitely to limit the number of his offspring … Gen.1:28; Ps.127: 3-6; Ps.128: 3-4” (Provan 71). The other is Theodore Laetsch (1877-1962), who offers as an argument against family planning that “it undermines the State. It is race suicide” and therefore “at least four children to a family” are required from Protestant marriages (78-79).

Early and medieval Christian writers are cited far less than the Protestants. Augustine of Hippo features (Houghton, 2007: 55), as does Clement of Alexandria (French 32), but only for the topic of anti-contraception. More generally, Pride assumes that “through all ages of the church … believers … were happily having as many children as God gave them” (59). Campbell points to “traditional wedding vows” according to which marriage is “ordained for the increase of mankind” (13), and Watters cites an Anglican liturgy which states that marriage “was ordained for the procreation of children” in support of arguments about the order of creation (38).

Secular tradition also is occasionally cited. Watters, arguing that marriage’s purpose is reproductive, cites the derivation of the Latin word matrimonium from motherhood (38). In support of the idea of “natural function,” Campbell claims that the word woman derives from “womb-man” (105).62 This confidence that etymology is relevant implies a belief that pre-modern people (even non-Christians) understood divinely-created human nature better than modern liberal Americans. Heine notes approvingly that “history records many examples of pro-natalist government policies” (Heine 220). Owen observes that “until recently the world was for the most part pro-fertility,” and he cites ancient Persia, China, and the Celts as examples (Owen 16). He suggests that in the modern era, secular humanism and a “control mentality” led to low fertility (16-17). The perceived pedigree of family planning is significant: Heine suggests it “was pioneered by humanists” (111). Provan claims that family planning did not begin in churches but among “pagans like Margaret Sanger” (39). Historically, this is incorrect because Margaret Sanger began campaigning in 1914, whereas smaller family sizes had already become common in the U.S. decades earlier, within a largely Christian population.

Contours of Protestant natalism

In the first chapter I distinguished between ordinary natalists who accept the use of family planning and the hybrid anti-contraceptive natalists who do not. This corresponds to the distinction suggested by Doriani between unlimited and large-but-limited views about family size.63 I categorize my primary sources accordingly, and one issue investigated in this chapter is the differences and similarities between the two types of natalist, in their biblical reception and arguments. Natalists who allow family planning distance themselves from those who do not. For example, Mohler in a 2004 article on “Birth Control” advises that: “Christian couples are not ordered by Scripture to maximize the largest number of children that could be conceived.”

Large or unlimited, but not maximized

A theoretical maximum fertility can be derived from the typical duration of childbearing potential, around thirty years, and the time between pregnancies. After infertility and miscarriages are deducted, a population’s maximum average fertility has been calculated at 15.3 (Bongaarts and Potter 92). By contrast, the highest fertility recorded in a people group is 8.9 among Hutterites in North America around 1950. To achieve maximum fertility would require the removal of all moral and physical constraints. None of the natalist writers advocates maximal fertility. For example, none requires a spouse with an infertile partner to divorce and remarry (unlike in early Judaism). None condemns breastfeeding (which suppresses fertility), and some commend it. None calls for the legal minimum age at marriage to be lowered, and some suggest a higher minimum.64 None prohibits lifelong singleness. Many reject IVF and other fertility treatments. Some favor home births, and a few disdain interventions by gynaecologists (Joyce 164), which may slightly increase natal mortality and so reduce the birth rate. None advises that a foetus predicted to be unlikely to survive should be aborted quickly to make room for a fresh pregnancy (143). Clearly other agendas also move these writers, and while some ideas complement natalism others constrain fecundity. These impinging issues include affirmation of lifelong monogamy, the rights of unborn babies, agrarianism, a preference for whatever is natural, and even the acceptance of some romantic and individualistic ideals about choosing a partner.

Advocates of unlimited fertility use the slogan “let God plan your family” and reject the labels unlimited and unplanned, since they argue that God plans and limits their family sizes by direct intervention. The labels should be taken to mean that they oppose human planning by parents. French replaces the label Quiverfull with the term Quiverx based on the use of x in algebra for unknown quantities because “we don’t know how many children we will have” (French xi). That may be true when “we” refers to one couple, but in aggregate the number of children born to each woman practising unlimited fertility is statistically distributed, and the birth rate is predictable. There have been no demographic studies confined to U.S. unlimited natalists. The many studies of pre-modern examples approximating to “natural fertility” come from various cultures. Amish and Hutterite data from the early 20th century is nearest to our case,65 as their fertility was unlimited by contraception but constrained by Christian norms for marriage and morality, and their maternal and prenatal mortality was closer to modern than to pre-modern levels. Amish women born in the first quarter of the 20th century had a TFR of 7.7 (Greksa 195).

Figure 5. Children ever born to Hutterite married women aged 45 or older in 1950. Data from a 1950 survey by Eaton and Mayer.

This graph of a 1950 survey by Eaton and Mayer of Hutterite women aged 45 or older (and therefore showing completed family size) indicates that bearing eight to eleven offspring was common (Lang and Gohlen 395).

More recent Hutterite data, after they had begun reducing their fertility, indicates that family sizes of five, six, and seven are the most common. Many have eight or nine, and significant numbers have any sizes up to thirteen, but few have more than that. Very few only had two children, and only children are vanishingly rare (Kosova, Abney, and Ober).

The fecundity of adherents of the unlimited approach arguably does not prove a natalist motive. French argues that “the goal is not to have large families, though we acknowledge that a large family can often be the result” (French, 2006: 16). They claim to have turned all decision-making over to God, although to be sexually active (without using contraception) is in itself a decision, and the results are predictable within a population group. More tellingly, those claiming to be neutral with regard to family size deploy explicitly natalist arguments in favour of large numbers of children elsewhere in their writings, as will be evident later in this chapter.

How many children?

The advocacy of increased or unlimited reproduction is natalist regardless of whether or not any particular number or range of numbers is specified as an ideal family size. Among the sources surveyed, Pride, Owen, and Watters never mention numbers. French takes care to advise readers that having nine children is not “more sanctified” than having one child and “no family size is better than any other” on condition that parents are letting God plan their family (16). In other writers one can discern varying expectations about family size. Some are ambivalent, in one place distancing themselves from numerical advocacy, but elsewhere mentioning a range of family sizes which they clearly regard as desirable.

A small family size with just one or two children is disapproved of by some natalist writers. Charles Provan discerns that “God views childlessness or less children than possible as a negative occurrence, something which he uses as a punishment” (Provan 9). Houghton considers that because it has a Total Fertility Rate (TFR) of 1.5 Canada is “being unfruitful and subtracting” (28).66 Campbell reads that God “makes families increase like flocks of sheep” (Psalm 107:41, NEB)67 and derives the argument that “one or two sheep is not a flock. God wants our families to be like a flock” (Campbell 41). She laments that “many have stopped at two or three children” (83): that extension to three of the range of family size deemed too small goes further than most natalist writers. At the grassroots level, perceptions of what is too few extend higher: the anthropologist Kathryn Joyce heard from a Quiverfull woman who had witnessed “meetings where she’s seen mothers to a paltry quiver of three or four children weep and plead God to give them more” (Joyce 161).

Many advocates of unlimited reproduction do commend a large family size, and some favourably mention particular numbers. Hess rebukes those who “will not trust God. They may opt to be moderately fruitful and add instead of multiply” (123). Campbell quotes Jesus’ words “bear much fruit” (John 15:8) that refer to spiritual fruit, but she argues “this is God’s desire for the natural and the spiritual. 1 Corinthians 15:46 tells us that the natural comes first and then the spiritual” (Campbell 48). So it applies to the fruit of the womb as well as the fruit of the spirit: “When we are fruitful in our marriage, we are revealing a true picture of Christ” (49). With this dual application in mind, Campbell perceives a progression in chapter 15 of John’s epistle from “fruit” to “more fruit,” and then “still that is not enough,” so Jesus calls us to “bear much fruit.” She interprets this as a message that “God is not satisfied with average fruitfulness” (Campbell 48). In the multi-generational extrapolations of future growth which some writers present, the numbers chosen as a typical family size to use in the calculations are six (Pride 80; Hess 170), seven (Sproul 51), and eight (Hess 175). These numbers are realistic: they are roughly the median numbers of children to be expected with early marriage, unlimited fertility, and modern low infant mortality. These unplanned natalists are well aware of the range of family size normally expected.

The family sizes of Old Testament characters are also esteemed as models. Under a heading “the more the better,” Provan points to the fourteen sons and three daughters of Heman (1 Chronicles 25:4). He also notes the eight sons of Obed-Edom (1 Chronicles 26:4-5) and the biblical remark that “God blessed him” (Provan 7). Houghton refers to those verses and also to 1 Samuel 1:8, which he suggests indicates that “ten sons is a standard of great blessing” (Houghton 33, 32).

