The Twelve Tribes’ history full of controversy, but they continue to grow
By Corey Fuller
With 44 locations in 10 countries, the religious organization known as The Twelve Tribes has become one of most widespread, most controversial community-based religious organizations in the world.
Elbert Eugene Spriggs founder of The Twelve Tribes community. Photo courtesy of freethinker.co.uk
The Twelve Tribes religious organization was founded in 1972 by Gene Spriggs. Their first community was in Island Pond, Vermont, but in the early 1990s the organization began spreading throughout the Northeast. The group now has an estimated 2,500 members worldwide. The organization has often been characterized as a cult, stemming from a multitude of controversies including their use of corporal punishment, child labor and their home schooling.
Spriggs and his wife, Marsha, were originally religious leaders in Chattanooga, Tennessee. They led a group of their followers to Island Pond, Vermont after receiving criticism from organizations in Tennessee.
In 1984, 112 children were seized from The Twelve Tribes community in Island Pond. Law enforcement had raided the community after reports of child abuse. However, the children were returned to their parents in the community after a judge in Vermont ruled their seizure illegal.
After this raid, the individuals in the community spread out across the Northeastern United States to create new communities. After spreading to multiple locations in the Northeast in the early 1990s, The Twelve Tribes became an international organization.
Most of the new communities founded, 30 of the 44, also founded cafés or delis. These cafés help the group expand, by drawing in customers and showing them their unique lifestyle.
The Twelve Tribes beliefs and lifestyle
The Twelve Tribes group bases their beliefs on the Acts of the Apostles in the Bible.
Drawing on principles from Christianity and Hebrew, the community believes in the attempt to restore the Church back to the way it was in those acts.
They believe a restoration of Israel is needed, with “people actually dwelling together in unity, living a tribal life in twelve different geographical areas on the earth, so as to be a demonstration of how God has always wanted His people to live,” according to their group website.
Judgement and a man’s eternal destiny is also a unique feature of the Twelve Tribes. Instead of believing in the traditional heaven and hell, the tribe believes in three distinct destinies: the Unjust/Filthy, the Righteous, and the Holy.
After death, the belief is that a person will be placed by God into one of the three categories based on their actions throughout their lifetime. If ruled unjust or filthy, they would end up in the tribe’s version of Hell called the “Lake of Fire,” and if they were judged holy they would earn their spot in “heaven.”
The community also lives a very unique lifestyle. Andrew, a tribe member from Oneonta, New York, who answered a 24-hour hotline the tribe offers, said the emphasis of children and education is emphasized as the tribe’s responsibility.
“We teach them things that are necessary and essential, and not a bunch of unnecessary lies and propaganda,” he said.
In addition, the tribe lives communally, sharing everything from food, to shelter, to clothes. Along with that, the community has its fixed roles, from leaders to children to women.
Leaders, which are chosen based on their characteristics that are similar to characters in the Bible, have more power. As for women and children, females contribute much to the tribe, whether that’s being a teacher for a child, or someone who helps bake or make music for the group. Children often help with physical labor or are being educated by someone inside the tribe.
To some, this may sound like characteristics of a cult, however, the tribe refuses to identify as one.
Joe Szimhart, a cult information specialist, said the term cult is really a collective term.
“Cults are self-sealing systems of devotion to a special person, idea, or object,” he said. “If that self-sealing system convinces followers that it is perilous to doubt or defect from the system, then more self-control and manipulation of behavior occurs.”
The tribe denies this mindset, however according to their site. They emphasize the communal aspect of the community, stressing acceptance and togetherness.
“When some say cult they mean a closed religious society dominated by its leader(s) with an oppressive set of rules, with an anti-social agenda,” it said. “As for us, the doors of our homes and hearts are open all the time.”
Legal actions against The Twelve Tribes
Since the 1984 raid of the Island Pond community, multiple Twelve Tribes communities have gone through legal struggles.
A child in The Twelve Tribes community poses for a photo used by the City of Ithaca honoring their construction company Commonwealth Construction for their restoration work. Photo courtesy of historicithaca.org
In New York in 2001, multiple fourteen-year-olds in the tribe were working for their fathers as a part of the Estee Lauder Company. This child labor was illegal however, and was ruled so by State Attorney General Eliot Spitzer, naming the teenagers as “indentured servants” to the company, ultimately shutting them down.
In 2013, 40 children were seized from a community in Deiningen, Bavaria, Germany after an investigative news piece found video evidence of child abuse.
The group nonetheless has tried to ignore these suits, and have tried to continue to grow as an international body.
Today, the Twelve Tribes continues to exist with its thousands of members worldwide. Continuing to spread their beliefs through their restaurants and businesses, the community is still looking to expand in numbers.
Szimhart said any type of individual could be subjected to a cult’s practices.
“People like you join cults,” he said. “No one is immune to manipulation and control of some kind. You may not be attracted to someone spouting truth from the Bible, a Buddhist sutra, or the Koran but you might find relevance in an expensive Life Coach because your wealthy and celebrity friends tell you how good he is.”