The Twelve Tribes is a community-based religious group that was started in 1970 in Chattanooga, Tennessee by Eugene Spriggs. The Twelve Tribes have now continued to survive period when most small religions fail, and they continue to fight against the stigma around “cult” religions.
In the process of conducting this research, the aim was to shed light on this American subculture that has remained mostly hidden from public view since its origins. It was discovered that this rich and clearly defined culture was noticeably different from most Biblically based religious cultures in America. This group of people truly set themselves apart from their community by actively engaging in a way of life that finds its basis in the Torah.
The following research is based on personal interviews and ethnographic observations with the intention of giving a perspective on the religion as a whole, taking cues from studies conducted by other authors and viewpoints of current and former members who live all across the world. My own research presented in the paper is limited to the fieldwork done over the course of four months in the original community based in Chattanooga, Tennessee. However, it is hoped that a proper representation of the community’s culture and way of life is presented.
Why should this culture be studied?
The Twelve Tribes have passed the critical point for a starting religion. They have entered the phase beyond self-discovery; they created a culture that is consistent and has a basis of Biblical principals that has lasted over three generations (Palmer, 2010). Though they have developed as a group, they still face opposition from the outside. Since their founding in 1973, the Twelve Tribes has faced allegations of being a cult, beating their children, brainwashing, and twisting the Scriptures (Palmer, 2010). These accusations have lead to a misunderstanding of the Twelve Tribes and their peaceful way of living.
The truth behind this community has remained relatively undiscovered by the outside world due to negative generalizations and a lack of communication between parties. The Twelve Tribes is a quiet community. Several members told me that they are different because, “We do not wish to partake in things of the world.” This likely refers to their lack of materialism, self-made clothing, and tradition of community housing. Customs such as this leave room for questions, rumors, and stories, which could be presented out of context by visitors and by the small amount of media attention they have received over the past 42 years.
These media stories have specifically picked on one topic over the years: child abuse. Because of this, the children are often displaced from their respective communities and put into alternate forms of custody (Palmer, 2010). The Twelve Tribes has admitted to disciplining their children with a rod, formerly a common practice in the United States, yet this form of discipline seems to have been exaggerated by biased reporter and authors. Though it has been portrayed as harsh physical and psychological punishment, several psychologists have discounted this exaggeration (Palmer, 2010).
The Consequences of Cultural Misunderstandings
Cultures such as the Twelve Tribes need to be studied and understood so that these misguided theories can be rectified. Misunderstandings such as the ones that affect the Twelve Tribes are not limited to small-scale religions. For example, Sikhism has been under attack for the past last 14 years.
Sikhism is the fifth largest religion in the world and was founded in 1699 (Gohil, Sidhu, 2008). Sikhism is renowned for its peaceful practices, yet there has been a steady stream of discrimination towards its members since 2001. In the last 14 years, there have been hate crimes where Sikhs have been refused service, verbally harassed, assaulted, and murdered (Gohil, Sidhu, 2008). Discrimination is also present in the work environment, but Sikh communities are afraid to report these discriminations for fear of losing their jobs (Aziz, 2009).
Why has this become such a problem and why did it develop so quickly since 2001? The majority of the negativity can be boiled down to one thing: religiously mandated turbans. Since September 11, 2001, Sikhs have often been branded as terrorists. Despite not belonging to the Muslim faith, much less the extremist sect that committed the atrocities on September 11, 2001, the immense amount of hatred and discrimination that is experienced is all based on a simple misunderstanding - the concept that turbans equal terrorists.
Like the Sikhs, members of the Twelve Tribes can easily be recognized by their outward appearance. Women can be seen wearing long dresses or pantaloons, while men wear simple clothes and tie back their shoulder length hair (Legere, 2009). Basic things, such as clothing, can lead can lead a culture to be misunderstood by the public and placed into a negative light. Religions are particularly subject to such scrutiny because of extremist actions that occurred in the past. Examples such as Muslim lead terrorist attacks and the Catholic inquisition helped to set the tone for negativity towards religions attempting to set themselves apart.
