Twelve Tribes: The Church Preached Child Abuse & Slavery
Growing up, Kayam Mathias said he was beaten 20 to 30 times a day.
“I grew to be numb to it, to quell the rage within and just not feel anything.”
That didn’t bother him so much, he said. He could take it.
“What I cared about was when my infant sister was beaten and there was nothing I could do about it. To hear her screams and be powerless … and that even if you tried to stop you couldn’t, is a crushing thing to go through. It broke my spirit, man. I still remember her screams to this day.”
It’s been almost eight years since Mathias, now 22, left the Twelve Tribes, the controversial commune and religious sect he was born into, but the memories, and the anger at the way he and his family were allegedly treated is still fresh. He says he—and other members of the sect—were regularly beaten by adults in the commune as a form of discipline.
“The first time I used an ATM or a vending machine was when I left,” Mathias said. “I knew nothing about the world. It was all so strange and new and was like being born suddenly with an adult body, feeling like a child or an alien, but needing to act like an adult to survive.”
This year, he finally decided to say something about it. In June posts began showing up on the Facebook page of the Blue Blinds Bakery, a quaint and well-reviewed business located in Plymouth, Massachusetts, for the first time since 2012. “[W]e have decided to use our Facebook page as an active evangelism tool,” someone wrote on Thursday of last week. What followed was a couple of outrageously offensive screeds, including one that began, “As promised, let’s talk about the blacks!”
“One of the most frequent questions we get is, ‘Are you racist?’ The answer is no,” the author wrote. “But we do believe that slavery is necessary. There’s a difference.”
It was speculated that the post, which picked up steam this week among the Boston food community and has since been shared over 300 times, was the work of a hacker. It was actually Mathias. He’d set up the Facebook page years ago, he claimed, and still had access to it. The Daily Beast reached out to Mathias through the Blue Blinds Bakery Facebook page, and he was able to confirm his identity by forwarding us a photocopy of his passport. A member of Twelve Tribes confirmed that Mathias is an ex-member, who had access to the Facebook account.
“It’s time this ends,” Mathias said, referring to the church’s alleged secrecy.
“We completely disavow all the stuff on that Facebook page 100 percent, without any exception,” said a man, who identified himself as Zahar, who would not give his last name, when I called the bakery to ask if they indeed advocated for slavery. (Only Twelve Tribes members work at the bakery.) “If you want to know what we believe, we actually have a website.”
Based on their website, prior reporting, and firsthand accounts, it appears that what they do actually believe isn’t too far off.
The website Zahar referenced is TwelveTribes.com, the home of a group founded in 1972 by a man named Elbert “Gene” Spriggs in Chattanooga, Tennessee, that promotes a sort of hybrid of Christian fundamentalism, Hebrew Roots, and Messianic Judaism. The group has some 3,000 to 4,000 members in isolated, self-sustaining communes around the world that operate businesses like Blue Blinds, a chain of restaurants called The Yellow Deli, and a large construction business. It has dodged accusations of cult-like behavior ever since its inception.
“The group went from being this hippie thing that was kind of cool to turning into this cultist, religious, fucked-up kind of thing,” a second former member told me. “It’s like the frog-stew analogy. You throw a frog in cold water, and he doesn’t realize he’s getting hot until he’s boiled to death.”
According to former members of the Twelve Tribes, Spriggs, the group’s leader, has allegedly preached that black people are destined for slavery and that homosexuals should be put to death—as transcripts of his past sermons appear to show. The half-dozen former members who spoke to The Daily Beast also allege a culture of systematic child abuse, subjugation of women, and psychological torment.
A couple of years ago, a German documentary uncovered video of children in a local branch being beaten so terribly that the government led a raid and took the children away. In the video, Wolfram Kuhnigk, an RTL journalist, filmed 50 instances of beatings on camera, as the Independent reported. One former member who appears in the film recounts being regularly beaten for such trivial offenses as pretending to be an airplane. According to the group’s teachings, children are not permitted to engage in any type of playing or fantasy.
