THE TWELVE TRIBES
TWELVE TRIBES TIMELINE
1937: Elbert Eugene Spriggs (later known as “Yoneq”) was born in Chattanooga, Tennessee.
1971: Spriggs joined the Jesus People Movement.
1972: Spriggs met and married Marsha Ann Duvall .
1973: The Spriggs co-founded the Vine Christian Community Church, a bi-weekly Bible study group for youth, in Chattanooga, Tennessee.
1974: The Spriggs’s community, associated with the “Vine Church,” bought and renovated Victorian houses and opened the Yellow Deli restaurant.
1975: The Vine Church broke away from the First Presbyterian Church and began both holding outdoors services, called “Critical Mass,” and performing their own baptisms.
1975-1978: Six additional Yellow Delis opened in Chattanooga, along with the Areopagus Café, a center for Christian dialogue.
1975-1978: The Vine Church became a focus of “anticult” media articles, influenced by FREECOG (Free the Children of God) and the Citizen’s Freedom Foundation, two early anti-cult groups in North America.
1978: A branch of the Vine Church was founded in Island Pond, a small town in Vermont’s “Northeast Kingdom.”
1978 (March): The Vine Community Church bought a large warehouse on Island Pond’s Main Street and opened up the Common Sense Restaurant.
1979 (March): The Vine Church relocated to Island Pond, where it was known as the “Northeast Kingdom Community Church” (NKCC), after the north-east area of Vermont.
1984 ( June 22): The Island Pond raid was launched by ninety Vermont state troopers, accompanied by social workers, and 112 children were taken into custod.
1985: Spriggs and his Elders received a revelation concerning Nebuchadnezzar’s dream and the “Stone Kingdom.”
1987: The new name, the “Messianic Communities,” was adopted.
2004: The Tribes held a commemorative celebration of the 1984 Island Pond raid, called “Ten Years After,” and invited the public and journalists to attend.
Elbert Eugene Spriggs, born in 1937 in Chattanooga, is the son of a factory quiller and scoutmaster. He was raised in the Methodist Church . Spriggs graduated from the University of Chattanooga with a degree in Psychology. In 1971, he became involved in the Jesus Movement through the Maranatha Chapel and Center Theatre in Glendale, California. H e held various jobs as a teacher, guidance counsellor, tour director, plant manager for Dixie Yarns and, briefly, as a carnival worker in a midway. By 1971, he had been married and divorced three times. In a 1974 interview, he described his conversion to a deeper level of spiritual life: “I thought, `is this why God created me?’ I…knelt down and asked God to direct my life. I knew about Christ, but I didn’t know him…. And sure enough, God took my life. Christ made me a new creature.” Spriggs met Marsha Ann Duvall Marsha, at a commune of skiers in Jackson Hole, Wyoming. Returning to Chattanooga in May, 1973, they married and moved into 861 Vine Street in downtown Chattanooga. In 1973, Spriggs and his wife co -founded the Vine Christian Community Church , a bi-weekly Bible study group for youth, in their home . By 1 974, the Spriggs were living communally with around sixty of their Bible students, and became known as the “Vine Church.” They bought and renovated nineteenth-century houses and opened the Yellow Deli restaurant, which became a refuge for teenage runaways and hitch-hikers.
The group broke away from mainstream Christianity i n 1 975 because the church they had been attending, the First Presbyterian Church, cancelled a Sunday morning service to accommodate the Super Bowl. Spriggs and his friends held their very first independent service, which they called “Critical Mass,” in Chattanooga’s Warner Park. Spriggs also performed baptisms in Chickamauga Lake. Since he was not an ordained minister, these baptisms elicited criticism from local church leaders.
Between 1975 and 1978, six more Yellow Delis were opened in Chattanooga, along with the Areopagus Café, which was a center forChristian dialogue. The group set up small crafts business and “Industries” where they made candles, leather and soaps. They also started a bakery. In 1978, the Vine Church registered itself as T.H. E. Community Apostolic Order as a separate corporate but non-profit entity for tax purposes.