Unlimited natalists combat an oral tradition among (other) Evangelicals that ancient quivers held only a few arrows. Provan (8) opposes those who deem “three or five” a quiverfull. This idea apparently derives from ancient art, and Hess argues (correctly I think) that the artists simplified reality, and points to archaeological evidence for 12-15 arrows in a quiver, in order to refute the “mythical six-child maximum” (Hess 31). Though this might aim at demolishing an arbitrary limit rather than commending larger numbers, elsewhere the sources go further. Campbell argues that “we are in a war today and God needs arrows for His army … When a warrior went out to war how many arrows would he want in his quiver? … He’d want to squeeze in as many as he could” (79). These arguments seem to be aimed at other Christians (perhaps limited natalists) who read Psalm 127 in a similar way but seek to justify ceasing from reproduction after a certain number. In addition, the popularity in the unlimited camp of the label Quiverfull, with its numerical connotation, is suggestive of natalism being present alongside other values.

Advocates of limited (or ordinary) natalism rarely specify particular numbers but do present ideals about family size, and occasionally mention a typical number or desirable range. Calvin Beisner judges it “difficult to reconcile the present preference for small families – usually not more than two children per couple – with this Biblical view of children” as blessings (Beisner, Where Garden Meets Wilderness 182). Daniel Akin laments that “we have bought into the mindset of the modern world in that we think that less children is … better,” and he urges “pastors” to “point out that Psalm 128 talks about the beautiful gift … God blesses the one who has a large number of them.” He suggests “if you have one child as opposed to four, five or six, then you have a much smaller initial mission field” (Wax). They accept the number will and should vary depending on individual circumstances, but nevertheless they do recommend that couples aim for larger families than the contemporary U.S. average.

There has been criticism of natalist exaltation of numbers. A Baptist historian considers that Mohler’s teaching “sounds like thinly-veiled Mormon theology, in which large families are a sign of godliness and … part of the salvation equation” (Gourley). Also, narratives in Joyce testify to negative emotions among adherents who fail to achieve high fecundity (Joyce 180, 207). This highlights a problem in natalist practice, but natalist writers rarely claim that high fecundity is evidence of divine approval, though Nancy Campbell suggests that “God shows respect to us by multiplying us” (Campbell 35). Houghton warns his over-enthusiastic readers that we cannot “ascertain the degree to which God has blessed a family by simply counting the number of children” (84). Sproul similarly makes clear that “this does not mean that one can measure the level of favor one has with God by the number” of children (Sproul 49). Natalist practice may have this tendency if, by analogy with a crude version of the Protestant work ethic, children are evidence of one’s character and election. Natalists, however, can reasonably respond that these are merely abuses which are inevitable among fallible human adherents.

Universal or ecclesiastical?

Who is called to high fecundity: is it particularly Christians or also people of other religions? Natalists do not speak with one voice on this question. One writer, Allan Carlson, consistently advocates universal application. Though his arguments mostly concern social welfare, economics, and demography, he also includes exegesis of texts from Genesis 1-11 and points out that the “admonition” to multiply “occurred well before” anyone began to “call on the name of the Lord” (4:26) and that Genesis “shows the family as pre-existing the church” (Carlson and Mero 86). This blessing is Adamic and he claims it was not lost or superseded by the Abrahamic blessing or any later covenant. I call this “universal” natalism.

For some writers the blessings are not oriented to reproduction by unbelievers, but are only for Christians bearing godly offspring. The clearest advocate of what can be labelled “particular” or “sectarian” natalism is Mary Pride who asserts: “Scripture draws a fundamental distinction between the children of the righteous (of whom there are never enough) and the children of the wicked (of whom there are always too many)” (Pride 63). Heine similarly asks rhetorically, “is it the church or the Hindus who have inherited God’s promises to Adam and Abraham to be fruitful and multiply and subdue the earth?” His answer is the church, and he claims for Christianity both the Adamic and Abrahamic blessings. Heine warns about Muslim fertility, writing that “Christianity’s biggest competitors have no qualms about bedroom-based growth programs” (Heine 9). For these writers it is appropriate that exhortations to high fecundity are aimed only at Bible-believing Christians.

Many of the writers do not explicitly confine the scope of natalist exhortation to Christians. I turn to implicit evidence. For example, Provan qualifies his slogan “the more children the better” in another place as “the more children a believing couple has, the better” (Provan 8). Others address Christians and refer only to Christian fecundity: a useful test would be to ask them whether they want higher Muslim fecundity. Daniel Akin worries about the relative difference in birth rates between diverse groups in Europe and warns that “Muslims will simply, by a natural process, outnumber the white Europeans” (Wax). Leaving aside Akin’s confusion of religion and ethnicity, this suggests that his natalism is not of the universal type. In most of the natalist sources the focus is on reproduction by Christians.

A sectarian motive is implied where one argument for natalism is competitive advantage. Hess quotes Psalm 105:24 where God “caused His people to be very fruitful, and made them stronger than their adversaries,” portraying fecundity as a path for Christianity to gain political power in the U.S. (177). Pride estimates the number of genuine Christians and then calculates that if every such family in the U.S. had six children while other families had only one, the nation would soon become predominantly Christian (Pride 80). The imagined Other in the U.S. are secular liberals, but globally there are different others to compete with demographically. Campbell claims that Muslims are “the fastest growing religion in the world through their birth rate” and urges readers to gain a “vision to invade the earth with mighty sons and daughters” (197). French anticipates that by having bigger families “we will be able to overwhelm the enemy by sheer numbers” (56). All such hopes depend on Christian fecundity being persistently greater than others’ fecundity, which suggests their natalism is of the “particular” or sectarian type.

Survey of natalist arguments

Religious natalist arguments can be placed in two categories that I label extrinsic and intrinsic, and which might function as “carrots” and “sticks.” The latter are claims about duty and obligation deriving either from God’s commands, or from a wish to conform to God’s purposes as revealed in the Bible and the order of created nature. However it is not all duty: the extrinsic arguments purport to show the various ways in which additional offspring are beneficial to parents, siblings, the church, and their nation. Sproul claims that additional offspring are real benefits for the recipients: “We do not begrudgingly leave the size of our family in God’s hand because he says children are a reward and it would be insulting … to say ‘No thank you.’ Rather … they are actual blessings” (Sproul 48).

More blessings

The most common natalist argument is that parents should welcome additional blessings. Writing in the Journal of Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, Presbyterian pastor Tim Bayly argues that since “Christians are to seek God’s gifts and blessings, our fundamental attitude toward the gift of babies should be to pursue – not reject – them.” Limited and unlimited natalists develop this in different directions. Heine, while affirming that “In a general sense … the more children, the bigger the blessing” (30), accepts some “valid reasons” why parents want smaller families than in the past, including “extended education” (25). Unlimited natalists, however, push the blessing further: Doug Philips asks rhetorically whether “children cease to be a blessing after a certain number” (Houghton: xv). Charles Provan has a clear answer, that “children are a blessing from God: the more the better” (7).

The general principle that additional quantity equates to greater blessing is defective. Even the Old Testament has a concept of surfeit which, though never applied to human fertility, suggests that excess of one kind of blessing can be detrimental to other blessings. Sleep is a blessing (Psalms 127:2), but an excess causes poverty (Proverbs 6:10-11; 24:33). Conversely, wealth is a blessing, but “the abundance of a rich man permits him no sleep” (Ecclesiastes 5:12, NIV). In the life of each individual and each community different kinds of blessing should be in balance. Acquisition of too many “blessings” may damage long-term interests, may even lead one to ignore God who is the source of all blessing. Israel is warned to “beware that you do not forget the LORD … when your herds and flocks multiply … and all that you have multiplies” (Deuteronomy 8:11-14, NASB).

The meaning of blessing is transformed in Christian tradition. In the New Testament, the word translated as blessing refers to salvation, as in 1 Peter 3:9 where “inherit blessing” has an eschatological referent. Westermann surveys the wider semantic field of blessing and argues that a few New Testament verses retain the Old Testament material references (Blessing 79, 85, 90). For example, blessing still applies to the maturing and health of the child Jesus (Luke 2:52). Blessing in the New Testament, however, is never applied to marriage or childbearing. In any case, Westermann agrees that the primary reference of blessing is now spiritual. Insofar as material prosperity persists as an aspect of blessing, it is transferred from the genetic kin group to the church as spiritual family. Now its “recipient was the community assembled for worship” (Westermann, Blessing 47). This speaks against a universalist type of natalism. For the church, it suggests that the emphasis should be placed on blessings and prosperity which are spiritual. Peter Cotterell warns that in prosperity theology “promises appropriate to one covenant are imported inappropriately into the second” (20). Natalist interpretation deserves a similar rebuke.

