The Duggars: Sexual Abuse in the Christian Homeschooling Movement

Hilaria Baldwin (R) interviews Josh Duggar and his daughter during their visit with "Extra" in Times Square on March 11, 2013 in New York City. (Photo by D Dipasupil/Getty Images for Extra)
Hilaria Baldwin interviews Josh Duggar and his daughter on March 11, 2013 in New York City.
D. Dipasupil/Getty Images

It was 40 degrees in Washington, D.C., on the morning of January 22, 2015, the 42nd anniversary of the Supreme Court’s decision in Roe v. Wade. The previous year on this day, when anti-abortion activists gathered on the National Mall for the annual March for Life, it had been a frigid 15 degrees. “The Lord is definitely shining down on us,” said Josh Duggar, wandering around the Mall with coffee, wearing jeans and a tie under his trench coat. “You can feel the warmth.”

The 27-year-old Duggar, then executive director of the conservative Family Research Council’s lobbying arm, was holding a microphone. A cameraman followed after him as he approached people with colorful signs that said things like “Crusaders for Life.” Two women who—as they explained into Duggar’s mic—had been born to sexually assaulted mothers held pink and blue signs that read “Conceived by Rape.”

Bystanders that day may have recognized Duggar’s wholesome-looking baby face from television. The oldest of the 19 children featured in TLC’s (now retired) reality show 19 Kids and Counting, he has been in front of cameras since his teens. This particular morning, he was reporting via a sometimes-faulty live feed to ProLifeCon, happening at the Family Research Council headquarters nearby. Republican Party leaders Rick Santorum and Lindsey Graham were among the speakers, as was Charmaine Yoest, the president and CEO of Americans United for Life, who boasts that her organization has instituted more legislative roadblocks to abortion in the past two years than anyone has in the past decade. She considers the Hobby Lobby case (Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc.), in which the Supreme Court ruled in favor of a religious company’s right to limit employee birth control options, to be among AUL’s victories. Other wins include laws that require women to make an extra doctor’s visit 24 to 72 hours before having an abortion, instituted in 14 states.

At one point during his broadcast that morning, Duggar sought out a few of his siblings, finding them on brownish grass along the Mall. He held the mic up to his sister Jinger. “It’s really neat to see just everyone coming out,” said the 22-year-old, whose wavy brunette hair looked damp, “speaking for those who can’t speak for themselves.” The live feed sputtered out moments after she said this.

Back at FRC headquarters, Yoest took the podium, standing in front of a lush blue curtain, wearing a black leather jacket over a T-shirt that made her look brasher than she does in her more typical blouses. “The abortion lobby is worrying to death about millennials,” she declared in a triumphant tone. “We are marching with them.” Later, she added, “Our ranks are continually refreshed and growing while theirs are diminishing every day.”

Four months later, on May 21, 2015, Josh Duggar, prominent among the marching millennials, resigned his position at FRC. The tabloid In Touch had just broken a scandal, reporting that as a teenager, Josh had fondled five young girls, including four of his sisters. It’s not entirely clear who tipped off In Touch, but rumors began circulating on online message boards even before the reality show débuted. The future of Josh’s family’s show, on air since 2008, suddenly became uncertain, and, for the first time, national publications were taking a keen, if still dismissive, interest in the nuances of his family’s beliefs. Over the summer, the Duggar scandal stayed in the news, spurred by Josh Duggar’s confession that he had “secretly been viewing pornography on the internet” and reports that he had a paid account on the site, for people looking to cheat on significant others.

The Quiverfull Movement, ATI, and Christian Homeschooling

After the scandal broke, Gawker posted a step-by-step breakdown of the Duggars’ Quiverfull ideology (titled “Quiverfull of Shit”), which is premised on the belief that parents should trust God with family planning and birth a “full quiver” of children—as many as God allows. The article portrayed the Duggars’ beliefs as alarm-worthy but fringe. They did not draw connections between the family’s beliefs and a string of similar sexual abuse scandals among certain leaders in the Christian homeschooling movement. Those connections, however, were being made elsewhere, by a group of websites run by former homeschoolers with intimate knowledge of the world in which the Duggars circulate. The founders of these sites, all in their late 20s and early 30s, have a personal stake in generating a more nuanced, careful conversation about homeschooling and the Christian right. They know both the strengths and dangers of these communities, and see how frequently the mainstream press downplays or misrepresents their influence.

