It occurred to me today that there is a similarity in two traditions that seem so dramatically opposed. The first of these is the Shakers. They were a revivalist branch of Quakers that began in the eighteenth century. The “shaking” come from their charismatic, prophetic services. They had women leadership and promoted equality of sexes to the point that there was both a male and female manifestation of Christ. They were pacifists. And most notably, they were celibate. Sexual impurity was understood as Adam’s sin, and since there is no marriage in heaven, there would be no marriage in Shaker communities either. This meant their numbers could only grow by conversion (and in some cases, adoption).
The other tradition is the Quiverfull movement. It’s not a particular denomination, but can be found among various fundamentalist-Baptist-Pentecostal-nondenom families. Quiverfull has extremely strict gender roles; women must submit to their fathers/husbands. It is expected that everyone get married and have as many children as they can. The term “quiverfull” comes from a verse in the Bible saying that having many godly children is like having a quiver full of arrows in which to fight evil.
At its peak, there were only ever about 6,000 Shakers. Today, there is only one active community of three members. The Quiverfull movement began in the 1970s and has grown rapidly, both through conversions and by high birth rates. So what do these traditions have in common? I could point out some similar worship styles: low liturgy, prophecy, charismatic services. However, the real similarity is the disregard for vocational differences.
In Shaker communities, marriage is not an option. In Quiverfull communities, celibacy is not an option. Both treat sex as an absolute that applies to all people equally. To me, that misses the point of both celibacy and marriage, neither of which should primarily be about sex. This conversation isn't about sex. Making it about sex separates the act from the fuller understanding of chastity. All Christians should be chaste. Whether or not that chastity includes having sex or not depends on vocation, which is much bigger and more important than sex. A vocation is the path one follows to best serve God. Some do that through celibacy; some do that through marriage. It’s important to discern the best path for the individual, not being forced into a vocation by a social mandate.
While there is some comfort to be found in having that decision pre-made, I don’t think I would like being told that I have to be celibate or that I have to get married and have children. I don’t want my life dictated by social pressure like that. I don’t want to say that vocations should be a choice, because they should be a response to God’s direction. Maybe I do have to be celibate or have to get married—but getting that pressure individually from God is much different than getting it from a community of people.
There are many different ways to serve God—cloistered prayer, raising children, preaching, teaching, lives of busy schedules and hundreds of people, and lives of simple living and meditation. I’m glad I have the freedom to sort out God’s call for me. I don’t have to shake in fear or quiver in submission to a community’s narrow definitions.