Local opposition to the Vine Church began in 1978 when the Yellow Deli restaurant was formally declared off limits to Bryan College students, and two other colleges followed suit. Between 1975 and 1978 the Vine Church was scrutinized by FREECOG (Free the Children of God) , the very first anti-cult association in North America, founded in 1972 by America’s first deprogrammer, Ted Patrick. Patrick networked with concerned parents and ex-members. Media articles on the Vine Christian Community Church as a “cult” began to appear. Ted Patrick organized a series of kidnappings and deprogramming attempts on eight Vine members in Chattanooga and Island Pond, Vermont.
In 1978, a branch of the Vine Church was founded in Island Pond, a town in Vermont’s “Northeast Kingdom”. It was spearheadedby three couples from Chattanooga. The couples reached out to a fellowship of devout Christians in Island Pond who were disillusioned with the Catholic and Protestant churches. By 1979, the Vine Community Church had opened up the Common Sense Restaurant and sold most of its properties in Chattanooga in order to relocate in Island Pond.
Eugene Spriggs returned to Tennessee in 1981 for a last attempt to communicate God’s message to the unreceptive Chattanoogans. He and four Elders stood on the street for fourteen days to warn them that if they didn’t heed their message, they would be “handed over to a Powerful Delusion.” They were accosted by two irate fathers who had hired Ted Patrick to deprogram their adult children. The police arrested the fathers, but the assaulted elders requested the charges be dropped.
On June 22, 1984, a massive pre-dawn raid occurred, as ninety Vermont state troopers invaded the church’s communal homes, after serving a search warrant. The troopers were accompanied by fifty Social Rehabilitation Services workers. Social workers networking with the anti-cult group, the Citizen’s Freedom Foundation (a later version of FREECOG ) and ex-members had contacted the authorities with allegations of abusive corporal punishment of children inside the community. The state troopers searched the households and took 112 children into protective custody. By the end of that day, however, all the children were returned to their parents. The district judge, Frank Mahady, ruled that the seizure of the children had been unlawful, since there was not sufficient evidence of abuse prior to the raid. He called the raid a “fishing expedition.”
The group changed its name to the “Messianic Communities” in the summer of 1987 after 300 members walked en masse into Island Pond’s central lake, to wash away the flaws of contemporary Christianity and be reborn as God’s restored anointed people. In 2004, the Messianic Communities held a commemorative celebration of the 1984 Island Pond raid, called “Ten Years After” and invited the public and journalists to attend. From their perspective, “the Raid” was an event imbued with spiritual significance, equivalent to Exodus for the The Jews, and it was celebrated again in 2014.
The Twelve Tribes believe their community is the restoration of God’s people on earth, the “lost and scattered” messianic Jews who followed Jesus and “shared all things in common” during the first century C.E. They call Jesus by his Hebrew name, “Yahshua,” in order to preserve the original meaning of the sacred name: Yah [“I am”] and Shua [“mighty and powerful to save”]. They recognize their founder Eugene Elbert Spriggs as an “Apostle,” who they call “Yoneq” (“Sprig” in Hebrew). Most members are given Hebrew names.
The Tribes embrace the unselfish, communitarian way of life of the early Christians, as portrayed in Acts 4:35. The Tribes understand their community to be the “body of the Messiah,” the physical manifestation of Yahshua’s love on earth. The Tribes believe they are the descendants of the ancient Hebrews, in a spiritual sense. In their interpretation of Bible history, when the Assyrians conquered the Hebrews and assimilated with them, the Jews lost their racial identity. They see themselves as a multiracial, Hebraic community. In t heir millennial vision, the Twelve Tribes play a central role as the Millennium unfolds in four phases:
The first phase is the restoration of the Twelve Tribes, a “ demonstration of the millennial kingdom and a light to the nations in this age, before Yahshua returns,” based on Isaiah 49:5-6.