Understanding the Christian homeschooling movement’s sway and staying power can be difficult from the outside.

“It’s strange that people are just learning that the Duggars are ATI now,” said former homeschooler Ryan Stollar over the phone, referring to the conservative Advanced Training Institute (ATI) curriculum that the Duggars used. Stollar co-founded the blog Homeschoolers Anonymous in 2013, along with a friend, former ATI student Nicholas Ducote. Homeschoolers Anonymous emerged about one year after Libby Anne Bruce, a homeschooled member of a Quiverfull family (though her parents never used that term), began her blog Love, Joy, Feminism. It also started one year after the website Recovering Grace launched in an effort to chronicle the complicated stories of those who had “been raised ATI,” like the Duggars.

It makes sense that former homeschoolers are speaking out now. The Christian homeschooling movement was galvanized in the early 1980s, expanding its reach in concert with the budding “new Christian right.” Bill Gothard, who has hosted 2.5 million people at his “Biblical Living” conferences over the years, established ATI for homeschoolers in 1984. The Home School Legal Defense Association, founded by lawyer and homeschooling father Michael Farris, started campaigning for greater home education rights for parents in 1983. This means that the first full generation raised in the movement has only recently reached adulthood. And the conversations they’re willing to have could, potentially, chip away at the thick barrier that insulates the Christian right by making them seem illegibly extreme to people further left on the political spectrum.

Understanding the Christian homeschooling movement’s sway and staying power can be difficult from the outside. Certain ideas, like arming yourself with a “full quiver” of children to fight God’s fight, can seem comically backwards.

Writer Cheryl Lindsey Seelhoff, a mother of eleven, spent five years promoting her version of a Quiverfull lifestyle in a utopian magazine called Gentle Spirit. Then, after her church tried to “discipline” her for divorcing her abusive husband, she became a critic, writing for the feminist journal off our backs. In her 2006 essay, “Confronting the Religious Right,” she argues that diminishing public resources made conservative evangelicalism more alluring during the neoconservative Reagan era. Churches rose up to fill the gap the government left open, offering free support. “The plate was passed, of course, but giving was optional,” writes Seelhoff. She also cites the 1980s backlash against feminism and the youth counterculture, fueled by parents who remembered a safer-seeming 1950s or those who had, during their hippie days, been frightened by their own experiments with permissiveness.

“Into that time of societal unrest and parental fear walked several men whose influence on American society has been inestimable and catastrophic,” Seelhoff continues, “and yet, for the most part, only conservative Christians, and not all of them, know their names.” She means Bill Gothard, Rousas Rushdoony, and Michael Farris, all of whom promoted homeschooling and a hierarchical idea of family. Gothard’s teaching material includes a graph to illustrate family hierarchy: a big umbrella represents Christ, a medium-size umbrella the man, and a small umbrella the woman. He also started a pseudo-military boot camp for boys, called ALERT. Rushdoony believed in restoring the U.S. to its “Christian roots,” an ideal premised on the assumption that America’s good moral character owes everything to the Puritans. Farris, founder of the Home School Legal Defense Association, also founded Generation Joshua in 2003, which trains Christian teens to be political activists. In a Generation Joshua promo video, young kids, most of them white, run with torches across fields and pristine shores, churches and suburban neighborhoods in the background.

When the website Recovering Grace initially launched in 2011, its founders, a mostly anonymous team of young people raised under Bill Gothard’s teachings, wanted a forum for discussing Gothard’s ideology. They were still Christians, just “recovering” from a fundamentalism that had extensive influence. Purportedly celibate and never married, Gothard has developed powerful political allies over the years. Billionaire David Green, Hobby Lobby’s founder, has financed four centers, including a $3.5 million Nashville building, for Gothard. What’s more, Rick Perry, Sarah Palin, and Mike Huckabee have all attended Gothard-run seminars.