It’s a pattern of controversial behavior that has persisted in stories about the group for decades. “There are so many teachings that keep you from being who you are. They keep you from being human,” a former member named Joellen Griffin told the Boston Herald in 2001. “You get so absorbed in the teachings that you lose your emotions and your ability to respond to situations. They seem like a tight-knit family, but you just don’t know all the misery behind those eyeballs.”
In 1984, authorities in Vermont undertook a similar raid, liberating over 100 children from a Twelve Tribes compound, according to The New York Times. A judge determined that the raid was unconstitutional and the children were returned. Interestingly, as the San Diego Reader reported, the public defender at the time, Jean Swantko, joined the group soon after.
An investigation by the Sydney Morning Herald in 2013 told similar stories of members who had escaped the group, as did an investigation last year by Pacific Standard, which reported that children were allegedly beaten multiple times per day. In 2001 the New York Post launched an investigation that resulted in some of the group’s New York businesses being cited for violating child labor laws.
Despite in-depth investigations into several locations by newspapers and magazines, both current and some former Twelve Tribes members have repeatedly insisted in the press that they do not “abuse” their children.
“Most are gross exaggerations of scandalous, isolated activity throwing all members of Twelve Tribes under the bus,” the third ex-member, who also asked not to use his name because he had family still in the group told me. “The fact is there have been untold scandals within the Twelve Tribes communities, but the actions or misdeeds of a few can by no means accurately or rationally surmise the beliefs, practices, or daily lives of the many individuals that make up the whole.”
“Every person has their story,” he went on. “Every family has their secrets, their dirty laundry, their bad habits or poor decisions. Everyone must find their way in this world and we don’t do it perfectly all the time. We learn from mistakes, things are most often not as they first seem to be.”
That’s no doubt the case when it comes to the Twelve Tribes, but according to many who’ve made their way out of the group, those mistakes have been adding up for a long time.
A man who answered the phone number listed on Twelve Tribes’ site refused to give his name and would not answer any questions. He directed me to the Blue Blinds Bakery for any questions about their Facebook page.
“We believe in corporal punishment, and we stand by that, but we do not believe in child abuse by any means,” Zahar, the bakery employee, told me. “And we believe that a lot of the problems that you see in the world today probably could have been avoided if children understood cause and effect and understood consequences.”
“The rod must be used to correct wrong thoughts, wrong words, and wrong deeds; thoughts are powerful—there is no sin without thinking about it,” Our Child Training Manual explains. Materials on the group’s website lay out similar practices.
“Train your child to submit willingly to his discipline; make sure he bends over submissively; guilt will not be removed unless he submits willingly.
“Discipline is vital. If you don’t discipline your child according to the Scriptures, you are not going to enter the Kingdom of Heaven,” it continues. “When we see a child receive what we consider mistreatment from such parents, we must remember that God is in control and has chosen to place the soul life of that child under those parents, specifically.”
The documents compare provisions against corporal punishment to the laws of totalitarian states, and deny the right of the government to intervene: “The governments of such nations as Sparta, Hitler’s Germany, and communist Russia have usurped the parents’ role, but today parental authority is being undermined in the USA through compulsory public education, child advocacy agencies, and child-abuse laws. Parents must not allow government to usurp their authority in those areas in which God holds the parents alone accountable.”
Corporal punishment is rooted in the Twelve Tribes’ literal reading of the Acts of the Apostles, according to Zahar. “We’re fundamental Christians and we take the Bible literally,” he told me. “We follow the pattern of the early church, early Christians, and they shared everything in common. We believe that Christianity kind of went off that pattern of living together and sharing everything and actually taking care of each other. That’s what we’re trying to get back to, to the pattern in Acts II.”
While he said they do not condone homosexuality, they also allege they do not believe in violence and would welcome an LGBT person into their home. As for the slavery question, he countered that the group has black members. In fact, he said one was working with him at the bakery as we spoke.
The second former member who spoke to The Daily Beast (and also asked to not use his name because of concerns about his family) said that corporal punishment is rampant. He told me he was hit 30 to 40 times a day growing up in the church.
“I remember getting whipped so hard I didn’t know if I was going to survive. I couldn’t breath, I was gasping for air.