Blessing to families

Natalists claim that large families help siblings, parents, the church, and the nation. Children benefit in moral development, natalists argue, from having many siblings. They have “many more opportunities to learn to share” (French 91). Tim Bayly praises “the unique ability of large families to pass on some of the greatest of human virtues: sharing, helping, listening, being patient, giving up one’s individualism for the sake of the group” (Bayly 15). The extreme case is a family in which parents have just one child. Bayly wonders “what effect will such a drastic decrease in the size of our families have on the moral development of our children?” (15). Nancy Campbell quotes Psalm 68:6, “God sets the solitary in families” (NKJV),68 and argues that one meaning of the text is that “He will bless an only child by giving them family” (Campbell 41). The implication is that it is ungodly for parents to deprive an only child of a sibling by deliberately limiting their reproduction.

This amounts to a religious version of a widespread cultural prejudice, drawing upon a modern Western myth of the maladjusted only child. That stereotype is challenged by Bill McKibben in his book Maybe One? The myth began in the U.S. in the 1890s, and has persisted despite research findings that only children are not less sociable or more selfish than children with siblings (20-45). And whereas there is no systematic difference in terms of moral and social development, Judith Blake found that on measures of achievement children do better the fewer siblings they have (Blake, 1989: 73). From data that included families with seven or more children, she concluded that “contrary to any romantic notions ... about life in large families, the outcome measures we have used do not recommend family groups of this size as childrearing units” (6).

Material benefit from the labor of additional offspring is claimed by a few natalists. Craig Houghton observes that “older children in the family can be of great assistance in the functioning of the home ... in a variety of chores” (Houghton 80). Nancy Campbell quotes “my children have gone from me, and they are not; there is no one to spread my tent again and to set up my curtains” (Jeremiah 10:20), and suggests that “the more children we have the more help we have around the home.” She mentions a mother who lives near her and has nineteen children, with ten still at home: “she trained them well and confesses that she now lives like a Queen” (Campbell 74). But domestic work alone does not offset the cost of children to U.S. parents, and even if agrarian or workshop tasks are available, the time required for compulsory education makes it difficult for parents to profit. USDA, the Department of Agriculture, estimates direct spending per child up to age seventeen to be above $150,000 even for low-income families (Lino, 2012: 14). If the opportunity cost of lost wages is added, the total is nearer a million dollars (Longman, 2004: 73). In the ancient agrarian context, a child that survived to adulthood yielded a net economic gain for parents, a material blessing, but in the U.S. today that is unlikely.

Elderly parents benefit from having many supportive children. Max Heine cites a verse in which “the women” rejoice with Naomi that her newborn grandson will be the “nourisher of your old age” (Ruth 4:15), and he claims that “grown-up children … still can be today the best insurance available” because they “provide housing, food, fellowship and basic care” for elderly parents (Heine 232). Al Mohler warns people with few or no children that they are likely to suffer when they become old (“The Real Population Threat”). The underlying assumption is that elderly people will be cared for by their biological offspring – and because some children may fail to live up to that obligation, it is safer for parents to have a larger number.

Contrary to natalism, the idea that each person needs their own children to care for them in old age has never been generally applicable, not least because in the pre-modern era between 5% and 8% of marriages were infertile (Eijkemans 1307), while in medieval Europe more than 10% of women never married. So spreading responsibility among a wider kin or social group has always been essential for the care of the elderly. The New Testament affirms a wider vision: for example, Jesus on the cross entrusts his mother’s care to a disciple (John 19:26) and not to any of his relatives. Similarly, early congregations looked after widows (Acts 6:1; James 1:27) on the basis of their membership of the body of Christ and regardless of whether or not they were genetic kin. The modern welfare state universalized and secularized the pattern of caring for all the elderly as a national responsibility.

Ancestral lineage and dynasty

Continuity of lineage is presented as another benefit, which can be divided between concern for long-range lineage and desire for grandchildren (which is qualitatively different because the grandparents are alive and interacting with living children). Campbell claims that Psalm 128:6 teaches that parents have a duty not to “deprive our parents of their reward and glory in their old age … grandchildren” (202). Heine observes that “grandchildren are the crown of the aged” (Proverbs 17:6), and he urges parents to try hard to provide them (230). This chimes with the wider culture as most people who have adult children do want to engage with grandchildren while they live, but have less concern for lineage.

Natalists argue for perpetuation of family name, which implies a requirement for male descendants. Heine claims that a “family name can signify a personalized embodiment of God’s physical and spiritual blessings,” and he points to the biblical custom of marrying a dead brother’s widow to save his lineage (Deuteronomy 25:6). Heine does not suggest anyone follow that custom, but he uses it paradigmatically to show the importance of perpetuating a man’s name (76-79). Campbell cites Isaiah 66:22 to support her claim that “it is important to have children to carry on the family name” because it “guarantees the future” and the “family lineage” (Campbell 93). She observes that “it is not as easy as you would think … it took fifteen grandchildren before we got one to carry on the family name!” (97).69 It is true that ancient Israelites were concerned about family name: it was part of a set of ideas, to be explored in chapter 4, that valued past lineage and venerated ancestors. The question is whether Christians should imitate this.

A duty to one’s parents and forefathers to continue their lineage was normal in pre-modern cultures, but was challenged by early Christianity. Saint Basil the Great (one of the Cappadocian Fathers, and a key developer of the Nicene Creed) identified the social instinct to build one’s dynasty as a bad habit which Christians must break (Brown 291). Roman fathers arranged marriages to safeguard their lineage, but Ambrose, bishop of Milan, celebrated those young people who resisted parental pressure to marry. He urged their peers to “conquer family loyalty first” (Brown 344). An early hagiography, the Life of Thecla, portrayed pagans opposing preachers of resurrection with the riposte that “true resurrection” is simply “the succession of children born from us, by which the image of those who begot them is renewed,” for these replicas “move among the living, as if risen from the dead” (Brown 7; ANF 8.488). Two different visions of how to achieve immortality were clashing.

Tertullian, aiming primarily at childless widowers who wanted to remarry, rebuked those “who go in quest of offspring!” He was appalled “that Christians should be concerned about posterity … Is a servant of God to hope for heirs, when he has disinherited himself from the world?” He and other Church Fathers quoted the biblical promise that “a childless man has an everlasting name” (Isaiah 55:5). Tertullian asked disapprovingly if a man seeks offspring “to perform the last rites over his grave!” (ANF 4.57). A major purpose of raising descendants was to ensure burial and memorial (Brichto 4), but Jesus told a potential disciple to “leave the dead to bury their own dead” (Matthew 8:21, ESV). The New Testament supports obligations for the welfare of living parents, but there is no duty to provide grandchildren, nor to perpetuate ancestors’ genes. Ancient and modern visions of immortality through descendants are incompatible with belief in a personal resurrection.

A step beyond perpetuation of name is aggrandizement of the lineage. Women “built up the house” (Ruth 4:11) or dynasty by reproducing (Campbell 91). Philip Lancaster, editor of Patriarch magazine, urges that “each man should aim to be the founder of a dynasty for God” (93). Doug Phillips, the pastor of Boerne church and leader of Vision Forum, led five hundred participants with Geoff Botkin at a conference entitled “The 200 Year Plan: A Practicum on Multi-Generational Faithfulness” in 2008. Phillips predicted that those “men who father many … will preside over a dynasty of thousands in four generations” (Kaufmann 95). That hubris preceded Phillips’ fall in 2013.70 Botkin forecasted that a man could become the “patriarch of 186,000 male descendants within two centuries” and, in an echo of Rebekah’s blessing (Genesis 24:60), he reports praying over his newborn daughter that she will be the “future mother of tens of millions” (Joyce 217, 229). If the following generations accept their role (which is uncertain),71 then such dynastic visions could have significant demographic consequences.

Building the church

Adult members of a denomination can be categorized by their origin: whether they are children of members or not. Some statisticians of religion make a distinction between two modes of recruitment: retention of those reared inside the church (also called endogenous or natural growth), and conversion of those reared outside (Johnson and Grim 114). Growth by conversion is implicitly discounted by natalists. “If the Christian birth rate matches that of secular society, every year the numerical gap between believers and unbelievers will increase. Every year our influence will dwindle,” lament Rick and Jan Hess (166). That statement assumes a long-term negative rate of conversion, with the number of Christians’ offspring choosing to leave the church greater than the number of converts coming in. Campbell observes that “some Christian couples … do not want children” and warns that if all of them “took this attitude, Christianity would be wiped from the earth. It is our children who carry on God’s word” (Campbell 37). That assumes a complete and persistent absence of any conversions from among the children born to non-Christian parents, and is symptomatic of the loss of confidence in evangelism evident among some natalists.