Resisting a Culture of Submission

Early Recovering Grace posts grappled with ideological issues, like the pitfalls of Bible-verse cherry-picking or confusing standards for femininity (“I often heard Bill Gothard praise women who demonstrated a meek and quiet spirit,” wrote one anonymous contributor). Then, in 2012, the Recovering Grace team received an email from a woman named Lizzie, who had been volunteering at Gothard’s Dallas Training Center in the mid 1990s. She’d been planning to start college when Gothard personally approached her and asked her to stay on another year to help with a project that, she would later realize, didn’t exist. He also wanted to take her to a conference in Oklahoma the very next weekend. She agreed to the latter first, and, when he showed her to her hotel room, he entered it with her, took her hand and held it while softly speaking of her promising future. She ignored the discomfort she felt. And she ignored the subsequent games of footsie and the time Gothard put his arm around her in a restaurant gift shop (“I assumed I was just a sheltered girl entering a more sophisticated world,” she wrote in a post for Recovering Grace). After she agreed to stay on at the Oak Brook, Illinois, headquarters an extra year, she received frequent invitations to visit Gothard’s office alone and soon realized she was “on rotation” with about six other young women. All the Gothard girls were between 15 and 24, all pretty. Her solution, Lizzie said, was to “become somewhat surly.” Eventually, Gothard stopped favoring her.

After publishing Lizzie’s story, Recovering Grace started hearing from more women. They published a handful of these stories, including a narrative by “Charlotte,” who had already been sexually abused by her minister-father before her parents sent her to the Oak Brook, Illinois, headquarters to be cured of her “rebelliousness.” She describes sessions in Gothard’s office, where he would prod her to confess her sexual thoughts, and a deep parting kiss on the lips right before she returned home. By 2013, Recovering Grace had learned of 34 more claims of sexual harassment, some dating back to 1980. In early 2014, after releasing all the information they had, Recovering Grace issued a call for Gothard’s resignation. He did resign, in March 2014, unwillingly. “Sexual harassment is to a large extent intent,” he said in a statement he released at the time, “and my intent was never to harass [these women].” One wonders if his resignation might have happened years earlier had women like Charlotte—whose parents accused her of lying when she initially mentioned Gothard’s attentions—felt empowered to speak at all.

A member of the Recovering Grace team, whom we’ll call Melissa—she wants to maintain anonymity—sees a direct relationship between resistance to speaking out and the importance Gothard places on respecting authority. “The idea of generational faithfulness, as preached by Gothard, puts parents’ good standing with God in jeopardy depending on what their children do next,” Melissa explained via email. She remembers her parents, who had become Christians through Gothard’s teachings, standing on the front lawn after she married a man they did not approve of. “I remember them telling us that we would be cursed with infertility, with sickness, and other numerous things identified in [the Old Testament book of] Leviticus when people went outside of God’s will,” she said, then added, “I know they meant well.”

In a 2009 paper on “family values,” Seth Dowland suggests that the Christian right’s staying power, which was never inevitable, has to do with its “ability to frame defense of the family as essential to protecting the common good.” Organizations like the Family Research Council, where Josh Duggar worked, tie abortion, the divorce rate, and single parenthood to poverty. Poverty, then, contributes to crime. Based on this logic, explains Dowland, leaders like evangelist Jerry Falwell or Bill Gothard are able to “demonize the women’s movement.” If feminists support contraception or abortion rights, then they oppose family values.

In April 2014, when a 29-year-old Texan named Lourdes Torres filed a sexual assault lawsuit against Doug Phillips, a leading proponent of the Quiverfull lifestyle and close friend of the Duggars, a particular photograph kept appearing, embedded in blog posts and articles about the case. The photo shows Torres, tall, slim, and dark-haired, wearing a crimson Colonial-style dress. She’s staring hesitantly at the camera and standing beside Phillips. He wears a tricorn hat and ruffled collar. They’re at the History of America Mega-Conference in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, an annual conference Phillips ran through his education organization Vision Forum, where Christians come together to lament America’s fading reverence for Biblical law. At the 2013 conference, Phillips lectured on the sinfulness of the 20th century, calling Margaret Sanger, the founder of Planned Parenthood, a “killer Angel,” and equating abortion with the Holocaust. He did not mention that the 20th was also the century in which his version of conservatism made impressive strides. For one thing, he’d lobbied aggressively and successfully for President Clinton to pass the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, on which the Supreme Court based its 2014 Hobby Lobby decision.

