The Twelve Tribes (New religious movement)

The Twelve Tribes (New religious movement)

The Twelve Tribes is a confederation of self-governing religious communities founded by Elbert Eugene Spriggs (now known as Yoneq) that sprung out of the Jesus Movement in the early 1970s in Chattanooga, Tennessee. ref|Palmer1998 The group has also gone by the names The Church in Island Pond, The Commonwealth of Israel, and Community Apostolic Order.

Origins and History

The origins of the Twelve Tribes movement can be traced to small meetings held in the home of Elbert Eugene Spriggs and his wife Marsha in the early 1970s in Chattanooga, Tennessee. In 1972, the Spriggs began a ministry for teenagers called the "Light Brigade." Around this time, members of the "Light Brigade" began to live communally and supported their lifestyle by operating a coffeeshop called the Yellow Deli. Until this time, Spriggs' group had not been a separate denomination, instead affiliating itself with several different local churches and denominations. However, this changed after Spriggs went to church one Sunday only to find the service cancelled due to the Super Bowl.ref|Superbowl The group then began having their own meetings on Sunday in a park, began calling themselves the "Vine Community Church", and started more Yellow Delis in towns around Chattanooga. The Delis achieved a three-fold purpose: creating revenue for the group, evangelising the lost, and discipling new believers.

During this period, the church came under suspicion by mainstream Christian groups and anti-cult groups. This opposition resulted in a series of kidnappings and attempted "deprogrammings" of Twelve Tribes members [] -- including the kidnappings of Kirsten Nielsen on her sister's wedding day, Rebecca Westbrooks, and Thomas White. Around the time the climate turned negative in the South, Spriggs was invited to be pastor to a group of disaffected Christians in Vermont. [] Spriggs and his followers sold their businesses and homes and moved their base of operations to Island Pond, Vermont in 1977 calling themselves The Northeast Kingdom Community Church.

The community in Island Pond grew in size. Two German men joined the group, but their visas expired. In response, the group sent members to return to Europe and seek a place for a community. They wandered for a year, seeking a home, calling themselves the "Little Flock". Eventually, a woman named Tabitha offered a chateau, which became the first community in Europe. The chateau in Sus, France is called "Tabitha's Place". The group continued to grow during the 1980s and 1990s, opening branches in several different countries, including Canada, Australia, Brazil, Spain, Germany, Argentina, and the United Kingdom. []

Around the turn of the century, the communities in the United States swarmed out of New England to the West Coast and to the South. Many of the original members from the Southern United States returned to their home states to begin communities in Chattanooga, TN; Savannah, GA; Brunswick, GA; and Asheville, NC. In April, 2008, the community in Chattanooga opened the Yellow Deli, nearly 30 years after leaving the city.

(See [] for an address list of Twelve Tribes' communities.)

(See [] for a more complete picture of the development of the Twelve Tribes in recent years.)"

Beliefs and practices

According to a statement from their websiteref|noapology, the group seeks to live according to the primitive pattern of the early church described in Acts 2:38-42 and Acts 4:32-37. Claiming to follow the teachings of Jesus (whom they call by his Hebrew name Yahshua), they believe that all disciples must renounce all personal possessions and independent lives in order to truly call him their Master and Lord. They claim that living in community is the result of obeying the commands of Jesus Christ, who said to "seek first His Kingdom" not "food and clothing as the heathen do". Group members live communally, sharing all assets and income in common.

Some communities are located in a rural setting, such as the Common Sense Farm in Cambridge, NY; or Gladheart Farm in Asheville, NC. Other communities live in populated cities in residential neighborhoods, such as Ithaca, NY; and Boston, MA. They aspire, "to live moral lives in the midst of a very immoral society."

Members often live in large multi-bedroom houses, where several families and single people share expenses, income, meals, and chores. Married couples have a bedroom for themselves, and several rooms for their children, depending on the family. Single brothers may share a room, as do single sisters. Dining and living areas are shared. Members function as an extended family, where people function according to their gifting. Those gifted in industry work together on community-run businesses, those gifted in teaching work together to homeschool the children, those gifted in sewing sew clothing for members, and those gifted in cooking create delicious healthy meals for the group.

According to a 1998 article by the religious scholar Dr. Susan J. Palmer, who stayed in the community, members give themselves Hebrew names and their beliefs are closely related to Christian fundamentalism. ref|Palmer1998 They follow the Old and New Covenant Scriptures, and use all versions of the Bible. Twelve Tribes' members dress modestly: the men wear beards, wear their hair bound in a short pony tail behind their head, while women wear their hair long, go without makeup, and wear long dresses.