The second phase will be heralded by the blowing of the Jubilee horn (“Yobel”). After seven Sabbath years (49 years) the land will go back to its rightful owner. On the fiftieth Jubilee year, Yahshua will return and reclaim the land that is currently in the possession of Satan.
In the third phase, the great stone (the Stone Kingdom) will roll down a mountain and destroy the statue of Nebuchadnezzar’s dream. In Nebuchadnezzar’s dream, a giant statue of a man with head of gold, chest of silver, belly of bronze, and feet of iron mixed with clay (2:44) rolls down from a mountain, striking at the feet of the statue, causing it to topple to earth, pulverized, to be blown away by a strong wind. For the Tribes’ theologians, this dream is a metaphor of the close relationship between religion and politics throughout Judeo-Christian history. The gold head is the Babylonian empire, followed by silver and bronze kingdoms of Persia, and Rome. The “fourth kingdom” is the Holy Roman Empire, embodied in the statue’s feet, weak because iron cannot be blended with clay. This flawed alliance of elements represents Christianity’s compromises and unholy alliances with various political states, beginning with Emperor Constantine’s conversion to Christianity in 312 C.E. and his making the Christian Church a state-sponsored religion, thereby fulfilling Daniel’s Prophecy.
The Tribes believe the Holy Roman Empire endures today; that the “ten kings” beheld by Daniel in his night vision (Daniel 7:23-4) are the “ten toes” of the statue in Nebuchadnezzar’s dream. They believe these scriptures refer to modern Europe, where Roman influence and culture are still pervasive. The ten toes or kings are symbols of the inherent moral weakness that ensues whenever religion is mixed with secular politics. For the Tribes, this precarious blending of iron and clay is evident today in the international ecumenical movement, and in Christian pastors who try to cultivate political power.
The Tribes embrace a spiritual view of American history. They believe God’s hand guided the writing of the First Amendment to the Constitution. They believe that contemporary religious freedom is the result of a succession of supernatural events; Roger Williams, in particular, is considered to be a divinely-inspired visionary who introduced the concept of church/state separation to Amierca, and is venerated much like a saint.
In the fourth phase, Yahshua will return in the clouds to establish his kingdom on earth. “Then the restored, fully-developed Body of the Messiah, the twelve-tribed Israel, will roll down the mountain and crush the toes of the great statue, with Yahshua, the King of Kings leading them, to destroy the kingdoms of the world forever.” The Tribes expect this event will take place at the end of this present age, after they have demonstrated to all the nations of the earth the life of Yahshua, as a foretaste of the age to come.
The Tribes’ concept of the Tribulation, which precedes the Battle of Armageddon, does not deviate significantly from Christian Bible Prophecy tradition. Biblical fundamentalists, including the Tribes Teachers, believe that all the armies of nations who follow the Evil One (Satan) will gather in the valley of Megiddo. Then Yahshua (the risen Christ) will appear to wage war against them, accompanied by Angelic armies, the Resurrected and, according to the Tribes’ teachings, the Twelve Tribes. The battle will last for thirty days, and the bloodshed will rise to the horses’ bridles. The children of the Tribes are expected to play a key role in ushering in the End-times: 144,000 young virgin males (12,000 form each tribe) will be sent out as missionaries, but will be slain as martyrs. Two of the missionary “witnesses” will be slain in the streets of Jerusalem but will be resurrected just before the Appearance of Yahshua.
The Tribes believe in a three-tiered afterlife, called the “Three Eternal Destinies.” This teaching first appeared in one of their Freepapers (“The Three Eternal Destinies of Man”) in 1996. Before that date, the Tribes’ literature conveyed the message that there were only two “eternal destinies” or judgments. The first judgment was for the “Holy” (those under covenant with God who have set aside self-interest and will rule with Yahshua over the restored earth). The second judgment was for the “unjust and filthy” (those guided by self-interest who have set aside their conscience); they will be consigned to the eternal Lake of Fire . Subsequently, however, Yoneq and the Elders studied Revelations ( 20:12 ) and Romans ( 2:13 -16), where it is stated: “They will be judged by what they had done.” From this they deduced there was a third “eternal destiny” for those whom they called the Righteous. These are “men of conscience,” like Judge Mahady, who demonstrated a humble and unpretentious regard for justice and was a model for public servants who follow the dictates of conscience and duty, rather than self-interest or public approval. The Righteous may be found not only among Christians but also among Hindus, Buddhists, Muslims, Pagans, or even the irreligious (those who have never heard of Yahshua). Thus, the Tribes believe the Righteous will be judged not for their beliefs, but solely by their actions.
