April 19, 2017
Lancaster, NH – The group that owns and operates Simon the Tanner in Lancaster is known as the Twelve Tribes, and some of its members extended a rare invitation to the Democrat last week, opening themselves to questions about the organization.
The organization came to town after a fire destroyed the old Butcher Block that was located on Main Street in 1987. Members decided to rehabilitate the building and turn it into a thriving business. In the late 1990s, the group operated the building as a bakery and a candle shop. After further renovations, the current day Simon the Tanner has been instrumental in changing the aesthetics of downtown Lancaster.
Tourists and residents can tell that the folks who operate the business; are different, however, most are too intimidated to ask questions. If they do, they keep them brief. Most people in town know them as the Island Ponders, or The Community, and often refer to them as members of a religious cult.
Members of the Twelve Tribes also own a home on High Street in Lancaster, and are often categorized as nice people who keep to themselves. A simple Google search of The Community will supply anyone willing to ease curiosities with a plethora of information both positive and negative.
A former guidance counselor named Elbert Eugene Spriggs founded The Twelve Tribes in Chattanooga, Tenn in 1972. While many of the teachings they embrace are loosely based on the Bible, a large portion come from Spriggs himself. The Twelve Tribes consists of more than 3,000 members located all across the globe, including Spain, France, the Czech Republic, England, Argentina, Brazil, the U.S.A., Canada and Australia. American Scott Sczarnecki and William Nunnally established the Australian tribe in the early 1990’s. Sczarnecki has since left the group.
The group seeks to re-create the 12 tribes of Israel in hopes that Yahshua (the name given to the Son of God in ancient Hebrew) will return. The group models their lives after the Old Testament and the first church of Jerusalem, which preaches communal living, hard work and harsh child discipline. Many ex-members say that child abuse is rampant. In the mid 1980’s, state troopers and social workers raided The Community in Island Pond, Vt. and questioned 112 children. In that case, the judge found no evidence and returned the children to their parents. In 2013, 40 children living in a Twelve Tribes community in Germany were placed in foster care after a hidden camera caught the abuse first hand. Members are quick to point out, however, that these cases were isolated, and do not reflect the organization as a whole.
Modern medicine is shunned, as is most modern technology. Wives must submit to their husbands in accordance with Scripture, and couples are encouraged to produce as many children as possible, around one every 2 years.
Each community has an elder who is in charge, and only men can become elders.
Last Friday afternoon in Lancaster, an elder, Joseph (as he is known to the English world) willingly answered several questions.
When asked what he wanted people in Lancaster to know, he replied, “We believe in the Bible and want to return to the early roots. We pattern our lives after the book of Acts, where they talk about the beginning of the early church. All the disciples are together, they lived together and shared what they had in common out of simple obedience to what Jesus commanded. Loving your neighbor as you would yourself.”
When asked if The Community should be considered a cult, Joseph responded with “It depends on how you define ‘cult.’ We are not weird or scary religious.”
“We try not to be too flashy and live very modestly,” Joseph explained.
Men must keep their hair long, he said, explaining that “In the Old Testament, a priest wore his hair long enough to bind in a ponytail but not as long as a woman.”
When asked what separates their religious beliefs to that of a member of the outside world who attends church, Joseph said, “We actually had to come out of the way we were living before we came into a new culture. We don’t think people are bad if they don’t believe the same way we do. We believe that God judges everyone according to their own conscience. Of course each person’s conscience is different because each person is brought up in a different place.”
The state recognizes marriages within the Community. When asked if there were occurrences of wife sharing, Joseph replied, “Absolutely not.”
In several articles about the Twelve Tribes, ex-members have described life as regimented and extremely sheltered. One ex-member described that wake up time at six a.m. followed by a morning meeting at 7 a.m., then a full 12 hours of work. Each member is assigned a duty each day.
Members are discouraged from communicating with their friends or families from the outside world. In one case in Australia, a woman explained that she was so brainwashed that she was afraid to leave. When elders learned that her family was coming to visit, the woman and her family were hidden and eventually moved to another community.
During each meeting, members must come up with a sin to publicly confess in the hopes that they will renew their minds. This has caused some ex-members to judge themselves in a negative way since the group says one can only truly obey God through them (the Community).
Each member is assigned a Shepherd who they must turn to in times of strife. An Australian couple who left the group told an interesting story. The husband was deemed worthless because he sought worth through other things such as performing music. The wife thought his music was beautiful but over time saw it as a sign of weakness.
Asked, in view of such reports, whether members of The Community here in Lancaster live in the community of their own accord? Joseph answered, “Many people come and go, but we don’t hold anybody here. Our members are here because they want to give their whole heart to it.”
The group travels to events such as large-scale music festivals to recruit and find more members.
Joseph said, “We look for people who are like hearted and we don’t force anyone into the mold of our life. Our communal life and sense of community inspires people. The Bible really talks about this.”
Joseph said that some people are asked to leave the group if they do not follow the values of the Twelve Tribes.
A typical day according to Joseph tends to be pretty flexible.
“We meet each others needs and live to love one another,” he explained. “The needs of the day vary depending on what’s going on. Some of us will teach children and some of us will cook.”
When asked whether he has ever been bored, Joseph replied with “I have been here for 20 years, and haven’t been bored once.”
Joseph said that each community is different, and that members aren’t treated like prisoners. He said that members are allowed to go for walks alone.
“We enjoy doing things together, such as play games and go for walks or hikes,” he added.
Addressing another prevalent myth about the group’s reluctance to embrace modern technology, Joseph said “We do use cell phones, mostly for business purposes. We want to live fo the common good, so what we have is for the good of the community. I might not need a car, but maybe based on what I do in order to support the community, maybe I do.”
As far as children, Joseph said, “We do give our children things they can work with, but we don’t want to put them in the realm of fantasy. Their goals must be educational and constructive. They can play but it’s not with comics and things that don’t have to deal with real life.”
When asked whether baby dolls are acceptable, Joseph said, “We involve our children in what we’re doing.”
Joseph joined The Community after he was picked up at a Christian rally.
Commenting on the group’s connection to the town of Lancaster, Joseph said, “We like to support local businesses, as well as to be an asset.”