“They used to teach that anyone in the group could spank any children, so some random, creepy motherfucker could grab you and beat your ass.”
The former member, a construction worker who was born into the group, laughed when I asked him if the Facebook posts were consistent with the group’s beliefs.
“That’s pretty much spot on. Basically, if you want to show the world what they believe, get your hands on their teachings about black people, Jews, children, women—there’s about 50,000 of these ‘teachings,’” he said.
“Multiculturalism increases murder, crime, and prejudice,” reads one such teaching on the group’s website. “It goes against the way man is. It places impossible demands on people to love others who are culturally and racially different. This is unnatural it forces people to go against their instinctive knowledge, like trying to love sodomites. They are told, ‘You can’t discriminate.’ Although discrimination is viewed as an evil sin, it is still within a person’s prerogative (right) to segregate himself.”
“Their teachings on black people are that they’re supposed to be slaves, about how God cursed black people back in the day,” said the same former member. “It’s crazy. Unless a black person is in the community, they need to serve white people. It’s so racist it will blow your mind.”
Copies of sermons given by Spriggs in 1998 and 1991, and reviewed by The Daily Beast, lay out the group’s attitude on race. “Martin Luther King and others have been inspired by the evil one to have forced equality,” states one titled “Châm and the Civil Rights Movement Unraveling the Races of Man.” “Slavery is the only way for some people to be useful in society. They wouldn’t do anything productive without being forced to. They would be worthless fellows.” (Châm is a reference to Ham, the son of Noah whom Biblical tradition credits with populating Africa.)
It goes downhill from there.
“What a marvelous opportunity that blacks could be brought over here to be slaves so that they could be found worthy of the nations,” read a second sermon. “A good master would work by the sweat of his brow. If his slaves were lazy and disrespectful, he would beat them, which is what he was supposed to do.”
It should be noted that the group does have black members, although they were not able to be reached by press time. When The Daily Beast reached out to the Twelve Tribes about the contents of the sermons, a spokesperson declined comment. The ex-members I spoke with explained this contradiction by noting that minorities who give themselves over to the Twelve Tribes are viewed differently than those who do not.
Women are meant to subjugate themselves to men, are allegedly required to wear head coverings that “serve as an outward symbol of her subservience to her man,” and are infrequently allowed to talk, claimed one former female member I spoke with, who asked not to use her real name for fear of retaliation, and provided photos of herself today and during her time in the group. She said that when she was 14 years old, a boy her age kissed her innocently. From that point forth, they were separated on opposite sides of the country and not permitted to communicate, but nevertheless were sentenced to be married when they turned 18.
She told me that she first tried to escape when they were married. She was gone for three months, but she claims the group guilted her into coming back, saying her husband would burn in hell for eternity if she didn’t. The pair was relocated to Florida, where family members outside of the group who’d taken her in couldn’t find her. Three months into their marriage, they were reprimanded for not yet having any children, she said. Previous reports on the group outline persistent pressure for young women to give birth to many children.
“There are a lot of good people there, but they don’t understand, they’re so brainwashed,” the male former member told me. “They find themselves defending stuff that doesn’t make sense.”
One way for the group to ensure total loyalty, he said, is by divesting members of any ties to their former lives, requiring them to donate all of their possessions and money to the church. “My ex-girlfriend’s dad died of cancer after he left the group. They realized he’d had it for 14 years. If they’d caught it any time before that he might’ve lived, but they neglected his health for so long. They do not go to the doctor ever, unless there’s some sort of catastrophic injury.”
The Boston Herald story cited numerous instances of stillbirth, with women allegedly being refused medical treatment during labor. “In fact, stillbirths are so common that the cult’s private burial ground in Island Pond, Vermont, includes several unmarked graves of dead children,” the story reads.
Mathias said he took over the bakery’s Facebook page in part to expose Twelve Tribes, but also as a means of explaining what his bizarre life inside the group was like.
For those who leave the Twelve Tribes, the assimilation process isn’t just difficult practically speaking. As Mathias said, it comes with a lot of psychological stress.
