Twelve Tribes

Quick Facts on Twelve Tribes

  • What: Twelve Tribes is a communal religious movement. 1
  • Names: Generally referred to as the Twelve Tribes. Formerly known as The Vine Christian Community Church, Northeast Kingdom Community Church, Messianic Communities, Community Apostolic Order, The New Apostolic Order in Messiah, The Church in Island Pond, The Communities. Communes around the US and abroad generally are called Community in [placename]
  • Associated: Peacemaker, a sailing ship owned and operated by The Twelve Tribes gives tours and evangelizes at ports. Yellow Deli, health-food restaurants operated by Twelve Tribes communities. Other names: Maté Factor cafe, Forest Keepers (tree cutting), Common Sense Market (organic produce store), Community in Rutland and Community in San Sebastian (hostels), BOJ Construction, and others.
  • Founded: 1972. One of many religious offshoots that emerged from the Jesus People Movement.
  • Founder: Elbert Eugene Spriggs, sometimes referred to as Elbert ‘Gene’ Spriggs, or simply Gene Spriggs. Known within the community as Yoneq, he refers to himself as “Super Apostle.”
  • Membership: Believed to be between 2,000 – 3,000. The groups says it has 50 communities, in nine countries.
  • Beliefs: “The Twelve Tribe’s beliefs resemble those of Christian fundamentalism and Messianic Judaism; however the group believes that all denominations are fallen, and so refuse to align themselves with any denomination or movement. They believe that in order for the messiah to return, the Church needs to be restored to its original form seen in the Acts 2:38–42 and Acts 4:32–37. This restoration is not merely the restoration of the 1st century church, but of a new Israel consisting of Twelve Tribes in twelve geographic regions. Part of this restoration is the return to observing the Sabbath, maintaining Mosaic law including dietary law, and Jewish feasts. This interpretation of the prophesied restoration of Israel, combined with the perceived immorality in the world leads the group to believe the end times have arrived, though no date has been set.” 2 Members in the group take on Hebrew names, but instead of referring to Jesus as Yeshua they use Yahshua — in common with those within the Hebrew Rootsoffsite and Sacred Nameoffsite movements. They believe that communal living is necessary for salvation.
  • Controversies: The group’s aberrant and heretical teachings identify it as, theologically, a cult of Christianity. Sociologically, there are cultic elements as well, including the high level of control leveled over the group’s followers. The group advocates racial segregation.

    James A. Beverley says that

    Yoneq fosters dependence upon his rule through false comparisons with New Testament apostles, developing an antirational mind-set in the group and equating his word with the direction of the Lord. His teachings are rarely self-critical and he is obsessed with the Twelve Tribes as the only work of God on the earth.
    – Source: Nelson’s Illustrated Guide to Religions: A Comprehensive Introduction to the Religions of the World

    An example of the many controversies surrounding this cult is the June 2015 raid on the twelve Tribes community in Sus in the ­Pyrénées-Atlantiques, France.

    The Times reports

    French police have seized the children of members of a fundamentalist cult in a hamlet in southern France who were allegedly beaten, forced to pray each day from dawn and had never seen television­ or the internet.

    The Twelve Tribes, a Christian sect based at a chateau at Sus in the ­Pyrénées-Atlantiques, claims to ­emulate a first-century lifestyle. Members ­believe that youngsters must be caned to keep folly at bay, and force them, after a morning of prayer, to work for the rest of the day. They also preach that multiculturalism is Satanic.

    The Sus community produces and sells fruit, vegetables and shoes.

    The group was raided on Tuesday. Police placed four children aged between 18 months and 14 years into care amid allegations of abuse.

    The raid came after a criminal ­inquiry, which began after a former member of the cult told ­a prosecutor that beatings had been ­administered by the community.

    The Twelve Tribes communities in France, Germany, the US and elsewhere have long faced accusations of racism and violence. Gene Spriggs, its founder, who came from Tennessee, said that Martin Luther King was evil.

    The sect denies the claims, and says that it is misunderstood.[…]
    – Source: Adam Sage, Cult children beaten and made to live like early Christians, The Times, June 18, 2015

    In a follow-up report The Times writes

    “I was beaten more often than I can say,” said a former member of the French branch of the Twelve Tribes who left a few years ago. “I was beaten until I gushed blood. Once, I couldn’t get out of bed for two weeks.”

