Twelve Tribes

Most Notorious Cults

Elbert Eugene Spriggs - Twelve Tribes


The origins of the Twelve Tribes movement can be traced to a ministry for teenagers called the "Light Brigade" in 1972. The ministry operated out of a small coffee shop called "The Lighthouse" in the home of Gene Spriggs and his wife Marsha. The Light Brigade began living communally and opened a restaurant called "The Yellow Deli" while attending several churches, before deciding on First Presbyterian Church. The Light Brigade, while at First Presbyterian, caused friction with the establishment by bringing in anyone who was willing to come with them, including members of different social classes and racial groups, a practice not engaged in at that time. On January 12, 1975, the group arrived at First Presbyterian only to find out that the service had been cancelled for the Super Bowl; for the group, this was an intolerable act and it led them to form The Vine Christian Community Church. During this time, the church "planted" churches, each with its own Yellow Deli, in Dalton and Trenton, Georgia; Mentone, Alabama; and Dayton, Tennessee.

Their withdrawal from the religious mainstream turned what had been a friction-filled relationship into an outcry against them. They began holding their own services, which they called "Critical Mass" in Warner Park, appointing elders and baptizing people outside any denominational authority. The deteriorating relationship between the group and the religious and secular Chattanooga community attracted the attention of The Parents' Committee to Free Our Children from the Children of God and the Citizen's Freedom Foundation who labeled the church a "cult" and heavily attacked Spriggs as a cult leader. This led to what the group refers to today as the "Cult Scare" in the late seventies. A series of deprogrammings starting in the summer of 1976 that were carried out by Ted Patrick. The group nevertheless largely ignored the negative press and the wider world in general, and continued to operate its businesses opening the Areopagus and a second local Yellow Deli in downtown Chattanooga. In 1978 an invitation was received from a small church in Island Pond, Vermont for Spriggs to minister there; the offer was declined but the group began moving in stages to the rural town, naming the church there The Northeast Kingdom Community Church. One of Patrick's last deprogramming cases in Chattanooga occurred in 1980; it involved a police detective who, according to Swantko, had his 27-year-old daughter arrested on a falsified warrant in order to facilitate her deprogramming, with the support of local judges. The group continued moving, closing down all of its Yellow Delis and associated churches except for the one in Dalton. At one point, a leader conceded that the group was deeply in debt before closing the Dalton church down and moving the last members to Vermont.

The move to Vermont, combined with an initial period of economic hardship, caused some members to leave. The Citizen's Freedom Foundation conducted several meetings in Barton to draw attention to the group. The Citizen's Freedom Foundation had made allegations of mind control in Chattanooga, but now it made accusations of child abuse. In 1983, charges were brought against Charles "Eddie" Wiseman (an elder in the group) for misdemeanor simple assault; this, combined with multiple child custody cases, formed the basis for a search warrant. On June 22, 1984 Vermont State Police and Vermont Social Rehabilitation Services seized 112 children; all were released the same day because the raid was ruled unconstitutional. Due to what the group perceived were a massive misunderstanding of the events and concerns leading up to and surrounding the raid, its members began formal relationships with their neighbors. Two months after the raid, the case against Wiseman fell apart after the main witness recanted, saying he was under duress from the anticult movement. The case was later dropped in 1985 after a judge ruled that Wiseman had been denied his right to a speedy trial. Eddie Wiseman's public defender, Jean Swantko, who had been present during the raid, later joined and married Wiseman.

By 1989, the church had become widely accepted in Island Pond and grew substantially during the 1980s and 1990s, opening branches in several different countries, including Canada, Australia, Brazil, Spain, Germany, Argentina, and the United Kingdom. During this expansion phase, the group used the name Messianic Communities, before deciding to rename itself The Twelve Tribes. Through the mid-2000s (decade), the group remained controversial, with accusations of child labor, custodial interference, and illegal homeschooling. In 2006 the group held a reunion for members and friends of the Vine Christian Community Church and the former Yellow Deli in Warner Park, announcing a new community in Chattanooga. The movement proceeded to open a new Yellow Deli in 2008, nearly 30 years after leaving Chattanooga.