Others claim the evangelistic mode depends on the endogenous mode. The “most obvious way to raise more missionaries is to raise more godly children” (Hess 173), and so “by having more children” we are “contributing to world evangelism” (169). Again a mechanistic assumption lies behind this idea: that a constant percentage of offspring will become missionaries. A more radical natalist argument is that parenthood is in itself evangelism. Pride draws a comparison between two methods: “Missionaries go to foreign countries to beget new Christians; mothers get pregnant to beget new Christians” (Pride 57). She describes the latter mode as “maternal missionary work” and rebukes women with few children for “giving up our God-given role as the greatest evangelists” (81). Rick and Jan Hess imagine attending a missionary meeting where “you may hear” the classic threefold call: “you can pray; you can give; you can go!” They suggest that one might “stand up and boldly say ‘And you can reproduce!’” (174). In churches whose teachings or culture do not encourage women to be evangelists or apostles (which are highly esteemed vocations), this portrayal of biological fecundity as “evangelism” presents motherhood as an accessible alternative religious vocation for women.

A related claim is that fecundity raises the probability of producing a special epoch-changing hero of faith. “Who can tell but that one special combination of genes will produce the greatest revival preacher” (Pride 77). Heine cites the text (from Isaiah 49:1-6) that “he made me a polished arrow; in his quiver he hid me away … who formed me from the womb to be his servant … as a light for the nations” (Heine 115). Christian tradition read that as a messianic prophecy, now natalists appropriate it for their offspring. Transformed from messianic to heroic it becomes a goal for parents, and French admits that “I am expecting a lot from my children” (French 60). However this probabilistic effort to raise the chance of generating a hero suggests a strange view of the Holy Spirit, who surely can do that regardless of the quantity of births, or even transform a convert born outside the church.

Natalists emphasize the endogenous mode of church growth. Tim Bayly suggests that “bearing and raising of children, then, may well be the most neglected method of evangelism today” (15). Notice the word “evangelism” taken beyond its traditional meaning again there. Samuel Owen is ambivalent: he distances himself from others’ claims that “we should have as many children as we can so as to Christianize the world” (71), which he considers a dubious motive for parenthood, but he also states that reproduction has “vital and long-range implications for the church” and “will strengthen the corporate body” (128). Some natalist writers calculate potential growth generations into the future. Rick and Jan Hess imagine a church where each couple has eight children and, allowing for one in eight being called to singleness, calculates that such a church could increase “from 40 to 12,890 in three generations” (175). If this model of church growth were adopted across America then “we would be part of a replay of Exodus 1:7” (171), a reference to the Israelites multiplying in Egypt. The plan can only work if most descendants end up Christian. “God does not promise that all of our children will be Christians, but we see Him working that way very often in families” (170).

A few natalists give the impression that the offspring of Christians have an intrinsic spiritual quality different from other babies, for example claiming that “we are able to … reproduce spiritual children biologically” (Watters 41). Mary Pride asserts that the offspring of a Christian are “sacred” (Pride 22). These ideas are variously based on the designation of offspring as “holy” (1 Corinthians 7:14), on the hereditary covenant, and on the model of circumcision. However, if we consider the case of a Christian household with two infants, one of whom is adopted, unless natalists want to claim higher spiritual status for the natural infant over the other they must concede that biological reproduction per se offers no advantage. A stronger rationale, and one that appears far more often in natalist literature, is that the real goal is influencing children, and that biological parenthood secures custody and power over education.72

Large families do not guarantee endogenous church growth: that depends on most of those children growing up to become Christians. And achievement of the long-range multi-generational plans also requires that the aspiration to large family size is accepted by each generation. Transmission of beliefs is essential. Houghton offers a forecast of multi-generational exponential growth but warns that it will only happen if “example and teaching are passed along” (76). Wilson, Doriani, Watters, and Houghton all cite the verse fragment “what was the one God seeking? Godly offspring” (Malachi 2:15, ESV) in support of this point, and Owen quotes Proverbs 22:6, “Train up a child in the way he should go” (88). The revival of Protestant natalism began inside the homeschooling movement of which Mary Pride was a founder (she also edits Practical Homeschooling magazine). Many other natalist writers are homeschoolers: for example, the French family schooled seven children, and Houghton nine. Not all natalists are homeschoolers, but the importance of upbringing is always a key feature of natalists’ beliefs.

As we have seen, natalists claim that the best way to bring people under the influence of Christianity is for Christians to give birth to them. For example, Al Mohler maintains that “Those who do not reproduce become, by default, less influential in the society. Meanwhile, those who do reproduce have the opportunity to inculcate their own worldview within their children” (Mohler, ‘‘Of Babies and Believers’’). Historically, however, Christian influence on children has extended well beyond the relation conferred by childbirth. First, legal custody can be granted by adoption. Until the 20th century in most Catholic countries, abandoned babies (called “foundlings”) were often donated to the church and, after initial rearing by wet-nurses, some were brought up by religious institutions until the age of fourteen. Though many were added to the church in this way, the rearing of foundlings was a response to need rather than a tactic for church growth. Also parents could, following the example of Hannah who donated her firstborn to God’s service (1 Samuel 1:28), give a child to the church’s service as an oblate. However, in 656 AD the Synod of Toledo set a minimum age of ten since the spiritual formation of older children by religious orders was a better use of their time.

Beyond custody, a more direct way to achieve the goal of formative education was the day-school model in which the natural parents undertake to house and feed their children while the church focuses on providing their spiritual formation. This became by far the more common approach to religious upbringing: the foundation of Christian schools around the world inducted vast numbers of people into the church during the history of missions (Lewis, 2004: 165). From 1890 onward, in Uganda and other developing countries missionaries and indigenous Christians ran village schools teaching literacy, as well as high schools and seminaries. These contributed greatly to the rise of Christianity in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia. The day-school approach was fruitful and prolific in adding to the Church.

A radical critique would question the primacy of training. Youthful formation or its lack do not determine salvation because of the Holy Spirit’s freedom (John 3:8). Conversion is the only way to enter the church, regardless of ancestry. Eusebius of Caesarea in Demonstratio Evangelica discusses the question, “Why a numerous offspring is not as great a concern to us as it was” for the Old Testament patriarchs. Eusebius asks: “why were they keenly concerned with marriage and reproduction, while we to some extent disregard it?” The answer was that they “wished to hand on to posterity the fiery seed of their own religion … [and] They knew they could be the teachers and guides of their families.” But the reasons for “the ancient men of God begetting children cannot apply to Christians today,” considers Eusebius. He admits that reproduction was how God’s people grew in the old covenant era, but now celibate “preachers of the word … bring up not one or two children but a prodigious number” by spiritual birth. The new way of Jesus is more effective, as Christians now are “multiplying daily, according to the divine commandment, ‘Increase and multiply and replenish the earth’ which in them is fulfilled more truly and divinely” through evangelism and teaching (157).

The actors in church-building are spiritual fathers and mothers, not biological ones. Karl Barth sees God as the only true father (see Ephesians 3:15; Matthew 23:9) and humans as reflecting true parenthood insofar as they teach the Gospel. Mission and discipleship from the older (in faith) to the younger is the essence of Christian “reproduction,” and natural parenthood is just one aspect of that, which Barth calls “incidental” (Barth 244). New Testament usage of parental and kin language indicates that the spiritual connection is primary, while the blood relation is secondary (1 Timothy 1:2,18; Titus 1:4; 1 Corinthians 4:15; Philemon 10). Jesus says that the disciples are new brothers, and conversely the biological family may be enemies (Mark 3:31; 13:12; Luke 14:26). Paul calls the Corinthians his children, and Barth judges this more than a mere figure of speech (244). Basil the Great similarly refers to the example of celibate older women who inspire young women’s conversion as the “holy lineage” of faith (Brown 278).

Building the nation

Natalists argue that citizens have a duty to increase their nation’s population by bearing children. The most cited verse in this connection is Proverbs 14:28, “A large population is a king’s glory, but without subjects a prince is ruined” (NIV). Some natalists, including Campbell, favor this paraphrase: “A growing population is a king’s glory; a dwindling nation is his doom” (NLT).73 Either way, one might think Americans would not be worried as the U.S. not only has a large population (third after China and India), but also has faster growth than other developed countries, much of it driven by a substantial surplus of births above deaths each year. However, the worry is relative size by comparison with other nations, and future change. Campbell notes that in 1950 the “industrial democracies” constituted 22% of world population, but “if trends continue … we will only be 5% by 2100,” and she quotes “a dwindling nation is his doom” (Campbell, 2005: 197). So a population that is growing in absolute terms is perceived as “dwindling” in relative global rank.