At dawn and dusk the shofar (Jewish ram’s horn) is blown to announce the daily minchot. These are gatherings where men and women lift their hands up to Yahshua. They begin by milling around inside the circle, looking into each other’s eyes, so if there is anyone they have offended, or been offended by, this is the time to be reconciled and forgiven, so that the community may be “perfected in love.” This ceremony is concluded with singing and circle dancing. On Fridays the Tribes gather at sunset for their Shabbat. Members “lay down our burdens” and participate in singing and dancing and “hearing prophesies.” Guests and the public are welcomed to these Shabbat gatherings and invited to supper afterwards. On Saturday night, at sundown is the “Resurrection Celebration,” held in the individual households. This begins with the Victory Cup, a large earthenware goblet of homemade wine that is passed to each member in the household, who confesses their sins and speaks of how they “walked out their previous week.” It must be judgee whether he or she is worthy to drink from the Victory Cup and be cleansed by the blood of Yahshua. This is followed by a communion meal for baptized members, which involves the breaking and sharing of a loaf of wholegrain bread in commemoration of Yahshua’s sacrifice. This launches the First Day, as Sunday begins at Saturday’s sundown.
Decisions are made collectively, in Bible readings, group prayer and prophecy. While members insist the leadership roles are informal and flexible, the Elders serve as local administrators and spiritual guides, whereas the Teachers preside over Bible readings, and are the inspired theologians of the group. International conferences are regularly held at the headquarters, the Community Center in Hiddenite, North Carolina, where collective decisions are weighed and authorized by Spriggs (“Yoneq”). Marsha Spriggs has a leading international role in administration, organization and leadership. While women do not hold official titles, they speak out and prophesy in group meetings and appear to have an equal voice in the decision-making process.
The Tribes’ communal living patterns have developed over the years. In Island Pond they bought and renovated several old Victorian houses to set up “households” where several families would share a house with single males or females. Each multi-family household was economically independent and had daily gatherings around the breakfast and dinner tables. Several “households” make up a “clan,” which supports itself through cottage industries (candles, soap, lotions) or through carpentry and renovations. Clans from a number of towns in one region of the U.S. make up a “tribe.” Small “way-out” houses are established in new towns as tentative missionary outposts, usually supported by brothers working as apple-pickers, gardeners, painters or day labourers. A gathering of all members called the First Day Celebration was held on Sunday mornings in the large loft above the Common Sense Restaurant on Main Street . Visitors are welcome to these gatherings and were invited to share a common meal afterwards. Many children have been born into the Tribes’ “New Israel,” and many of the mothers studied midwifery in order to have home-births.
In their end-time mission to gather and restore the lost tribes of spiritual Israel, the Twelve Tribes are oriented towards missionaryactivity to promote the growth of their communities. To this end, they have developed their own unique evangelistic strategies, including the distribution of the Freepaper, a road-trip bus (the Peacemaker) and a sailing vessel (the Peacemaker Marine ), itinerant missionary (Walkers), and the public weddings, which are elaborately staged as apocalyptic pageants.
The Freepaper is an undated, devotional free newslette, printed on an antique printing press. Freepapers offers critiques of society’s permissiveness, materialism and family failures. They proclaim a radical message of brotherly love in the last days, inviting readers to their communities to find love and truth.
