We received a heartbreaking call from a listener to EWTN’s Women of Grace Live show last week about her daughter who had become involved with a group known as the Twelve Tribes. Even more distressing is that the young woman took her son – our caller’s grandson – to live with the group. It was with a heavy heart that we told her what we know about the Twelve Tribes.
First and foremost, the Twelve Tribes is a bona fide cult. It is a communal religious movement comprised of about 2-3,000 members living in roughly 50 communities scattered throughout nine countries. Members of the cult adopt a belief system that is a combination of Christian fundamentalism and Messianic Judaism, which is a blending of Christianity and Judaism that evolved during the 1960’s. They view all denominations as fallen and seek to build their church according to the original form as documented in the Acts of the Apostles, such as by observing the Sabbath and maintaining Mosaic law and Jewish feasts.
However, their lifestyle, particularly where children are concerned, is anything but Godly. For example, they believe children must be caned (beaten) numerous times a day in order to keep them from sin. One former member said he was beaten sometimes 20-30 times a day. Children are made to rise at 5:00 a.m. and stand for an hour of prayer before going off to work in the commune or to one of the cult’s various businesses for the rest of the day.
This site lists numerous countries such as the UK, Germany, and France where Twelve Tribes communities were raided and the children forcibly removed for their own safety and/or for violations of child labor laws.
Other draconian beliefs held by the group include forcing women to give birth without painkillers to atone for Eve’s original sin. One former member named Ruth Williams said she developed placenta previa – a condition in which the placenta blocks the birth canal – and was told to pray to God to move the placenta out of the way. Williams went into labor and began to hemorrhage, then eventually lost consciousness. She was driven to a hospital and dumped on the sidewalk outside the emergency room. When she awoke, she was told her child had been stillborn.
Their disbelief in modern medicine has led to numerous tragedies, such as the death of a 15-month-old girl who died during a whooping-cough epidemic that swept through the community in the 1980’s. The elders of the cult told the baby’s father, ‘If God wants her to live, He’ll save her.” She died a few hours later, said the man who eventually left the Tribes.
When the 39-year-old wife of one of the elders died of untreated cervical cancer, the family was told her death was the result of her unconfessed sin.
This horrifying community has its roots in a charismatic man named Eugene Spriggs, a former high school teacher and guidance counselor who, along with his fourth wife, Marsha, began a Bible study in their home in Chattanooga, Tennessee in 1972. They recruited youth at local high schools and popular hangouts to come and listen to Sprigg’s Bible commentaries in his living room. A gifted preacher, he was said to leave his audience rapt for hours by his sermons.
Because so many of the youngsters who attended were either drug addicts or runaways, the Spriggs invited them to move in. As their “family” grew, they decided to open a restaurant called the Yellow Deli to help support themselves. “Family” members worked at the restaurant to earn their room and board, but no paycheck. Part of their function in the deli was to recruit others which they did through catchy sayings in the menu such as, “We serve the fruit of the Spirit. Why not ask?”
As the Pacific Standard reports, they eventually opened numerous other Yellow Delis and organic food stores known as Common Sense Markets where they continued to attract new members to the cult.
Spriggs began to refer to his Bible study as the Vine Christian Community Church but all was not idyllic. Disgruntled former members began to speak out about the long hours they were forced to work every week without pay, complaints that should have raised alarms among other members, but by now, Spriggs had convinced them – and himself – that he was a modern-day “super-apostle” and that his teachings came directly from God.
“Spriggs told his followers that God wanted them to cut themselves completely off from modern society,” the Standard reports. “This meant no television, radio, books, or anything else that embodied secular culture. ‘Friendship with the world,’ he preached, ‘is enmity with God.’ Members were required to donate all their possessions to the group—homes, cars, money—in exchange, Spriggs told them, for eternal salvation. When concerned relatives raised objections, Spriggs told his followers to cut them off, too.”
The bad press eventually forced Spriggs to leave Tennessee and relocate to a remote village in Vermont known as Island Pond. Two hundred followers joined him.
“In this new setting, the group became increasingly reclusive. Spriggs decided he was destined to restore the ancient Twelve Tribes of Israel and produce an army of 144,000 male virgins, who would prepare the way for Christ’s second coming,” the Standard reports.
“To this end, he re-named the group the Twelve Tribes. To differentiate the Tribes from mainstream Christianity, he referred to Jesus as Yahshua, a variant of Jesus’ Hebrew name, and insisted members take Hebrew names as well. He called himself Yoneq—a play on his given name that he translated as ‘tender shoot or sprig’.”
Spriggs exercised an iron rule over every facet of members’ lives, “regulating everything from fingernail length to how married couples should engage in intercourse,” the Standard reports.
It’s easy to think that only miscreants and the confused get involved in cults, as was the case when Spriggs first started his commune, but experts say this is not the rule. As this blog explains, what makes a person vulnerable to a cult is not their personality type as much as where they’re at in life. There are certain times when people are just more vulnerable than others, such as after suffering the loss of an important relationship or financial status, or when a young person is making a transition from high school to college, or from college to the working world.
“Times such as these make us vulnerable to people who promise us a new life, a new sense of belonging. This is especially true for people who are naturally dependent on others, who tend to be overly-trusting, have a tendency toward low self-esteem, or who are disillusioned with their religion and are searching for new spiritual meaning in their lives,” the blog states.
As difficult as it was for us to relate this information to this heartbroken caller, we were able to reassure her that there is help available. Steven Hassan, a former member of the cult of the Rev. Sun Myung Moon, (known as the “moonies”), who now holds a master’s degree in counseling and psychology, has devoted himself to helping people – and their loved ones – break free from cults. He has also written several excellent books detailing how to help a loved one disengage from a cult.
Visit the Freedom of Mind Resource Center for learn more.
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