TWELVE TRIBES . The Twelve Tribes (previously known as the Northeast Kingdom Community Church because of its location in the northeast corner of Vermont, and later as the Messianic Communities) is a communal, millenarian Bible-based movement that emerged from the Jesus Movement in the 1970s counterculture of the United States. Many of the Christian sects that emerged from this movement, such as the Children of God (the Family), Shiloh, and Jesus People USA, developed communal patterns of living. The Twelve Tribes is one of the few Jesus groups that survived from this period without disbanding or being absorbed into the U.S. religious mainstream.
Elbert Eugene Spriggs (b. 1937) had worked as a personnel manager and former schoolteacher when he joined a charismatic church in Glendale, California, in 1971. When the church disbanded, he moved back to his hometown, Chattanooga, Tennessee, with his new wife, Marsha Ann Duval. There the couple set up a small coffee shop in 1972 called the Light Brigade, where they held Bible study groups in the evenings. Attracting both young conservative Christians and hippies from the "lost generation," these Bible study sessions extended long into the night, so people brought their sleeping bags and gradually moved in with the Spriggses, who shared their resources with their flock. The coffee-house ministry expanded to include five Victorian houses that were renovated by Spriggs and his followers. They also opened as a "court of the gentiles" a small health-food café called the Yellow Deli. The Spriggses attended the First Presbyterian Church with their flock, and worked closely with the New Covenant Apostolic Order, a short-lived Christian group.
The group's break with the mainstream Christian church occurred in 1975, when the Spriggses and their friends arrived for the Sunday morning service at the local Presbyterian church and discovered that the service had been canceled on account of the Super Bowl. The Spriggses and their friends began to hold Sunday services in their communal homes, and called themselves the Vine Community Church. Spriggs began to baptize members in the local pond, an act that alienated the Chattanooga Christian community, because he was not ordained in any denomination. They also began observing the Saturday Sabbath, following Jewish custom. In 1980 the group relocated to Island Pond, Vermont, where they were called the Church in Island Pond, and as they spread through New England, they adopted a new name, the Northeast Kingdom Community Church.
"Gene" Spriggs is recognized by his followers as an "Apostle" (authoritative teacher). Although all community members believe that they are inspired by God and have the gift of prophecy, they believe that he exhibits these gifts on a higher level, and they call him Yoneq (Hebrew for "sapling"). This millenarian movement has grown to around 2,500 members (half of them are second and third generation) living in communities in nine countries on four continents as far-flung as New Zealand, Brazil, England, France, Germany, Spain, and Canada. Their early communities were established in New England—Vermont, Rhode Island, and Massachusetts, where the largest concentration of members can be found. Each community names itself after its local town or area.
Over their thirty-year history, the Twelve Tribes have come to believe that they are the restoration of the messianic Hebrew New Testament community of the first century ce. This belief evolved through members' study of the Bible and personal experiences. They reject the "white-bread" Christianity of mainstream churches that worship a remote impersonal God and does not sustain the soul, and they replace it, both literally and symbolically, with the "wholegrain, home-baked bread" of their living communal "church" that seeks to bring about the return and loving union with Yahshua (Jesus). The community attempts to restore the New Testament church by developing a physical and artistic culture that interprets first-century messianic Judaism in twenty-first-century terms. They are divided into "tribes" that correspond to their geographical regions. Men grow full beards and women cover their heads with scarves, following the Jewish custom.
In the "church" (community), members follow a strict code of ethics, dress, and diet, and must surrender to the hierarchical authority that descends from God through Yoneq, the Elders, the Teachers, the fathers, and the mothers, to the children. The Twelve Tribes is dedicated to ushering in the millennium by "raising up a people" who are truly loving and free of sin and selfishness. The church defines itself as the "pure and spotless bride" of Revelation who is preparing for the return of her king, Yahshua—the second coming. The path of the Tribes is the restoration of the primitive Jewish/Christian church, as described in Acts 2:37–47 and 4:32–35. This restoration is both theological and practical, and has led to a whole new way of life based on renouncing possessions, worldly habits, and attachments, and sharing all goods in common.
Members give each other Hebrew names, accessed through inspired moments of prophecy. They consider themselves to be part of the Commonwealth of Israel forming in the last days, bound by the New Covenant in the blood of the Messiah (Eph. 2:12). The Tribes are strongly evangelistic, but instead of sending out missionaries to spread their doctrines, they seek to win converts by inviting outsiders into their communal houses in order to demonstrate the reality of a loving, sharing, orderly communal and family life. Visitors are invited to share their meals, and to witness their happy family life and joyful revival meetings, which combine circle dancing, singing, sermons, and prayer. Once there, visitors encounter a unique, spiritual culture that resembles the historic Shaker villages in its "hands to work, hearts to God" ethic. Twelve Tribes women are skilled in the crafts of baking, painting with watercolors, sewing and macramé, and making soaps and body lotions. The men are skilled in leatherwork, cabinet-making, candle-making, and making stained-glass windows. Their renovated Victorian houses preserve the historic style, and they repair antique furniture, expressing their doctrine of restoration. Their children sing and compose an impressive repertoire of original devotional songs. Boys work alongside their fathers in the candle factories and farms, and daughters assist their mothers in the kitchen and sewing rooms. All members spend at least two hours a day in devotional dancing and singing, and many play and even build their own musical instruments.