The other half of that verse in Proverbs 14 is also significant for natalists, “a large population is a king’s glory” (NIV). This “king’s glory” is interpreted in two ways. First, by democratic transfer, it becomes an attribute of the nation which gains importance through a large population. Second, it brings honor to God because outsiders will see how God blesses America. Campbell points to Isaiah 26:15 and quotes the NKJV, “you have increased the nation, O Lord … you are glorified” (44). However, that text probably refers to land, as other translations indicate: “you have enlarged the nation. You have gained glory for yourself; you have extended all the borders of the land” (NIV). Even the NLT, one reads that “you have made us great. You have extended our borders, and we give you the glory!”

Houghton cites the same verse to support his claim that “there needs to be a growing population, otherwise destruction looms” (Houghton, 2007: 34). The danger is from rival nations. Campbell notes that Israelites in the time of Solomon were “as many as the sand by the sea” (1 Kings 4:20-34). She observes that they “dwelt safely” in the land and points to a verse telling us Israel had 12,000 cavalry (Campbell 29), suggesting military strength through numbers. Some also worry about America’s allies being less fecund than their enemies. Heine claims that those nations which “embody Western values are not replacing their own stock,” which is ominous for “American strength and influence” (Heine 28) because supposedly antagonistic nations and religions are at the same time expanding their numbers.

Military language features, especially among some unlimited natalists.74 French explains that “God gives us our children for a reason,” which is to build “a righteous nation that will not falter in the face of enemy activity” (French 14). The nation here refers to the U.S. Campbell laments that “we have many enemies in the gates of our nation” and calls for more arrows (a metaphor for sons): “Where are the arrows to combat these enemies?” (Campbell 81). In context this probably refers to spiritual warfare, or to non-violent political conflict, but sometimes it is ambiguous. Heine is the only writer to explicitly find contemporary military significance in the metaphor of Psalm 127. He observes that arrows were weapons: “They killed enemies.” He links them to both spiritual and literal warfare: “Is this to say we should reckon children as budding soldiers? Yes, but not merely in the military sense” because they are also spiritual warriors. Heine rejects the idea that numbers are not decisive in technological warfare by arguing that “nuclear weapons may threaten and deter, but it is warm bodies who perform the bread and butter of maintaining bases, fleets, and reserve units” (Heine 231). This is unusual: none of my other sources explicitly point to military might as a benefit of natalism. However, given their hermeneutic insistence that the material meanings of old promises remain true in the new covenant, persisting in parallel with spiritual meanings, the military interpretation is not ruled out.

Early Christianity did not teach any duty to perpetuate by reproduction the particular nation (or ethnic group) into which a Christian was born. The church superseded national loyalty, so now “there is not Greek and Jew … barbarian and Scythian” (Colossians 3:11). A continuing plurality of nations is assumed in the New Testament (Revelation 21:26), but no particular nation-state is guaranteed continuity. For example, while discussing the various reasons why some childless widower men were still desperate for offspring Tertullian asked scathingly: “Is it, perchance, for the commonwealth … for fear States fail, if no rising generations be trained up?” (ANF 4.57). He considers this an unworthy motive. However, after the modern rise of nationalist ideology, some church leaders did present the aggrandizing of their nation as a Christian duty, and natalists are heirs of that recent tradition.

Population and the economy

Alongside the role of birth rates in national survival, glory, and security, is a belief that a growing national population helps the economy. Natalists detect a link in Scripture between fecundity and national prosperity, and perceive a causal relation then and now. Campbell asserts that “a growing population is necessary for a successful economic climate,” and she finds that “the Bible links these two factors together” (Campbell 30). She quotes the Living Bible version of Isaiah 29:23, “when they see the surging birth rate and the expanding economy, then they will fear and rejoice in my name.” However, the link expressed in that paraphrase is not apparent in any reputable scholarly translation.75 Pride claims that in the U.S., “centuries of healthy population growth have brought us a better standard of living” (Pride 60), and she cites Proverbs 14:28 again. Some argue that modern economic systems depend for their viability upon persistent population growth and that this confirms the latter is God’s design. Heine claims that fecundity is a “blessing to the free market” (Heine 27). “When population growth is stagnant … it undermines the entire economy,” explains Heine, and he warns the “growth constant that has fuelled the dynamo of capitalism will be gone” if birth rates fail to rise (213).

This aspect of natalism has affinities with secular neoliberal economics. In particular, cornucopian ideology claims that population can grow indefinitely.76 A leading theorist was Julian Simon, whose central argument was that the “ultimate resource” is human ingenuity which overcomes any constraint on material resources, and so moderate population growth assists economic growth and is sustainable.77 Simon argued: “We now have … the technology to feed, clothe, and supply energy to an ever-growing population for the next 7 billion years” (Myers and Simon 165). One idea is that more people means more inventive genius to overcome ecological constraints. French offers this as a reason for seeking to bear additional offspring (85): “What if the Lord … gives you a future great scientist who finds a clean burning fuel that will help clear pollution?”

Calvin Beisner,78 who was one of Julian Simon’s students, provides the most systematic exposition of biblical arguments for the belief that population growth stimulates economic growth. Beisner’s cornucopian idea is based on a particular construal of how human beings are images of God.79 He observes others’ concerns that population growth multiplies pollution and resource use, while discerning that the “vision of humankind that underlies these two concerns” is that “humankind is principally a consumer,” whereas “the Bible gives us a very different vision of humankind” (Beisner, “Imago177). Beisner’s first step is to identify creativity as an aspect of imaging God. His next step is to claim that this “different vision begets a different prediction: that people, because God made them in His image to be creative and productive,” will create “more resources than we consume” (183). Therefore, “continued population growth will result not in the depletion but in the increased abundance of resources” (190). That, in brief, is the cornucopian fantasy.

Beisner, as a Calvinist, has to wrestle with an ancillary point: for his vision of the imago Dei as beneficial creativity to be economically relevant, it must be vibrant in all people, or at least common and not limited to Christians.80 He accepts Calvin’s teaching that the image at the Fall was mostly effaced, but Beisner finds a solution by proposing that Christ has restored the imago Dei not only in Christians but also in other people. “Environmentalists assume that people are principally consumers and polluters; Biblical Christians assume that people are principally intelligent, well-meaning, creative producers and stewards, because that is what God made them to be and what He has been transforming them to be through the redeeming work of Christ” (Beisner, Where Garden Meets Wilderness 111). In a defensive footnote he clarifies that he is not teaching universalism (that everyone is saved), but instead making a distinction between salvation (for Christians) and the restoration of Christ’s image (for other people). Beisner’s distinction is a deviation from historic Calvinism. By contrast, Doug Wilson, another natalist Calvinist, avoids making the transformation universal, for although he repeats the cornucopian mantra he qualifies its scope: “when we are obedient to God, we produce more than we consume” (Wilson 123).

Other natalists, while not necessarily adhering to cornucopian ideology, consider that in contemporary America, in the context of a low birth rate, and an ageing population, higher Christian fecundity contributes positively to economic prosperity, and they see this as one way in which it is a real blessing. That perception is challenged in my final chapter. Moving on from the extrinsic material benefits of offspring and the duties toward family and society discussed above, the next section looks at intrinsic reasons for natalism that concern obligations toward God. However, the distinction is not absolute because obeying the divine will (as perceived by natalists) is often also presented as yielding rewards in this life.

Divine command

The imperative grammar of the phrase “be fruitful and multiply” is taken to indicate God’s will for every married couple to seek to conceive offspring. Various terms are used to describe this imperative: command, instruction, order, mandate, ordinance, and call. Most authors use a selection of these terms as synonyms. Though the word “command” is more popular among unlimited natalists, it is also used by large-but-limited natalists, for example Al Mohler asserts that “Couples are not given the option of chosen childlessness in the biblical revelation. To the contrary, we are commanded to receive children with joy as God’s gifts” (Mohler, “Deliberate Childlessness”). The word is only used by Mohler in the context of deliberately childfree couples, but others apply it more broadly, for example Tim Bayly writes that:

God commanded Adam and Eve – and Noah as well – to be fruitful and multiply … Throughout history Christians have acknowledged God’s command “be fruitful and multiply” to be binding: for millennia bearing children has been viewed not as a matter of preference but as an act of obedience. (Bayly 15)

For ordinary natalists there is still an imperative to seek a large family, but contemporary application will vary depending on circumstances and how many children a couple already has. Owen claims that “the Fall has not eliminated God’s commands. It has, however, created a tension between the ideal and its realization.” Consequently, “in certain situations couples may be unable to comply” and then family limitation may be permissible (Owen 78). For them the original command conveys a paradigmatic principle, not an inflexible rule.

Unlimited natalists are less willing to allow for dispensational differences, and for them the command applies today as it did in the past. Provan argues: “Nowhere is this command done away with in the entire Bible; therefore it still remains valid for us today” (Provan 5). He points to the precedent of Exodus 36, where God commands items be brought for the tabernacle and later tells Moses they should stop bringing items as there are enough. This is interpreted as indicating that a norm that commands must be obeyed until an explicit countermand is given, for “he would let us know when the world was full” (42). Heine similarly claims the imperative has not lapsed, for “God put no expiration date on His order” (Heine 58).