Beliefs and practices

The Twelve Tribes' beliefs resemble those of Christian fundamentalism, the Hebrew Roots movement, Messianic Judaism and the Sacred Name Movement; however the group believes that all denominations are fallen, and it therefore refuses to align itself with any denomination or movement. They believe that in order for the messiah to return, the Church needs to be restored to its original form seen in Acts 2:38-42 and Acts 4:32-37. This restoration is not merely the restoration of the 1st-century church, but the creation of a new Israel consisting of Twelve Tribes in twelve geographic regions. Part of this restoration is the return to observing the sabbath, maintaining some of the Mosaic law including dietary laws, and the festivals. This interpretation of the prophesied restoration of Israel, combined with the perceived immorality in the world leads the group to believe that the end times has arrived, though no date has been set.

One noted aspect of the group is its insistence on using the name "Yahshua", as opposed to Jesus. Because the name "Yahshua" represents the nature of Jesus, the group similarly bestows upon each member a Hebrew name that is meant to reflect the personality of the individual.

The group believes there are Three Eternal Destinies. It believes that after the Fall of Man every person is given a conscience; and that after dying every person goes to a state of being called death (in Hebrew Sheol and Greek Hades) regardless of faith. Upon the second coming, believers will be brought back for the thousand years to reign with "Yahshua" before the last judgment. At the end of this millennium, all of the nonbelievers will be judged according to their deeds and put into one of two groups: the righteous and the filthy/unjust. The filthy and the unjust will be sent to the Lake of Fire while the righteous will go on into eternity and fill the universe.

The leadership within is structured as a series of Councils which consists of local councils, regional councils, and a global Apostolic Council; the group is also overseen within these councils by a fluid number of teachers, deacons, deaconesses, elders and apostles. Gene Spriggs is highly regarded as the first person to open up his home to brothers and sisters, but members state that he is not regarded as a spiritual figurehead.

The group operates as a 501 (d) - "for-profit organization with a religious purpose and a common treasury." The community pays property taxes, but the 501d structure tends to result in no income tax liability.

Courtship within the Community involves a "waiting period" in which the man or woman expresses their desire to get to know the other person. The couple then receives input from the community while spending time together. The couple is betrothed (engaged) if their parents (or the entire community, if they are adults) confirm their love and compatibility; the couple is then permitted to hold hands. Weddings are dramatized pre-enactments of what the group believes will happen at the end of time when "Yahshua"returns to earth for his bride.

Children have been noted to play a central role in the group's eschatological beliefs, because future generations of the group will be the "144,000" of Revelation 7. Children are homeschooled. Within the group, teenagers may take on apprenticeships in the group's cottage industries to be taught trades complementing their education. The group utilizes corporal punishment with a "reed-like rod" like a balloon stick (a minimum)  across the child's bottom.


Since its inception, the group has ignited controversy and garnered unfavorable attention from the media, the anti-cult movement and governments. The Twelve Tribes has been cited by Stuart A. Wright as a group suffering from "Front-End/Back-End Disproportionality" in media coverage. According to Wright, the media often focuses on unsubstantiated charges against the group, but as charges are investigated and as cases fall apart, the media covers them significantly less at the end than it does at the beginning. Wright then asserts that this leaves the public with the impression that the group was guilty of the disproven charges.

The ministry New England Institute of Religious Research's Executive Director the Rev. Bob Pardon warns in his report that "Messianic Communities, under the leadership of Spriggs, has tended towards an extreme authoritarianism and a "Galatian heresy." The Tribes have responded with a line-by-line response to the report and they continue to contend its large "errors, distortions, misunderstandings, and misjudgments", while criticizing the heavy use of apostates in his report. In France, the group was listed on the 1995 Governmental Report by the Parliamentary Commission on Cults in France under the name "Ordre apostolique - Therapeutic healing environment."

Twelve Tribes members Jean Swantko and husband Ed Wiseman have made efforts to combat social control and the anti-cult movement by engaging in dialogue with hostile ex-members, the media and government authorities. Swantko has presented at scholarly conferences including CESNUR Communal Studies Association and Society for the Scientific Study of Religion as well as a chapter in James T. Richardson's Regulating Religion: Case Studies from Around the Globe.