Torres was a teenager when she met Phillips and his wife, Beall, who have eight children. She was attending a conference with her family, all of whom would later join the church where Phillips served as an elder, a newly founded Texas group called Boerne Christian Assembly, where men meet for “supplication” before Sunday service and members are periodically excommunicated. Before filing her lawsuit in Bexar County, Texas, Torres spoke to church elders. Nothing happened at first; then Phillips admitted to an “inappropriate relationship with a woman” and resigned his position at Vision Forum in October, 2013.

Her suit alleges something far more serious: that Phillips “groomed” her as a “personal sex object” for years, including the time she worked as a nanny and Vision Forum employee. She was no longer a minor in 2007, the year she appeared, soft-spoken, in The Return of the Daughters, a film about how daughters should serve their fathers until marriage. Nor was she a minor when she lived in Phillips’s home for a brief period, during which he allegedly began entering her room at night, touching her neck, waist, and breasts, masturbating, and then ejaculating on her even as she repeatedly asked him to stop. In early 2013, long after she had moved into a new home with her family, Torres’s parents allegedly caught Phillips trying to climb into her bedroom window. Her suit indicts the ideology that allowed such abuse as much as it does his behavior. The lengthy Facts section of the complaint includes the following allegation:

Females in the patriarchal movement are discouraged from attaining higher education of any kind and are told that their sole purpose is to marry a man within the movement… In other words, women within this movement are perceived to exist only for the end-goals communicated by the male leaders that perceive themselves as the “patriarchs” of this world.

After Torres filed suit, the team behind the Homeschoolers Anonymous blog, then a year old, posted an article explaining who the players were in the “Christian Patriarchy” world, and one on problems with victim blaming, after conservative blogger Doug Wilson attacked Torres for “poor responses” to “immoral advances.” When Michael Farris, founder of the Home School Legal Defense Association, told conservative news site WorldNetDaily that he had “tried, by example, to keep this [Vision Forum] stuff outside the mainstream of the homeschooling movement,” HA dug up multiple instances in which Farris had promoted or endorsed Vision Forum.

“We’re trying to look at the patterns,” said Stollar, HA’s co-founder. He thinks exposing the power relationships and abuses is the only way to keep them from continuing. “These issues, they’re not specific to homeschooled people. They’re related to the problematic way society in general deals with domestic abuse and sexual abuse.”

“[W]hen I got married, I vowed to God first and then to Joshua, for better or for worse to death do us part,” Anna Duggar says in TLC’s new show.

A chain of Facebook comments, in response to a formerly homeschooled woman whose parents refused to acknowledge her college achievements, more or less prompted the founding of Homeschoolers Anonymous. The comments indicated to Stollar that a need existed for a forum for speaking critically about the homeschooling movement. Such a forum would benefit former and current homeschoolers, as well as a generally misinformed public (though that public has never really been HA’s target). Another motivation for HA’s diligence is Stollar’s firsthand knowledge of how effective participants in the movement can be when it comes to political lobbying. “They are experts at politics and organization,” he said.

“People ignore it all as fringe,” observed journalist Kathryn Joyce, who wrote her book Quiverfull in 2009, before the Gothard, Phillips, or Duggar scandals broke. It’s still the only in-depth secular account of the current Christian patriarchy movement, and she has written on the subject since. When, in 2013, former presidential hopeful Mitt Romney told graduates at Southern Virginia University to marry and “have a quiver full of kids if you can” during a commencement address, she blogged about the implications of those words for Mother Jones, to make sure such offhand fundamentalism wasn’t overlooked.

“These extreme versions of the arguments,” she explained during a recent phone call, “you watch how they get diluted into other forms.” She recalled hearing the president of the Southern Baptist Convention, a denomination with 15 million U.S. members, saying that willful childlessness was a sin. “That’s not fringe,” she said. “Coming from someone with an audience like that, it’s huge.”