There are many distinctions between the Twelve Tribes and Christian fundamentalism. For example, the Twelve Tribes believe and teach that denominations or divisions remove a church's validity and insist that the true church will be undivided in reality. Christian fundamentalism allows for minor differences and denominations in the non-essentials, and believe that the unity of the church is mystical and unassailable. In Twelve Tribes' doctrine there are three eternal destinies of man (the holy, disciple of Christ who are saved by Him and live entirely for Him; the righteous, good people who never heard the gospel and never became followers; and the wicked, evil people who destroy other people's lives by their selfishness) as opposed to only two (heaven and hell) in Christian Fundamentalism. The Twelve Tribes teach that to become a disciple of Yahshua, a person must trust Yahshua enough to obey His commands; giving up all of their own possessions and surrendering their life completely for the One who surrendered His life for them. Christian Fundamentalism teaches that a person is "saved by grace through faith", not of "works" and so a person does not have to do anything whatsoever other than "believe in Jesus", trusting that He did everything for them. They claim their main tenets to be forgiveness, love, purity, and obedience to the Christ's teachings.

The Twelve Tribes do not consider themselves part of any organized religion: Catholicism, Protestantism, or any of the many denominations of Christianity. They believe that the church changed considerably over the first two hundred years of its life, lost its love, and ceased to be a true church. Since apostolic times, Christianity never returned to its foundation, but became more and more corrupt. Separating themselves from all organized religion, the Twelve Tribes consider themselves the restoration of original pattern of the church.

The group believes that humans are living in the end times, and that a faithful and pure church must be restored before Christ returns.

The group's teachings extend to the family and society.ref|reed They teach that husbands should love their wives and keep their marriage uncorrupted. Wives are to respect and to be submissive to their husbands. Children should honor and obey their parents as their supreme authority. Homosexuality, divorce, adultery, fornication, child abuse, and pornography are all sinful activities, which are given up when a person becomes a disciple. Respect, hospitality, and hope are extended to all people, regardless.

The group estimates its current membership to be around 2500.

The Twelve Tribes publishes many periodicals, called freepapers, in Pulaski, TN; Coxsackie, NY; and Vista, CA. Titles such as "Twelve Tribes Freepaper", "The Voice", "Hitchhikers Guide to Life on a Lonely Planet", "It Takes a Community" have been distributed at a variety of music concerts (such as Greatful Dead, Phish, Bonaroo, Wide Spread Panic, Phil Lesh) and Christian events (such as Billy Graham, Promise Keepers, Harvest Crusade, The Call). The group often travels to the events in one of two double-decker maroon-and-creme buses called Peacemaker I and Peacemaker II, or the vibrant-colored 60s-style Garden Bus.


The group has garnered controversy since their beginnings in the 1970s. The anti-cult movement and ex-Twelves Tribes members are some of the most vocal critics of the group's practices. As mentioned earlier, the anti-cult movement has carried out a series of kidnappings of Twelve Tribes members [] , the most shocking of which were the kidnappings of Kirsten Nielsen on her sister's wedding day, and later on, her international kidnapping from Europe to Kansas. The Reverend Robert T. Pardon, an anti-cult advisor and director of the [ New England Institute of Religious Research] , warns that the "Messianic Communities, under the leadership of Spriggs, has tended towards an extreme authoritarianism."ref|bobpardon The group responds that they are a "simple people who live on Main Street USA" and that "all members can leave at any time, but choose to remain daily." A summary version of Robert Pardon's report appears [ online] and the complete report can be [ purchased] from him at a cost of $15.00. The Twelve Tribes have published a [ response] to Pardon's report.

The group first aroused controversy because of accusations of child abuse, and later, child labor in their cottage industries). The most notable event was the 1984 Island Pond Raid. Anti-cult workers, Galen Kelly and Priscilla Coates, gathered negative information from ex-members and fed this information to media and government agencies in a plan to destroy the group. In 1984, Vermont State authorities executed a full-scale pre-dawn raid of the 13 Twelve Tribes houses in Island Pond, Vermont, seizing all of the children. The search warrants contained no names, but gave permission to the police to seize all children in the specified locations as evidence. The case was dismissed the same day. Frank Mahady, the presiding Judge, declared the State of Vermont's "authorization to seize 'any and all children under the age of 18 years old' was broader in scope (though admittedly less Draconian in purpose) than that of Herod the Great."ref|mahady

In 2001, New York State [ fined] two Greene County Twelve Tribes businesses for child labor law violations in 2001. At a 2001 press conference in response to charges of child labor,ref|pressconf they claimed that the charges of child labor are "false, unfounded, and slanderous." They appealed the decision, but lost.