Another major problem is that most people are ignorant of the existence of the Twelve Tribes. There are only about 3000 members in the Twelve Tribes (Legere, 2009), but their website twelvetribes.org claims to have members living in different community groups across Argentina, Australia, Brazil, Canada, Czech Republic, France, Germany, Spain, the United Kingdom, and the United States of America. Despite being so widespread, it appears that most communities either ignore them, do not realize they are even there, or simply leave them alone. Any community that is so widespread deserves recognition as a distinct culture, especially by the community in which they live.
How has it been studied up to now?
Up to this point in their history, the Twelve Tribes has been studied briefly as a religious culture, cult, and a hippie movement (Hargrove, 2013; Swantko, 1999). Many researchers have looked into the legal problems surrounding their children and the public view of their cult-like attributes (Swantko, 1999). Occasionally, they are seen in the local newspapers, usually with an overly brief description explaining who and what they are (Legere, 2009; Hargrove 2013).
A few have also studied the culture via experience (Palmer, 2010; Twelve Tribes Ex, 2014). Susan Palmer, author of The Twelve Tribes: Preparing the Bride for Yashua’s Return, studied the culture through interviews, spending time living in the communities, and participating in community events. Others, such as blogger Twelve Tribes-EX, a former community member who left after being convinced that the Twelve Tribes could offer nothing but oppression. The blog explains that community members work 16-18 hour days for no pay and children are not allowed to go to the hospital when they endure beatings from their parents; hospitals are seen as evil. The blogger goes describes Eugene Spriggs, the founder of the religion as a “slave driver” (twelvetribes-ex, 2010) These former research points come from both sides and display the positive and negative.
I learned a great deal while spending time with members of the Twelve Tribes over the course of four months. I spent time observing members while they were working at their restaurant: The Yellow Deli. These observations were conducted as a customer and as a special visitor. During these special visits, I was allowed to go back into the kitchen to see what happens behind the scenes during business hours. I also observed and participated in a few of the community’s worship services. The Twelve Tribes opens their community home on Fridays to bring in Shabbat or the seventh-day Sabbath. I was able to observe the community’s traditions and discuss the culture and beliefs of the community with several members, new and old.
These personal findings shape this article with the hope of finding the truth about this community. My own personal experience is used alongside other research to provide evidence about how the cultural dynamic of the Twelve Tribes is different from the mainstream culture found in the United States. I also discuss how members of the Twelve Tribes choose to save face in order to preserve the community in which they live. For the purpose of anonymity in this article I refer to several members of the Twelve Tribes community via pseudonyms that have no connection to the person apart from their gender. These people represent a sample of the community members with whom I personally conversed.
History and Culture:
The Twelve Tribes was originally called The Vine Christian Community Church and was established in Chattanooga, Tennessee in 1973 by Eugene Spriggs (Palmer, 2010). They based their religion on the Jewish origins of Christianity, keeping up the Jewish traditions and coupling them with Christian views. Spriggs led his followers towards a more traditional way of life based on the Torah. The Vine Church eventually bought three homes to restore and live in, and they soon opened a new restaurant called The Yellow Deli. The deli was used to pay for housing and the basic needs of the group.
Spriggs’ following grew in number and eventually spread to other parts of the United States and the world. According to the Twelve Tribes’ website, Spriggs was viewed as “a genius who had the answers to all of life’s problems” (Introduction, Short History, Yoneq’s Position, and Use of Scripture, 2013). This “genius” led to a culture of devoted followers who greatly relied on their leader and this new interpretation of the Bible and Jewish customs.
The Twelve Tribes’ culture has developed to be almost entirely reliant on these relatively new interpretations. To understand where their other beliefs come from, one must talk to a member personally because articles, such as Our Beginnings and Who We Are, require authorization to view on twelvetribes.org. Members say with absolute certainty that they live by a culture of no compromise. Abraham, a member who had been a part of the tribe for 36 years, stated that, “All other religions and people compromise in the way they live and their faith by trying to obtain things of this world.” For this reason, they live together in community homes, as is described in the Old and New Testaments, and do not have access to money for frivolous purchases. Their clothes are usually made, mended, or purchased at thrift stores and then passed down to younger members as needed. The Twelve Tribes explains this by stating that “Our women wear the clothes they do because of their desire to be modest” (Twelvetribes.org, 2013). Men even roll up the bottom of their pants so that they stand out from the rest of the world.