The Duggars

Two months before TLC cancelled 19 Kids and Counting, largely because advertisers were threatening to pull their ads, Jessa Duggar Seewald and Jill Duggar Dillard appeared on Fox News to talk about being their brother’s victims. Both seemed composed, but like they were working to remain so, as one would be in such an impossible position: they were in front of 3.1 million viewers discussing an intimate affront by someone they loved, while also doing damage control on behalf of their family. “He was a… young boy in puberty, and a little too curious about girls,” said Jessa of her brother. “And that got him into some trouble.”

“We didn’t even know about it, until he went and confessed it to my parents,” said Jill, softer spoken than her sister and more apologetic-sounding. She would have been 12 at the time of the “inappropriate touching,” as Fox anchor Megyn Kelly kept calling it. “And in our case,” Jill continued, “it’s very mild compared to what happens to some.”

Later in the summer, the two sisters again appeared together in a TLC documentary about child abuse called Breaking the Silence. “I feel like this should be a discussion that people are having, even regularly,” Jessa said, though she never brought up Josh. And then, on September 24, 2015, TLC announced the Duggar family would be back on the air in a series of specials. Only this time, it would just be Jill, Jessa, and their husbands. Jessa is having her first child. Jill is moving to Central America to become a missionary. Josh would not be part of these new episodes. In late August, he went to a rehab center called Reformers Unanimous, purportedly to recover from his porn addiction. The treatment regimen there consists of Bible study and physical labor.

His story, however, would be central to the narrative of the new series, Jill and Jessa: Counting On, which debuted on December 13, 2015. During the first episode, a very pregnant Jessa puts white and gray bedding on a crib mattress with the help of her husband, Ben. The footage keeps shifting back and forth between this chore and head-on interviews, where the Duggar girls use only generalities to address their recently exposed family trauma. Jessa talks about how you can’t be a hypocrite: “You have to be real.” Jill talks about how, “When the boat rocks, you don’t jump out of the boat. You just cling tighter to it.”

Episode 2 shows Josh’s wife, Anna Duggar, living in the Duggars’ Arkansas family home. She and her four young children share the room Jessa and Jill once occupied. “I know there are those that feel I have every right to walk away from this marriage,” Anna says, holding back tears, “but in my heart, when I got married, I vowed to God first and then to Joshua, for better or for worse to death do us part.”

“It’s gonna be a fun day,” she tells her kids moments later, as they leave the upstairs bedroom. She sticks stoically to the family-first narrative. And, even as she sits in front of a television camera, hers is presented as a private, personal battle, not a shared one. Never do TLC’s producers allude to girls abused by Gothard, Lourdes Torres, or other women who have left Quiverfull families.

Ryan Stollar of Homeschoolers Anonymous wanted Anna to know she wasn’t alone. He wrote an open letter to her in August 2015: “It is within your rights to make decisions that guarantee your happiness and health. Do not feel you must make your decision based on any other criteria—what is best for the Duggar Family™ Brand, what your religious subculture demands of you, what Josh demands from you, etc.” He urged her not to sublimate her intuition in favor of what she’d been told was a greater good.

JSTOR Citations

Changing Fortunes: An Analysis of Christian Right Ascendance within American Political Discourse

By: Ronald E. Hopson & Donald R. Smith

Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, Vol. 38, No. 1 (1999), pp. 1-13

Wiley on behalf of Society for the Scientific Study of Religion

Confronting the Religious Right

By: Cheryl Lindsey Seelhoff

off our backs, Vol. 36, No. 3 (2006), pp. 18-25

off our backs, inc.

"Family Values" and the Formation of a Christian Right Agenda

By: Seth Dowland

Church History, "Family Values" and the Formation of a Christian Right Agenda Seth Dowland Church History Vol. 78, No. 3 (2009), pp. 606-631

Cambridge University Press on behalf of the American Society of Church History

Catherine Wagley

Catherine Wagley writes about art and culture in Los Angeles. She currently works as an art critic for L.A. Weekly and contributes to a number of other publications, most recently L.A. Review of Books, Narratively, MOMUS, and The Art Newspaper. You can find her work at

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