Some natalists claim that a divinely spoken verbal countermand is required, but many Old Testament commands and laws have been deemed obsolete by Christians without any explicit repeal in the New Testament.81 In any case the Church Fathers believed that clear guidance had been given about this command “be fruitful,” because the choice by Jesus to not marry spoke loudly of a new dispensation. Barth proclaims that “post Christum natum the propagation of the race [humankind] … has ceased to be an unconditional command” (Barth 268) and “the burden of the postulate that we should and must bear children … is removed from us all … Parenthood is now only to be understood as a free and in some sense optional gift” (266). Reproduction is now not divinely commanded.

What and who is commanded, and when?

Early Judaism and early Christianity had a similar view of what “be fruitful” originally commanded. Given a belief that only God can “open the womb,” it was not within human power to guarantee successful and prolific childbearing, so that could not be commanded. Instead it was a command to marry and fulfill conjugal obligations. An early Christian writer, Jerome, observed that “so long as that law remained, ‘Increase and multiply’ … they all married” (NPNF2 6:344). It was a universal obligation. Post-biblical Judaism around AD 200 similarly interpreted “be fruitful” as a command to marry which was held to still apply: “a man is not permitted to dwell without a wife” (Cohen 134, citing Tosefta 8.4). Maimonides in the 12th century drew on earlier traditions in developing his rabbinic opinion: “When does a man become obligated by this commandment? If his 20th year has passed and he still has not married, he transgresses” (134).82 A man sins if he evades this duty by remaining single. That idea is at least internally coherent, but it is incompatible with Christianity because Jesus “committed no sin” (1 Peter 2:22), so it cannot be a sin to follow his example of avoiding marriage beyond age twenty.

Surveys of early Christian writing (in East and West) find a consensus that the command to “be fruitful” was temporary and had been abolished (243, 37). For example, Tertullian says the new covenant “abolished the ancient command to increase and multiply” (ANF 4.40). Cyprian, a leading African bishop born around AD 200, observes that “the first decree commanded to increase and to multiply; the second enjoined continence” (ANF 5.436). Basil the Great wrote “to every one who is thinking about marriage I testify that, ‘the fashion of this world passeth away’ ... If he improperly quotes the charge ‘Increase and multiply,’ I laugh at him, for not discerning the signs of the times” (NPNF2 8:214). Jerome cites 1 Corinthians 7:29 and explains that “in accordance with the difference in time and circumstance one rule applied to the former, another to us” (NPNF2 6:344).

Natalists take a different path. For them “be fruitful” is not addressed to all humankind but only to married couples, and it is not a command to marry but a command to reproduce. Provan calls Genesis 1:28 a “command to mankind” but immediately qualifies it as a “command to a married couple” (Provan, 1989: 5). He clarifies that it is “not an absolute command for all people, just married people” (41). Owen argues that once someone chooses to marry then the mandate begins to apply to them (Owen, 2001: 39). Natalists assume that “be fruitful” (1:28) was spoken to Adam and Eve after their marriage (2:25). “What are the first words the Bible records God speaking to Adam and Eve as a couple? Be fruitful” (Watters 38).

One problem with this idea is that Genesis chapter 1, where the words “be fruitful” appear, is apparently universal in scope: “God created mankind ... male and female he created them” (Genesis 1:27, NIV). So in the next verse when God says “be fruitful,” the words address all humankind. Chapter 1 is a wide-angle view. It is in the close-up narrative in chapters 2 and 3 that the couple Adam and Eve feature. Another problem is that “be fruitful” (in chapter 1) canonically precedes the first “marriage” at the end of chapter 2. Finally, because Genesis 1:28 includes the verbs “subdue” and “have dominion” alongside “be fruitful,” this interpretation has to imagine half the verse addressed only to married people, while the remainder does not exclude single people who are addressed by the cultural mandate, especially since Jesus is the paragon of subduing (waves for example) and has true dominion.

Cultural mandate

The reproductive command was not arbitrary but was an integral part of the “cultural mandate”: God’s plan for humankind to fill the land and subdue it. Many natalists deploy this point. The reason for “God’s desire for families to be prolific” is the “Genesis mandate of filling the earth” and that purpose must still drive us today because “there is still land to be subdued” (Heine, 1989: 15, 84). Parents should “bring forth many children … to subdue the earth” and to “manage God’s creation” (Campbell 7, 14). This plan is the primary reason for marriage: “God gave Eve to Adam to be his helper. Why? Because Adam had been assigned a project … [to] fill the earth and subdue it … [so] the biblical reason for marriage is … to produce children” (Pride 19). Doug Wilson links another purpose of marriage to the mandate: the reasons for marriage are first, “companionship in the labor of dominion” because the “cultural mandate … is still in force,” and second, reproduction because man alone is helpless to fulfil that (19-20). Against the natalist concept, when Paul discusses why some Christians might choose to marry he does not mention children: the main reason is to prevent them falling into sexual immorality: “if they cannot control themselves, they should marry” (1 Corinthians 7:9, NIV).

The importance of humankind filling the world to advance God’s purpose is reinforced by a vision of the fallen cursed earth as a disordered place to which humankind is commissioned to bring order. Some, including Beisner and Andrews, add a belief that corruption of the earth and nonhuman creatures by fallen angels predates the creation of Adam, and that God’s intention for humankind was that they recapture fallen territory from Satan’s rule (Andrews 30) by multiplying and spreading from Eden. Beisner adds that humankind was mandated to expand the Garden of Eden with a goal of “transforming all the earth into a garden” (Beisner, “Imago” 185).83 Population growth therefore helps toward achieving the earth’s “cleansing and transformation from wilderness to garden” (190). Human reproduction operates here as part of a post-millennial program to reclaim the fallen Earth.84 Beisner’s interpretation makes the nonhuman world the primary location of disorder, and humankind becomes the agent capable of restoring the fallen cursed Earth. That is a grotesque reversal of the traditional interpretation of Genesis 3 in which the locus of sin and the Fall’s centre is located in the human beings whose corruption then affects other earthly creatures.

Order of created nature

Physiology shows that humans are designed for biological reproduction, and, according to natalists, this reveals God’s will for people today. Steve and Candice Watters claim that “our bodies testify” by their design to “the mysteries of our purpose” because form follows function.85 In other words, a physical capability for reproduction should determine an individual’s actions. They point also to lessons from nonhuman nature, citing Job 12:7 “ask the animals, and they will teach you” (Watters 35),86 and to Adam and Eve, for “He called them – and is still calling us … to be productive in fruitfulness … the full, abundant life that can only come through being fruitful” (34).87 However, the biblical text that institutes marriage between the first man and first woman does not even mention reproduction: it says, “Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh” (Genesis 2:24, ESV). From the unlimited camp, Nancy Campbell asserts: “We were born to reproduce! All nature and all mankind were created for this purpose” (Campbell 49).

One problem here is natalists prioritizing observed nature above traditional Christian teaching and practice. Early Christian writers commend examples of married people who for long periods avoided reproduction. Eusebius points to Isaac, Joseph, and others as men who “had children in early life, but later on abstained and ceased from having them.” Also, after the Flood Noah, “though he lived many years more, is not related to have begotten more children,” and Moses and Aaron “are recorded as having had children before the appearance of God, but after the giving of the divine oracles as having begotten no more children” (Eusebius 9). In the early church many married couples had children in the early years of their marriages and then entered a state of marital continence. A few went further, only reproducing minimally as a concession to ancestral and social expectations, and they are praised by patristic writers. For example, Melania agreed to bear one son and then, aged twenty, she and Pinianus settled into continence. Similarly, Therasia and Paulinus of Nola limited themselves to one son (Brown 409). Continuous childbearing by married women is not normative for Christians.

Marriage is presented by natalists as the default norm for Christians. “While a few are called to celibacy, the whole tenor of Scripture is that wedlock is the usual course of life for the majority” (Owen 30). Parents are urged to assume that all their children will be called to marriage and train them accordingly. Campbell cites 1 Timothy 5:8 and advises that “We should teach our sons … that God has placed the responsibility upon them to one day provide for a family” (Campbell 39). Some natalists acknowledge the prevalence of singleness among early church leaders and the biblical commendation of “eunuchs for the Kingdom.” This anomaly is dealt with by treating singleness as an exceptional state requiring a special gift and individual calling from God. A few natalists argue that commendation of singleness in 1st century Christianity was rooted in a belief that the end of the world was imminent.