However, the group does admit that it uses corporal punishment, spanking children with a "small reed-like rod"ref|reed and that the "children help their parents" in their cottage industries. ref|noapology

In Europe, the controversies centered on the issues of homeschooling, health, and religious freedom. On October 18, 2004, seven fathers from the community in Klosterzimmern, in the municipality Deiningen, Bavaria were arrested because they homeschooled their children, instead of sending them to regular school. ref|Arrest_Germany2004_slide ref|Röhrs2004 In Germany, homeschooling is illegal. In France, the sect of Tabitha's place appears on the official list of sectsref|assembleenational. In England, a report from "The Guardian" accuses the Twelve Tribes of being racist and anti-Semitic, quoting an article published by the group. The article states that "murder is the very crime which the Jews are still cursed for" and that "multiculturalism increases murder, crime and prejudice". The Twelve Tribes deny charges of racism or Anti-Semitism, stating that they "look back to the Semitic roots of our faith with gratitude". They also have members of many races and cultures in their community, and a number of African-American members are also leaders in their communities. In fact, a large number of members are Jewish or of Jewish background. The Twelve Tribes also encourages use of the Hebrew language.


#cite web | title=We Make No Apology | work=The Twelve Tribes: Controversies | url= | accessdate=2005-10-23
#cite web | title=Family FAQs | work=The Twelve Tribes: Family FAQs | url= | accessdate=2005-10-12
# Palmer, Susan J. "Apostates and Their Role in the Construction of Grievance Claims Against the Northeast Kingdom/Messianic Communities" article in the book "The Politics of Religious Apostasy: The Role of Apostates in the Transformation of Religious Movements" edited by David G. Bromley Westport, CT, Praeger Publishers, (1998). ISBN [ also available online]
# cite web | author=Alice Kreiner | title=Twelve Tribes | work=Twelve Tribes aka Northeast Kingdom Community Church, Church in Island Pond, The Communities | url= | accessdate=2005-10-23
#cite web | title=A Root out of Dry Ground | work= A Short History of The Twelve Tribes — The Commonwealth of Israel | url= | accessdate=2005-10-23
#cite web | title=Judge Frank Mahady's Opinion | work=In Re: Certain Children | url= | accessdate=2005-10-23
#cite web | title=Cambridge Press Conference | work=The Twelve Tribes : Controversies | url= | accessdate=2005-10-23
#cite web | title=My Analysis of the Twelve Tribes | work=New England Institute of Religious Research website | url= | accessdate=2005-10-23
# cite web | title=Pictures of the arrest | work=Slide show of arrested fathers in Germany | url= | accessdate=2005-10-23
# cite web | title=Press Conference October 15, 2004 in Pfäfflingen, Germany | work=Press conference by Holger Röhrs, one of the seven arrested fathers | url= | accessdate=2005-10-23
# cite web | title=French National Assembly: On Sects | url= | accessdate=2008-05-09

External links

Twelve Tribes organization sites
* [ Twelve Tribes official website]
* [ Twelve Tribes site about the Island Pond Raid]
* [ "A Hippiecritical Analysis of the Sixties Movement"]
* [ "Cult Scare: The Shocking Kidnappings of Kirsten Nielsen"]

Sites professing neutrality on Twelve Tribes
* [ Religious movements Profile]
* [ Intentional Communities Directory]

Sites explicitly or largely critical of Twelve Tribes
* [ Twelve Tribes article compilation by the New England Institute for Religious Research]
* [ Rick A. Ross Institute: articles and visitor comments on the Twelve Tribes]
* [ Twelve Tribes-EX: accounts regarding beliefs and practices from anonymous source claiming to have been former member.]
* [ (Fight Against Coercive Tactics Network) Twelve Tribes discussion forum]
* [ Ithacans Opposed to the Twelve Tribes Cult: an organized boycott of Twelve Tribes businesses in Ithaca, NY.]
* [ Yoneq and the Twelve Tribes: a blog with personal accounts of life in the Twelve Tribes]

Other Sites
* [ Twelve Tribes Teachings: archive of "teachings" and in-house newsletter from an anonymous source]
* [ ExTT: The Ex_Twelve_Tribes mailing list hosted at Yahoo Groups. An online meeting place for former members of the Twelve Tribes]
* [ An account of a festival open to the public in Plymouth, Mass]
* [ Maté Factor brand of Teas and Other Products affiliated with Twelve Tribes]
* [ One of the cafés of the twelve tribes communities. Also contains links to many other twelve tribes sites]
* [ An organization providing shelter, food and transportation to families who have been sent away from or have left the community.]

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