“Having talked to people who have left, it’s a five-year cycle of depression, self-loathing, doubt, hopelessness, and then finally acceptance and recovery. In my weird way, this is the acceptance stage,” he said. “I’m putting everything that happened out there in the hopes that people will realize what’s going on, but also as a way just to talk about it. Think about trying to have this conversation with a friend: ‘Hey, so I was in a religious cult that abused me. I just left a few years ago.’ It puts people off.”
Attempts by The Daily Beast to reach Mathias’ family for comment were unsuccessful.
Chris Pike is another former Twelve Tribes member—he belonged to the group for 14 years. He came to the community, like many others, through the Grateful Dead scene, and after a period of bereavement and loss in his life. While Twelve Tribes recruiters do prey on people in his position, he said, he was clear that it was his choice to join.
“It doesn’t need to be sensationalized. It’s just screwed all on its own. But I also want a clearer picture portrayed of the community,” he said.
“It’s not all demonized. There’s some of the nicest salt of the earth people there, and it’s not all creepy. That’s the delicate thing people don’t realize. Why do people join in the first place? What do you think I was attracted to, beating children? Are you kidding me?”
While the teachings instruct parents to “encourage their children seven times before disciplining them,” that’s not always how it works, said Pike, who was a teacher himself for a time.
“I can tell you everyone you come across that’s a former member will tell you that just doesn’t happen, it’s actually the opposite,” said Pike. “They spank seven times more than they encourage. Some parents are very good and do try, and then there’s the ones that are not. It’s all on an individual basis.
“It has the potential to be that wonderful, but also has the potential to be that horrible. And it does.”
Chris said he’s exasperated by the coverage of the Tribes over the years, as it never leads to any real help. What he wants to see is someone step up and show a real path forward for ex-members. He particularly wants help for the children, he said, who are often lost, entering a world they don’t know, with nothing to their names.
“I’m so tired of watching the media selling papers off the Twelve Tribes and they’re not helping. I hope somebody extends a helping hand and says, ‘Hey, any philanthropic people out there want to help these people, because they need some help. They need some help,’” said Pike.
“There’s got to be a landing strip. There’s got to be a cushion—and there’s not for these kids. We don’t need Bible reeducation, we need a helping hand out of the mess so that we can build a solid support system to help the children and ex-members.”
The former female member I spoke with, said one of her first memories was of being beaten so badly with a 2×4 that she went home black and blue from her neck to her kneecaps. She was four years old.
“I couldn’t get myself to raise my kids the way they wanted me to. That’s why I left, because of them. The way they brainwash you and stuff—I probably would still be there if I didn’t have children,” she said.
Still, says the ex-member who is skeptical of media reports about the group, the despicable actions of a few do not fully represent the group as a whole. All six of the ex-members I spoke to, in fact, said there are many decent people involved.
“Is the Twelve Tribes a religious sect full of manipulation, nepotism, elitism, haves and have nots in spite of their ideals of equality for all? Yes!” he said. “Does the Twelve Tribes have a leadership system full of egomaniacal religious fundamentalists? Yes! Have there been cases of child abuse within families of the Twelve Tribes? Yes…Does the Twelve Tribes have a system of belief regarding race that is misleading? Yes! Does it promote or practice hate against different races of the earth within or without? No! Do the teachings of the Twelve Tribes come from one man? Yes! Do all members of the Twelve Tribes adhere to said teachings? No!”
Many of the members, he and others explained, want to live simple lives in the hopes of pleasing God in the way they’ve been taught. But, he added, that gets complicated when they’re not encouraged to think on their own, or draw their own conclusions about life outside of the group.
“Do members work without pay? Yes, it’s a commune with a common pot. Everyone that moves in knows that. There’s no secret there. Children born and raised know that it’s just life. Food, clothing and shelter are provided for. Some Twelve Tribes communities are rich while others are very poor. Some members have access to computers, the Internet, social media, news etc while others don’t.
“Does the Twelve Tribes believe they are the harbinger of the return of Jesus? Yes! Are there current members of the Twelve Tribes that live in turmoil every day doubting, struggling against believing that what they’re doing is right? Yes. Are there current members that wish they could leave but don’t know how? Yes! Should Twelve Tribes be exposed for what it really is? Yes!”