    This week 200 gendarmes raided the community’s headquarters in the village of Sus, near Pau, arrested ten adults and placed four children in care after doctors discovered bruises on their bodies. Two years ago German police removed 40 children from the Bavarian branch of the Twelve Tribes; 13 years ago a French court convicted 19 adult members of failing to give their children proper schooling.

    “I think this sect should be closed. The children are in danger,” said Maître Jean-François Blanco, a lawyer representing a former member whose lawsuit against the community prompted an investigation that led to this week’s arrests.

    Mr Blanco said that prosecutors had been slow to act in France, but he was astonished that no action was being taken against the community in Britain. “British justice is deficient,” he said.

    The sect was founded in the US in 1972 by Gene and Martha Spriggs, fundamentalist protestants who wanted to “restore the spiritual 12 tribes of Israel”. It now claims to have 50 communities, in nine countries, with up to 3,000 adherents. They live like 1st-century Christians in almost complete isolation from the modern world.[…]
    – Source: Adam Sage, They beat us until we gushed blood, reveals sect victim, The Times, June 20, 2015

A colorado newspaper described the group as follows:

The Twelve Tribes’ evening worship service in Manitou Springs is reminiscent of a scene straight from a hippie commune in the 1960s and early ’70s, and this group does, in fact, live in a communal setting.

But the similarities end there. No drugs and alcohol are allowed in Twelve Tribes. The women wear modest, baggy attire straight out of 19th-century America. The speakers at the religious services talk repeatedly about end times. And Scripture runs their life.

Begun in 1972 in Chattanooga, Tenn., Twelve Tribes is the brainchild of Elbert Eugene Spriggs, who is still part of the tribe but has never been its spiritual figurehead. Current worldwide membership is about 2,000.

The local Twelve Tribes community ranges in age from 1 to about 60 and consists of seven families and 12 single adults. They live and worship together in two neighboring Manitou Springs homes, and strive to replicate how they believe Christians lived in the first century: chaste, pious, hardworking and living together under the same roof.
Members give up almost all their possessions to be part of the tribe.

“I came into this world with nothing, and that’s how I will leave it,” said 31-year-old Malak Chesed Gould – born Derek Gould – who joined Twelve Tribes a decade ago and is now a community leader.

Twelve Tribes attempts to include every member in decisionmaking, but there is a hierarchy. Each of the communities – 25 in the U.S. and about 25 in other countries – is overseen by in-house leaders, who are overseen by a tribal council in a regional office, who are, in turn, overseen by the Apostolic Council, a fluid number of elders scattered across the U.S.

Communities support themselves through their small businesses, and all profits go into a common pool.

The local Twelve Tribes runs three Manitou Springs businesses: the Maté Factor cafe, the organic-produce store Common Sense Market, and the tree-cutting business Forest Keepers. They don’t proselytize to customers, but if someone inquires about their faith, they will talk about it.

Because Twelve Tribes is a 501 (d) – used by for-profit organizations with a religious purpose and a common treasury – the community pays taxes on its earnings and property. […]

Though Twelve Tribes has sometimes been characterized as a cult, its members say it doesn’t have the negative characteristics often associated with a cult: abuse and mind control.

“We don’t teach abuse,” said Apostolic Council member Eddie Wiseman, who is currently living in the tribe’s community in Purceville, Va. “Our safety net is that we don’t silence people. This has been very effective in keeping the community together. People can also leave the tribe whenever they want.”

Allegations of child abuse have been made against some Twelve Tribes communities, and some people have accused them of mind control, but the faith has never been charged in connection with either. Its biggest blemish occurred in 2001, when two of its businesses in Green County, N.Y., were fined for breaking child labor laws.
– Source: Mark Barna, Twelve Tribes living as oneoffsite, The Gazette, Jan. 2, 2009

Two former members speak out

Michael Painter was in the Communities for 18 years and started many of the Communities’ “cottage industries,” and James Howell was Spriggs personal secretary for over a decade.

Michael Painter and James Howell, two former high ranking Twelve Tribes members, speak out against the group and its leader

Additional portions of this interview can be viewed here.


  1. Some may refer to it as an ‘intentional community
  2. Twelve Tribes, Beliefs and Practicesoffsite. Wikipedia entry. Last accessed Monday, March 12, 2012 – 8:57 AM CET
This post was last updated: Jun. 20, 2015