However, some voices from Christian tradition indicate that marriage is not normative. Athenagoras, a Christian writer in the 2nd century, informs his readers that “you would find many among us, both men and women, growing old unmarried, in the hope of living in closer communion with God” (ANF 2.147). The new “image of God” in Christ is in its first instance a single person, unlike the original pair of humankind in Genesis. The apostle Paul commends singleness when he advises, “Are you unmarried? Do not seek a wife,” and also counsels that “he who does not marry her does even better” (1 Corinthians 7:27, 38). Though one reason why singleness was a better choice in Paul’s time was the “present crisis,” that may not be a uniquely 1st-century problem and could refer to the troubles Christians always face (Payette-Bucci 32). Paul says “those who marry will face many troubles in this life and I want to spare you this” (7:28). New Testament scholar Larry Yarbrough argues that “Paul’s silence about children and the benefits of married life was due not simply to the imminence of the end of the age, but also to the inappropriateness of most of the common arguments in favor of being married and producing children” (Yarbrough 108). Paul also advises that a single woman “is happier if she stays as she is” (1 Corinthians 7:40), and Payette-Bucci suggests that today “personal well-being and fulfillment” can be included among the reasons that adequately justify the Christian’s choice not to marry (Payette-Bucci 32).

Delay in beginning reproduction is rebuked by natalists. Campbell cites the benefit of “sons born in one’s youth” (Psalm 127) and judges that “God wants children to be born in our youth” (Campbell 108). Watters also cites the Psalm and urges couples to seek “children in your youth, the spring season of life” (92). Citing “a time to be born” (Ecclesiastes 3:1), Watters commends this “prime time for having babies, a window of opportunity” (85), and advocates early marriage as natural and normative. But through history, the average age at marriage has varied between cultures. In England in the early 17th century, the average age at (first) marriage was around 28 for men and 26 for women (Wrigley and Schofield 255). In general the age at marriage across Europe has been higher than in most other pre-modern cultures around the world. That age did fall during the Industrial Revolution, as waged workers did not need to wait until they inherited a farm before marrying. Today the average age at marriage in England of around 30 for women is higher than it was in 1600, though for a fair comparison any duration of pre-marital cohabitation ought to be deducted. The context of longer lifespans should also be considered. If we look at the life expectancy of females aged 15 (to exclude the effect of change in infant mortality), adult women back in 1600 could expect to live 48.2 years, while by 1989 they could expect to live 79.2 years. So women now are on average spending many more years married.

Natalists highlight supposed health risks of contraceptives. French wrongly claims that vasectomy causes auto-immune diseases and prostate cancer (French 41, 45). Campbell falsely claims that “the root cause of many diseases men suffer is vasectomy” (Campbell 183).88 The risk of delayed childbearing is deployed (and exaggerated) to commend a “natural” way of life. “Women who have a full pregnancy before the age of 18 have one third the breast cancer risk” of those who delay to age 30, and “women with the least breast cancer were those who had the most children” (Campbell 108). Two lines of argument are combined here: a promise that “none of these diseases” (Exodus 15:26) will afflict those obeying God (reproduction being the first commandment), and a belief that efforts to thwart the natural order of fertility are intrinsically unhealthy. While there can be problems associated with delayed childbearing, different personal costs are associated with youthful reproduction, and personal decisions weighing that balance are distorted by teaching that God expects youthful reproduction.

Discipline for parents

Some natalist writers regard parenthood as a discipline that conveys spiritual benefit. They believe that adults are shaped in Christian character by experiencing parenthood, and some regard it as the main instrument of Christian formation. Owen considers “family life … the most comprehensive of all disciplines” (Owen 64), and Kurt Bruner asserts that “the most direct and intentional path to … conforming our lives to the image of Christ … [is] in a word, parenthood” (Watters 10).89 The idea is not inherently natalist but can function that way. Two parameters of parental experience as a discipline are its intensity and duration. Intensity is not necessarily proportional to the number of offspring, and the labor of parenting one disadvantaged child might be lifelong. However, some claim that having numerous offspring is more powerfully formative than having a few. French claims that “With each child we have been forced to grow … in patience, faith, wisdom, and love,” and that, in general, “as we have more children, we mature more” (French 89, 91). Also if the most intense discipline is the care of infants, then not to limit that experience to a few years but to extend the total duration of infant rearing through additional births would be a stronger discipline.

Steve and Candice Watters describe some troubles of parenthood and then ask rhetorically “should we really encourage other couples to do this? This is brutal.” Then they answer their doubts with the belief that suffering produces Christian character, declaring “we just didn’t have many opportunities to rejoice in our sufferings before we had kids. We didn’t have the benefit of being tested by a furnace of affliction” (56).90 This reminds me of the voluntary “white martyrdom” of hair shirts embraced by some Christians after the Roman empire stopped persecuting them. For the minority among natalists who follow this idea (instead of expecting material benefits from offspring), rearing a large family functions as a new expression of religious asceticism for Americans who might otherwise have lived a comparatively easy life.

Sovereignty of God in planning families

Unlimited natalists claim that God controls fertility perfectly and therefore humans are foolish to intervene in the timing, spacing, or number of births. The first step is the assertion that “God opens and closes the womb! He alone decides when and … if we have any more children” (Hess 23). Many texts (including Genesis 29:31; 30:2 and 1 Samuel 1:6) are cited in support of this belief. The second step is to argue from divine omniscience and benevolence that “God Himself is our birth Controller … so perfectly that I have absolutely no reason to take over the responsibility,” and this constitutes a “doctrine of divine planned parenthood” (Hess 141). God’s control implies that “we cannot over-reproduce” because He would close the womb before that happened (86). This can be combined with the character-forming idea, for as individuals parents need different types and amounts of discipline, but only God knows what make-up of family they need, so parents should not try to arrange this. Hess asks rhetorically “Can I trust God to do the best for me in terms of family size and spacing?” (62).

Isaac was born at the “appointed time” (Genesis 21:1), showing that God’s timing is perfect, and Pride argues that He desires to “choose the best children for us,” but human planning can result in sub-optimal family design. “Spacing is the attempt to usurp God’s sovereignty by self-crafting one’s family,” and she cites Psalm 127 against those who “labor in vain … trying to build their families themselves.” We could miss a particular intended child due to bad timing in conception for “who can tell but that one special combination of genes will produce the greatest revival preacher … or the greatest musician” (Pride 77). More often we miss those offspring simply because we limit numbers. French confesses that “I don’t want to stand before the Lord and have him tell me that I would have birthed the next Beethoven or Galileo or Moody91 or Da Vinci if only I’d allowed Him to give me one more (or two more or three more or however many more) children” (French 108).

Provan claims that family planning “eliminates future people” and argues that predestination is no excuse (Provan 24). He imagines a present real existence of these potential people, citing Levi’s presence in the loins of Abram (Hebrews 13:4). No other natalist makes claims for pre-existence, but some draw on the wider concept of potential future people. Hess expands it greatly and presents lists of U.S. Presidents, musicians, famous Christians, and biblical characters, whose birth order was fourth or later (46-57). The lists include Augustine (a fourth child), Jonathan Edwards (eleventh), Dwight Moody (sixth), and John Wesley (fifteenth). Hess notes that David was an eighth son (1 Samuel 16:10) and asks “what if Jesse had stopped after seven sons.” He speculates that “if Jacob had stopped after eleven sons” (Genesis 35:18), “we would be missing … [New Testament letters] written by the Apostle Paul, a descendant of thirteenth-born Benjamin” (56).

The idea that divine sovereignty precludes human family planning features only in writings of the unlimited type, and is rejected by large-but-limited natalists. Mohler considers the idea analogous to medical non-intervention, and asks how those reasoning in this way can justify using antibiotics to thwart God’s sovereignty over death (Mohler 2009). Doriani suggests that the message “don’t plan” is popular because “many people like simple solutions … [and] they like to be told what to do” (Doriani 31). However, while rejecting the sovereignty arguments at the level of individual families, at least one limited natalist, Calvin Beisner, affirms a belief that divine superintendence prevents humankind from seriously damaging the ecosphere. One implication is that whatever number of offspring are born in aggregate across a nation must be compatible with the capacity of that land, since God is allowing that number to be born.

Overall picture of natalist arguments

A count of how often types of argument appear in the sources was generated from the database. Most common, with 72 instances, was a paradigmatic idea that God wants fruitfulness, which encompasses all the arguments. Among the specific points, the counts were as follows: blessing (41),92 church growth (22), practical help including care for elderly parents (19), the natural created order (18, including 9 about reproduction as the purpose of marriage), other spiritual benefits (18), God’s command (12), and stimulating the national economy (9). This reinforces my impression that the focus by previous critics on portraying Genesis 1:28 as a blessing rather than a command only addresses a small part of the natalist argument.