Commentary on the Island Pond raid

The Island Pond raid has remained prominent in Vermont legal history; it was the subject of a Vermont Bar Association seminar in 2006. The group held anniversary events in both 1994 and 2000; and produced a 75-minute documentary. The Vermont Chapter of the ACLU also criticized the raid, calling it "frightening" and "the greatest deprivation of civil liberties to have occurred in recent Vermont history." The then-Governor of Vermont, Richard Snelling, who had authorized the raid, reportedly drew the "hottest political fire of his career" in the weeks after Vermont Attorney General John J. Easton, Jr. attributed the raid to assisting his campaign for governorship. In 1992, John Burchard, who had been the State Commissioner of Social and Rehabilitation Services, and Vanessa L. Malcarne, published an article in Behavioral Sciences and the Law, encouraging changes in the law that would have allowed the raid to succeed.

Teachings about Jews

It teaches that the Jews were guilty of the blood of Christ, quoting Matthew 27:25. Although often labelled antisemitic, the group repeatedly denies this accusation. Its members keep the Sabbath and the Jewish festivals of Pesach, Yom Kippur, and Sukkot. Youth have Bar Mitzvah and Bat Mitzvah celebrations, and they regularly perform Israeli folk dances.

Teachings about race and multiculturalism

The movement advocates against multiculturalism and forced racial integration, arguing that "multiculturalism increases murder, crime and prejudice". The group welcomes people of all races to visit or join and has members of Caucasian, African and Asian descent, believing them to be the offspring of Noah's three sons. John Stringer, an African-American member of the Twelve Tribes, denies the accusation that his group is racist, stating that their teachings "accord my race with much honor and generate a high degree of self-esteem and worth". He explains, "Racism is a definite problem in society at large. We make no bones about the issue; and it is quite clear that affirmative action, reparations, and crying 'victim' are not the solutions to this problem."

Child labor and homeschooling controversies

In 2001, The New York Post ran an article accusing the group of child labor violations; and later attributed itself as having prompted the Investigation. The Twelve Tribes responded with a press conference at the "Commonsense Farm" where the alleged child labor had taken place. The Twelve Tribes reported that during a random inspection by Estée Lauder Companies, the company discovered that several 14-year-olds had been found assisting their fathers in their cottage industry; this report was later confirmed by Estée Lauder who terminated their contract with Common Sense products. The group's official statement at the press conference stated that they believed that it was a family-owned business, and children ought to be able to help their parents in the business while making "no apology" for it. The New York State Department of Labor stated that they intended to visit all five of the Twelve Tribes' businesses. State Attorney General Eliot Spitzer asserted that apprenticeships amounted to indentured servitude and were illegal. Robert Redford's Sundance Catalog, who had contracted with Common Wealth Woodworks (another of the group's cottage industries that made furniture), also terminated their contract as a response to the allegations. The Labor Department found no violations at Common Sense Farm or Commonwealth Woodworks. They did fine two other industries $2,000 for a 15-year-old pushing a wheelbarrow and another 15-year-old changing a lightbulb.

In Germany and France, the controversies centered on the issues of homeschooling, health, child abuse, and religious freedom. The group has several times been in conflict with authorities in Germany and France over homeschooling their children, with a particularly long and protracted dispute between the community in Klosterzimmern, in the municipality of Deiningen, Bavaria, and Bavarian education authorities. Homeschooling is illegal in Germany, with rare exceptions.[66] When fines and arrests failed to have an effect on the community, authorities granted the group the right to operate a private school on the commune's premises, under state supervision. The agreement entailed that the school would not teach sex education and evolution.

Police raids in Germany

On September 5, 2013, German police raided two communities belonging to the Twelve Tribes and removed 40 children to protect them from alleged continued abuse. The group admits that they use a "reed-like rod" for discipline, but denies abusing their children. 

The religion sociologist Susan Palmer pointed out that the doctors found no evidence of mistreatment in September 2013 following the police raids.

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