Death of Twelve Tribes founder leaves future uncertain for international Christian movement founded in Chattanooga
February 3rd, 2021 | by Wyatt Massey
Staff photo by Wyatt Massey / The Yellow Deli on McCallie Avenue is pictured on Jan. 28, 2021. The restaurant is run by the Twelve Tribes, a religious community whose founder died this month, raising questions about the future of the group.
The founder of the Twelve Tribes died last month, raising questions about the future of the religious movement created in Chattanooga that operates businesses around the world and for decades has faced accusations of child abuse.
Elbert Eugene Spriggs Jr., known in the movement by the Hebrew name “Yoneq” and “the anointed one,” died at the Twelve Tribes’s campus in Hiddenite, North Carolina, on Jan. 11 at age 83, according to a death certificate from the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services.
The international, fundamentalist Christian movement Spriggs created operates the Yellow Deli on McCallie Avenue. The community with thousands of members operates similar restaurants, as well as hostels and farms, in dozens of places across the country and around the world, including in Australia, France and Argentina, according to the community’s website.
The businesses fund their communities that attempt to mirror the Christian church in the first century. Members live together, sharing possessions as well. They describe themselves as creating a new society and social order, supporting one another to stay away from the perceived moral failings of the world, such as broken family relationships, environmental damage and increasing secularization.
Born in 1937 to Elbert and Mabel Spriggs, Spriggs was raised in Chattanooga. He was a football standout at Central High School and went on to graduate from the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga with a degree in psychology. He served in the U.S. Army and later worked as a guidance counselor and tour director for a travel agency.
While in California, he devoted his life to creating a ministry, according to reporting at the time by the Chattanooga News-Free Press. Spriggs said he wanted to reach young people who were not going to church, particularly those turned off from faith by their parents.
“You can’t fool a dog or a child,” Spriggs told the News-Free Press in 1974. “Kids see the hypocrisy and the phoniness in their parents’ lives. Their parents take alcohol, tranquilizers, cigarettes. Or they disobey speed laws. Yet they want their children to stay off drugs and obey all laws.”
Spriggs opened the Vine House with his fourth wife, Marsha, in East Ridge during the Jesus Movement of the early 1970s. The house hosted Bible studies and other gatherings. By 1974, the ministry operated three houses on the same block. The couple opened the original Yellow Deli in Chattanooga on Brainerd Road in May 1973.
“When people ask us who our interior designer is, we tell them we have the same one Noah had,” Spriggs told the News-Free Press in 1974.
Other faith communities in Chattanooga ostracized those in the group. Students at the former Tennessee Temple University, as well as Covenant College and Bryan College, were forbidden from going to the restaurant.
Several hundred members of the group left for Vermont in 1979 following what the group described as “anti-cult hysteria” in Chattanooga at the time. Reports in the Chattanooga Times said former leaders had begun going public with accusations of abuse, including child abuse and mistreatment of members.
In December 1979, Spriggs’s sister Joyce Henrickson told the Chattanooga Times she was initially pleased with her brother’s ministry.
“But then they seemed to get very negative,” she said. “When I mentioned that to him, he told me he was just trying to follow the scripture in his work.”
Henrickson also said she visited a church home and babies there did not look healthy and the living conditions were crowded.
The group has repeatedly been the subject of investigations and documentaries, from organizations such as Pacific Standard, the Southern Poverty Law Center and A&E, as well as the topic of books by former members. Many of these works alleged systemic child abuse and child labor promoted by group leaders and justified by Bible passages. The group has admitted to punishing children with wooden rods, citing a passage from the Book of Proverbs, but denied other accusations.
The group has also been accused of racism and the promotion or adoration of slavery, with some teachings made public suggesting the group believes Black people are inferior based on the Bible in ways similar to how many American Christian churches justified slavery during the Civil War.
The Twelve Tribes denounces what it views as society violating God’s “natural law,” specifically the “time-honored ideals of the hard-working man, the submissive wife, and respectful children,” according to the group’s website.
In 1984, more than 100 Vermont state troopers and social workers removed children from the community searching for evidence of child abuse in what the Twelve Tribes refers to as “The Raid” in its literature. Many of the cases involving the children were dismissed when parents refused to provide the children’s names, according to The New York Times.
One allegation involving sexual exploitation of children made to the Alexander County Sheriff’s Office in North Carolina in 2013 was forwarded to the FBI for investigation. No formal charges were filed, according to the sheriff’s office.
In 2018, the New York Department of Labor found multiple child labor violations involving a dozen children at the group’s Common Sense Farm in Cambridge, New York.
Spriggs’ death certificate lists respiratory arrest as his main cause of death and hypoxemic respiratory failure, congestive heart disease and atrial fibrillation as contributing causes.
The private nature of the Twelve Tribes and their beliefs make it unclear what role Spriggs played in the group near the end of his life or what his death means for the international movement. According to the group’s website, Spriggs received revelation but was one of many teachers. Calls to the organization’s communities in Chattanooga and Hiddenite over several days were not returned.
Even Luke Wiseman, whose father Eddie Wiseman was a founding member and is among the remaining leaders, does not know. Luke Wiseman and his wife, both of whom were Twelve Tribes members, were among hundreds who left the group after several affairs involving ministry leaders were uncovered around 2008, he said.
“There’s an iron curtain between the Twelve Tribes and those of us who have left,” Luke Wiseman told the Times Free Press last week. “They consider us dead. They consider us like Judas Iscariot.”
A message left last week for Eddie Wiseman, who still lives in Chattanooga, was not returned.
People who studied the group for years, such as Robert Pardon, director of the New England Institute for Religious Research, said the idea the group had no leader is not true. Spriggs was supposed to lead the group until Jesus Christ returned, Pardon said.
“Nothing was done apart from Spriggs,” he said last week. “He was never supposed to die. This is not someone who was one amongst many. What he said, went.”
Pardon is considered an enemy of the Tribes for his work helping former members transition away from the group and back into mainstream society. He has studied the group and has played an integral role in revealing some of the most serious allegations of abusive practices.
The Twelve Tribes have been a target of “deprogramming” groups that seek to remove members from similar groups, often at the request of their families. In 2015, three people were arrested for kidnapping a family member who had joined the Twelve Tribes.
Pardon said he expects the group’s businesses may continue but could struggle without a unifying spiritual leader.
“In general, what happens to groups like the Tribes is they might continue for a generation or two but they end up just dying out because there’s no one that’s going to be receiving revelation,” Pardon said. “That’s what I expect would happen.”
Despite the dozens of former members who have described histories of abuse within the community, the Twelve Tribes continues to operate its series of Yellow Deli restaurants, the New York farm, a Massachusetts-based construction company and a printing business.
Pardon said that while the group has faced some violations and scrutiny from the government, it is often left alone because of its welcoming businesses and non-confrontational attitude with the public. Members do not seem to pose a threat to wider society, the way a white supremacist group would or if it were stockpiling weapons, Pardon said. At the same time, gathering evidence to prove abuse or mistreatment is difficult since members do not own possessions.
In 1974, Spriggs told the News-Free Press of his dreams of opening more restaurants and community houses.
“Can you imagine what a wonderful thing it would be to have Yellow Delis all over America?” Spriggs said at the time. “A restaurant with good food for everyone in the community, but it would be a place to reach all the runaways who are passing through, or all the young people who are tired and mixed up. These people are not going to church. Sometimes they stop at shelters and guidance people beat around the bush. They don’t tell it simple like it is. Jesus loves you. You can be happy. Let God run your life.”
Contact Wyatt Massey at email@example.com or 423-757-6249. Follow him on Twitter @news4mass.