So far I have looked at Evangelical natalism in the U.S. in the context of historical change in wider attitudes to fertility. Though natalism since 1985 can be regarded as a renaissance of interpretations that were common in early 20th-century Protestantism, it differs from early interpretations in significant ways. Since the new natalism has renounced racist, eugenic, or nationalist beliefs and some previous critiques were misdirected, a fresh analysis is needed. I attempted this by investigating natalist primary sources and the biblical reception and associated arguments found in them. I presented natalist ideas under key headings which underlie much of the structure of this book as a whole.

As we have seen, the arguments deployed by natalists are that high fertility is a blessing, a real benefit for parents and for their children, for the country by making society more youthful and helping the economy, and for church growth. It is also a divine command, a cultural mandate, the natural created order, and a formative discipline for parents. These arguments can be found among both types of natalist: ordinary natalists who accept family planning, and the unlimited type who combine with natalism a refusal to use contraception. While there is a divide between the two types over the issue of human planning, their arguments for large family size are similar. Previous critics have focused on the anti-contraceptive teachings of the unlimited natalists, but I argue that given the common ground shared by both groups they should be considered as parts of a wider Protestant natalist phenomenon. This is the perspective adopted in the remaining chapters of this book.


53 For example, in England before 1740 the mortality of infants (under one year old) was 187 per thousand, whereas by 1780-1820 it had fallen to 122 per thousand (Malanima 39).

54 In fact, though Italy’s birth rate declined in the 1920s and earlier (Ipsen 183), its total population continued growing steadily because the death rate was falling faster. Presumably this growth was not fast enough for the nationalists.

55 Theodore Roosevelt, Letter to American Monthly Review of Reviews, 3 April 1907.

56 Theodore Roosevelt, “On American Motherhood,” 13 March 1905.

57 Despite its name, the LCMS is not confined to Missouri, but is a confederacy of Southern Lutherans. It is the ninth largest U.S. denomination.

58 There are also ten citations of its repetition at Genesis 9:1, 7 which natalists prize as an indication that the “Fall” did not nullify the imperative.

59 As explained in the Appendix, citations of overlapped verse-ranges, for example 3-5 and 4-5, are merged for the purpose of counting distinct texts, and only count once.

60 Much natalist exegesis of the New Testament depends on ideas derived originally from the Old Testament. For example, identifying refusal to reproduce as an aspect of the lifestyles encompassed by Romans 1:26, where “females exchanged the natural function for that which is against nature,” depends on arguments from Genesis 1-3 about the natural order of creation demanding reproductive performance.

61 The suggestion that Christian families will always be guaranteed sufficient resources is challenged starkly by historical famines affecting Christian people, for example in Ethiopia in 1984. The benefits of family planning in contexts of global poverty is affirmed by international ministries, as reported by the umbrella group Christian Connections for International Health (www.ccih.org). In the U.S., a coalition of progressive Evangelicals similarly affirmed in 2012 that “Family planning protects the health of women and children” (New Evangelical Partnership for the Common Good).

62 He is wrong: woman derives from the Anglo-Saxon wifman.

63 Doriani places his own view in the large-but-limited camp, though he goes no further than urging “at least two, if possible” and “as many as the fabric of our life allows” (Doriani 33) so he is a mild natalist. The primary motive of his article is pastoral criticism of the unlimited ideology.

64 For example, in a 2008 episode of the reality TV series 17 Kids and Counting, the Keller family decide that a daughter must be aged 20 before marriage (Mesaros-Winckles, 2010: 13).

65 By the mid-20th century Hutterites and Amish began slightly reducing their fertility, so later data is not quite as useful a guide to Quiverfull outcomes (K. White, 2002).

66 In fact, despite having a TFR below 2, Canada has more births than deaths each year. For example, in 2006/7 there were 360,900 births and 233,800 deaths (Statistics Canada), which contra Houghton is not “subtracting” but adding to the population. This illustrates a common misuse or misunderstanding of TFR. Replacement TFR refers to “generational” replacement: from each woman, one daughter surviving to adulthood. If lifespan (and other factors) stayed constant that would be the same as population replacement; but when lifespan extends, the number of generations alive simultaneously fractionally increases.

67 The context is about people who are hungry and poor gaining a place to settle (Psalm 107:36) and prospering. In verse 38, the verb rbh (to increase) conveys prosperity in general, which would include a large family. Verse 41 also includes the transition from poverty to prosperity: “he raises up the needy out of affliction and makes their families like flocks” (ESV).

68 The last word, bayit, can refer to a house or dwelling and is taken that way in some translations of this verse, for example: “God settles the solitary in a home” (ESV), and “God gives the desolate a home to dwell in” (RSV). The word translated as “solitary” could refer to an only child, an orphan, a childless woman, or the homeless. In context, it probably refers to wandering Israelites or scattered exiles becoming settled in a homeland.

69 Campbell’s experience illustrates why a concern for family name, in effect a son preference, has large demographic consequences.

70 Doug Phillips led Vision Forum (www.visionforum.org) which closed in 2013.

71 http://kbotkin.com/2014/01/16/alone-yet-not-alone-in-a-sea-of-dominionism/

72 Cultures vary, geographically and historically, in how much control is granted exclusively to biological parents. Others with customary rights to shape children may include tribal elders (as in initiation customs), close kin, or the nation-state.

73 The change from “large” to “growing” is not strictly literal because the word is a noun, but the paraphrase is not too distant from the sentiment of the original.

74 Monica Duffy Toft, reflecting on Quiverfull, states that “militaristic language infuses the movement’s rhetoric” (Goldstone, Kaufmann, and Toft 220).

75 The Living Bible is a paraphrase by Ken Taylor, the founder of Tyndale House Publishers. In the early 1970s, it was the best-selling book in the U.S. It was revised in 1996 as the New Living Translation, which expunges Taylor’s more idiosyncratic translations, including this one.

76 The term cornucopia derives from the Latin for the horn of plenty owned by Amalthea, a goat-like Greek goddess who suckled the infant Zeus.

77 Simon (1932-1998) developed cornucopian theory in The Economics of Population Growth (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1977); The Ultimate Resource (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1981); The Resourceful Earth (New York: Blackwell, 1984); and with Norman Myers in Scarcity or Abundance? A Debate on the Environment (New York: Norton, 1994). He was Professor of Business at the University of Maryland.

78 Calvin Beisner is Associate Professor of Historical Theology and Social Ethics at Knox Theological Seminary, Fort Lauderdale, Florida. His doctorate (in Scottish history) is from the University of St Andrews.

79 The text “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness” (Genesis 1:26) is traditionally read as the creation of human beings in the “image of God.”

80 Calvin Beisner affirms Calvinist doctrines. He is a “ruling elder in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church” (OPC) (www.ecalvinbeisner.com), which split from the mainstream Presbyterian church in protest at theological liberalism.

81 For example, the law against garments mixing wool and linen.

82 Delay might be allowed for a Torah student, but not indefinitely.

83 Beisner’s vision of an expanding garden is essential to his critique of environmentalist Christians’ appeals for benevolent dominion (Genesis 2:15), which he argues applies only inside the garden (i.e. domesticated spaces), whereas a subjugating dominion (Genesis 1:28) should apply to the wilderness outside the garden. Beisner teaches a spatially differentiated mandate, inside and outside the garden, but this distinction is not obvious in Genesis 1 and 2. His claim that Adam was supposed to expand the garden is also dubious because the garden has an “eastern entrance” (later guarded by kerubim), suggesting a secure perimeter was fixed when God planted the garden. Beisner’s metaphor sounds more like the moving frontier of the American West. Finally, it is hard to see how a garden expansion metaphor works after Adam is expelled and denied access to the garden.

84 The post-millennial view is that God’s kingdom will advance across future centuries to dominate the world, whereas a pre-millennial view expects decline until the intervention of the Rapture and the end of the world. Monica Duffy Toft’s assessment of Quiverfull is that it is a “subset of neo-Calvinist Dominion theology ... not premillennial” (Goldstone, Kaufmann, and Toft 220).

85 Steve Watters was Director of Young Adults at Focus on the Family (a large Christian ministry), and Candice Watters was editor of Boundless magazine.

86 In context, the lesson learnt in Job 12 is about humility, not sex and reproduction.

87 This echoes John 10:10, “I am come that they might have life, and that they might have it more abundantly,” but in that New Testament text, abundance is not referring to quantity of biological offspring but to other matters such as eternal life.

88 These claims contradict the consensus of medical advice, which is that vasectomy is safe and rarely causes any disease (Schwingl and Guess).

89 This idea differs from early Christianity’s classic model of discipleship as exemplified by the years Jesus spent with his twelve disciples.

90 This argument is in contrast to the idea described earlier, advanced by other natalists, that parenthood (as a real blessing) normally delivers prosperity and health.

91 “Moody” refers to Dwight Moody (1837-99), an American evangelist and hymn publisher.

92 This includes 15 counts of the inverse argument, that to be barren is a curse.