Another missionary strategy employs the community's famous double-decker buses, which appear at Grateful Dead festivals, the Billy Graham Crusade, the Rainbow Gathering, and other mass events. Men, women, and children make friends by offering hospitality that includes free distribution of wholegrain baked goods, apple cider tea, and first-aid services, and members invite the crowd to join in their circle dancing and musical jams. They distribute the Freepaper, their missionary tract which portrays a utopian vision of perfect, loving families and service to one's brothers and sisters preparing for the return of Yahshua.
Considering that this new religious movement is relatively small and lacks the controversial features of some other Christian millennial groups—such as the use of firearms or illegal drugs, and polygamy or "free love"—level of conflict between the group and the larger society has been extraordinarily high. The trouble began in Chattanooga in the mid-1970s with a series of eight kidnappings and "deprogrammings" of Spriggs's youthful followers by Ted Patrick, the cofounder of FREECOG, the first anticult organization that formed in opposition to the Children of God (COG). FREECOG and was superseded by the nationally based Citizen's Freedom Foundation, which networked with the media, labeling the Tribes a cult and attributing their success in winning converts to brainwashing. The conflict escalated in 1982 when a series of custody battles launched by parents who had left the community drew attention to the group's sectarian methods of child rearing and their strict, Bible-based practice of corporal punishment of children. Stigmatizing news reports proliferated, portraying the Island Pond Community Church as a scary, gothic, puritanical "neo-Salem," where children were routinely neglected and abused.
The Twelve Tribes guidelines stipulate that children who do not obey upon first command must be punished, and the millenarian rationale is that they must be alert and ready to respond to Yahshua's call when he returns. Chastisements usually consist of a few blows to the palm with a flexible stick, and they must not be given in anger. Through this discipline, parents believe that their children will achieve eternal life; otherwise, they are in danger of "dying" into sin.
On June 22, 1984, the Island Pond Community was the target of a massive raid to seize their children. Ninety Vermont state troopers and fifty social rehabilitation services workers arrived in the predawn hours with a court order; they searched the households and took 112 children into protective custody. Parents accompanied their children to the hearing in Newport, Vermont, where District Judge Frank Mahady held forty individual hearings in one day. At the end of the day, he ruled that the search warrant issued by the state was unconstitutional, and he noted that the children involved had been detained solely in order to provide evidence for charges of abuse, and that no concrete evidence other than hearsay had been produced by the state. The church-state confrontation thus ended abruptly, and the children were returned to their parents. Ten years after the raid, the Twelve Tribes held a festival (which has become an annual event) to commemorate their "deliverance" from the raid. Some of the children of the raid, many of whom are married with their own children, speak out in defense of their parents and their community.
The Tribes have also become a target for Christian countercult groups who are combating Christian heresy. Reverend Robert Pardon founded the New England Institute of Religious Research, and through his website he disseminates discrediting accounts of the Twelve Tribes's Apostle, their "heretical" doctrines, and what he perceives to be excessive control by the group over the lives of individuals.
The two executive leaders of the Tribes are a married couple, Eddie Wiseman ("Hakam") and Jean Swantko, a lawyer who experienced a religious conversion while working on Wiseman's legal defense. They have responded to anticult pressure and social-control efforts by secular authorities by opening up dialogues with scholars at conferences, holding press conferences, and making persistent efforts to correct misinformation and reach out to their critics. The Twelve Tribes, who have adopted the colonialist hero Roger Williams as a sort of patron saint, have managed to realize their own "separation of church and state" by preserving strict boundaries between their community and the "sinful" society that surrounds them, while softening some of their sectarian attitudes. Their millenarian drama has evolved from an uncompromising and imminent catastrophic scenario in which all outsiders will fall into a lake of fire, to a more gradual process in which, before the return of Yahshua, the Tribes must raise up a people of seven generations before the Yo-bell, the last trumpet of revelations, will be blown. A new revelation laid out in the Stone Kingdom Freepaper, a special edition of the Freepaper, adds a middle ground between the saved and the damned, where "just men," or people who have never encountered the Tribes, will live.
Bozeman, John, and Susan Palmer. "The Northeast Kingdom Community Church of Island Pond, Vermont: Raising Up a People for Yahshua's Return." Journal of Contemporary Religion 12, no. 2 (May 1997): 181–190.
Palmer, Susan J. "Helpmeets in the Messianic Communities." In Moon Sisters, Krishna Mothers, Rajneesh Lovers: Women's Role in New Religions, edited by Susan J. Palmer. Syracuse, N.Y., 1994.
Palmer, Susan J. "Apostates and Their Role in the Construction of Grievance Claims against the Northeast Kingdom/Messianic Communities." In The Politics of Religious Apostasy: The Role of Apostates in the Transformation of Religious Movements, edited by David G. Bromley, pp. 191–208. Westport, Conn., 1998.
Palmer, Susan J. "Frontiers and Families: The Children of Island Pond." In Children in New Religions, edited by Susan J. Palmer and Charlotte E. Hardmann, pp. 153–171. New Brunswick, N.J., 1999.
Palmer, Susan J. "The Messianic Communities' Stone Kingdom." In Christian Millennialism from the Early Church to Waco, edited by Stephen Hunt. London, 2001.
Swantko, Jean A. "A 25 Year Retrospective on the Impact of the Anti-Cult Movement on Children of the Twelve Tribes Community." Paper presented at the Thirteenth International Conference of CESNUR. Bryn Athlyn, Penn., 1999.
Swantko, Jean A. "An Issue of Control: Conflict between the Church in Island Pond and State Government." Available from http://religiousmovements.lib.Virginia.edu/nrms/tribes.html.
Susan J. Palmer (2005)
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