The Peacemaker, a double-decker bus, has transported missionary couples to country fairs, music festivals, Rainbow Gatherings and Billy Graham Crusades. At these venues whole-grain bread and hot cider were handed out. The Peacemaker became a familiar sight at Grateful Dead concerts, and it inspired a certain number of “Deadheads” to join their Community. The Peacemaker Marine is a replication of an eighteenth century frigate, which is moored in Charleston (and other city harbors) and is open to tourists.
An early outreach method was to send out “Walkers.” In 1982, the first Walker teams left Island Pond, wearing backpacks to meet prospective converts through hitching rides and asking for water at farmhouses.
Weddings in the Twelve Tribes are not only a rite of passage for young couples entering the matrimonial state, but they are also dramatic “pre-enactments” of the Last Days, when Yahshua will return to claim his “Bride” (the “Church/Community” itself). Thus the wedding teaches members and visitors about the Tribes’ vision of the Last Days. The groom, wearing white with a red sash and cloak, stands in the position of Yahshua, the Second Coming. The bride wears a linen gown, as the “pure and spotless” Bride of Revelations who has “made herself ready” for her “King.” The bride and groom preside over the “Marriage Supper of the Lamb”. During the feast, members of all ages performed dances and songs written in honour of the couple.
The Twelve Tribes has now established an international presence and “swarmed” (like bees) in countries around the world. Four tribes ( Manasseh , Yehudah , Yoceph and Benyamin ) reside in the U.S. Four live in Europe, in France (Ruben), Germany (Levi), Spain (Shimon) and England (Zebulun). Two tribes are in Latin America (Napthali and Issachar), one is in Australia (Asher), and one is in Canada (Gad). Their membership encompasses at least four generations, since many elderly parents of the first disciples have decided to join them. Its numbers remain relatively modest, however, under 4,000.
Around 1980, after moving to Island Pond, the Tribes adopted a distinctive dress code. The men wear long shirts with vests and tie back their shoulder-length hair in a club. The women wear long pinafores, skirts or pantaloons. Their hair is long, and they “cover their head in church” by wearing a headscarf that denotes their submission to their husbands and the Elders, who submit themselves to the authority of Yahshua. Their diet is based on brown or whole grain bread, as opposed to the “White Bread Jesus” offered in mainline Christianity. Members of the Tribes are not vegetarian, but they do avoid alcoholic beverages and replace coffee with green matte tea from Brazil. There is an emphasis on health, and many members participate in an early morning aerobics class to Israeli music.
Unlike many communal societies, the Tribes protect the biological family, nuclear and extended, and are family-oriented, even child-centered. Marriage, monogamy and premarital chastity are highly valued and strictly monitored. The Tribes’ ultimate purpose, to “raise up a People for Yahshua’s Return,” requires procreation, as well as evangelism. The parents strive to raise obedient, respectful children who will be committed to building God’s Kingdom. The Tribes believe their children will be among the 144,000 who will usher in the Millennium. To realize this goal, parents discipline disobedient children with a “thin rod” (usually a balloon stick) in order to cleanse them of any psychological guilt or remnant of sin on their consciences caused by disobedient acts. Parental discipline is based on the Bible, following the Proverbs 13:24, and Hebrews 12:7. In their view, disciplining children is the duty of parents who “love and turn their hearts to the child,” as commanded in Malachi 4:6. Their proclaimed goal is to cultivate children’s’ self-control and to encourage their obedience to parents who are learning to obey the father, Yahshua, as revealed in the Word.
In order to raise children who will be free of “iniquities,” the Tribes avoid access to television, movies, toys, candy, and pocket money. Mothers teach their daughters to cook, clean and sew, and care for their younger siblings. Fathers train their sons in carpentry, farming, and in skills related to their industries, such as leatherwork, car maintenance, and building renovations. Children attend a homeschooling program, but in their teens they shift to apprenticeship programs and begin to work in the Tribes’ various industries and businesses, such as solar heating, farming, or tea importation.
The Twelve Tribes have developed a sectarian faith and way of life that might be described as a cross between Jewish Messianism and eighteenth century Anabaptism. Prospective converts may experience an initial attraction to the elegant Victorian houses furnished with antiques and handmade crafts, the delicious suppers and convivial evenings, graced by intricate circle dancing and emotionally expressive singing. On closer acquaintance, however, the demands on members’ lives are intense and uncompromising. In contrast to the permissive, individualistic ethos of the larger society in America, the Tribes insist on unselfishness and self-sacrifice, that each member should “lay down his life for Yahshua.” While their ultimate aim is to “prepare the Bride for Yahshua’s Call,” in the meantime they consider their community as “bearing good fruit.” Brothers and sisters, wives and husbands, live together in a morally rigorous fashion, cultivating open and honest relationships, and filled with a sober joy. Their greatest hope is that their children might overcome “their inherited tendencies and iniquities that are rife in the outside world” and will eventually exceed their parents in being able to speak “with absolute conviction and clarity of conscience.”
The opposition the group has encountered over the years might be analyzed as resulting from a combination of this form of organization and its commitments. First, the “high demand,” communal and sectarian aspects of the group appear threatening to parents of converts and anticult groups, and for a time the group was targeted by deprogrammers seeking to extricate converts from the group. Further, the strong ingroup-outgroup boundaries associated with high demand organizations has produced sometimes intense custody disputes when one spouse decides to exit. For example, in the 1980s, two fathers in the U.S. were charged with custodial interference (or parental kidnapping) in the midst of a custody disputes with their ex-wives. The State of Vermont v. Stephen Wooten case that began in 1981 was dismissed by the state in 2001 when the sons would not testify against their father. In the 1997 Queen v. Edward F. Dawson trial in Kentville, Nova Scotia, the father was acquitted by the jury of the charge of parental kidnapping. Judge J. Davison, found the Crown guilty of violating the Charter of Rights and Freedoms when it failed to give Dawson proper notice of a hearing because of his religious preference.
Second, the success of their businesses, manned by volunteer labour threatens local small businesses that rely on paid labor. As a result, there has been negative media coverage and, occasionally, attacks on Twelve Tribe property. For example, after the community moved to Island Pond, it was targeted by drive-by shooters and vandals, who damaged their food store and restaurant.
Third, their unconventional post-Christian theology has evoked a “counter-cult” response from mainstream Christians. One persistent critic has been Bob Pardon, Director of the New England Institute for Religious Research. He has persistently castigated the Twelve Tribes for what he regards as its non-biblical theology.
Fourth, the Twelve Tribes’ decision to homeschool children has produced ongoing tensions with officials regulating public education. This has been an issue in several countries where the Twelve Tribes has formed communities. Between 1978 and 1990, the state of Vermont charged community parents with truancy, although it failed to obtain any convictions. In 1990, the group’s home-schooling program was officially recognized by the Vermont Department of Education. In Germany, however, where homeschooling is illegal, the Tribes have experienced intense opposition, including a police raid where their children were removed by force and bused to a nearby school. In France, the Tribes’ refusal to vaccinate their children and send them to public school has also generated conflict.
Fifth, the Tribes have sometimes been labeled as “racists” on anticult websites and in the media, but it is interesting that some of their most exalted Elders and Teachers are African Americans and that they deny this allegation. This notion probably derived from the Tribes marital custom. In seeking to restore the ethnic identity of the ancient tribes, they encourage same-race marriages. The notion of “race” is defined as inherited from the father. For example, an Asian-looking woman whose father is British and mother is Asian may marry a Caucasian man, but not an Asian man.
Finally, most of the conflict and controversy throughout the history of the Twelve Tribes is rooted in the issue of corporal punishment of children. This allegation was at the center of the raid on the Island Pond community in 1984. In September, 2013, forty children were removed by police and social workers from two Tribes’ communities in Bavaria, after a journalist joined the group and captured several spanking episodes with a hidden camera. The child abuse issue has become more difficult to resolve as mainstream child welfare workers and social workers have moved toward a position that physical punishment is, by definition, abuse.
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Susan J. Palmer
8 February 2015