Throughout history, different groups of people have attempted to stand out, but it seems to rarely happen. Paul Smaldino and Joshua Epstein (2015) researched this further in their article Social Conformity Despite Individual Preferences for Distinctiveness. They noted that, “…individual behaviours directed at the attainment of distinctiveness can in fact produce complete social conformity.” However this is not the case for those in The Twelve Tribes. It is easy to take notice of a Twelve Tribes member even in passing. This is because, as opposed to many other Americans, their goal is to stand out and be recognized as different.
Dress, is not the only way that members distinguish themselves. People in the Twelve Tribes are different in how they relate to power. According to Hofstede’s theory, the United States is given a score of 40 on the power distance scale, one of the lower scores in the world. This means that people U.S. tend to seek a more equal distribution of power (Hofstede, 2010). Despite being founded in the U.S., the Twelve Tribes exhibit actions and relational concepts that relate to a culture that is more like those of the Middle East. Because of this power distance, leadership is more clearly defined within this subculture. Men are stationed above women in patriarchal form and seniority is given to those males with the longest membership. This difference could very likely be due to their values being based almost entirely on the Old Testament, which was written by authors from the ancient culture of that part of the world. This difference in power distance is another of the many interesting factors that make this culture so different from the American culture from whence it came.
A Dark Past:
In its history, children in The Twelve Tribes have been removed from the community and put in protective custody. This stemmed from a long battle with the Anti-Cult Movement (ACM). In her article, The Twelve Tribes’ Communities, the Anti-Cult Movement, and Government’s Response, Jean Swantko addresses the dark history between the Twelve Tribes and organizations involved with the ACM.
One of the many darker controversies with the ACM started in 1982 when the Citizen’s Freedom Foundation (CFF) became involved with the Twelve Tribes community in Barton, Vermont. The CFF moved to inform the public of the dangerous cult that had been in their area for the past four years. During these meetings, members of the public were informed of allegations of mind-control and child abuse (Palmer, 1998). Ironically enough, the method of spreading these allegations of mind-control was the CFF’s own form of mental persuasion via the local media, which spread inflammatory statements that ultimately created suspicion of the Twelve Tribes religion within the local community (Swantko, 1999).
Soon after these propaganda meetings, the CFF appealed to the court. According to Swantko, the CFF and ACM played on the judge’s lack of knowledge about the Twelve Tribes to portray their religious beliefs as “criminal instead of a right protected by the court” (1999). Allegations of abuse were brought forward and ultimately eleven children were taken out of the community. From the years of 1982 to 1990, these children were rarely able to see their parents, who still chose to stay in the religion. Eventually, nine of these children chose to return to the Twelve Tribes (Swantko, 1999).
Issues such as this continued through the 80s. The Twelve Tribes’ website cites another event in July 1984 that they describe as the “Raid on Island Pond.” This was a similar incident involving accusations of child abuse, but it was much more severe. The Twelve Tribes claim that 112 children were removed from the community by armed police officers and an army of social workers, psychologists, and doctors. All this, the website claims, was because of the parent’s chosen religion. That same night, the presiding judge ruled in favor of the Twelve Tribes and returned the children to their parents.
These two stories are not isolated incidents but simply represent the difficulties that members of the Twelve Tribes have faced since the 70s. Issues such as these can lead to misconceptions and misconceptions can affect an entire group of people, their families, and the entire neighboring community.
An Old Culture in a New World:
Because the Twelve Tribes relates so closely to the ancient Jewish religion, their culture can seem outdated. Members of the community have little access to computers, television, phones and many other modern amenities. The Twelve Tribes also celebrates many ancient Jewish traditions that have been long forgotten by most Christians. For example, in order to bring in Shabbat on Friday night members wear a diadem in representation of the royal crown they will one day wear when Yashua returns. This tradition, stems back to the ancient Jewish tradition and even the Greeks, who used to wear crowns of rosebuds in the time of festivals (Crowns, 2010).
These small traditions and actions make this culture feel ancient despite the relatively short lifespan it has compared to many other modern-day religions. Joseph, one of the newest members, specifically expressed the difficulty he had, and was still having, trying to adjust to this new culture. Joseph had formerly been a member of the Seventh-day Adventist Church, a Christian religion that is already considered to be relatively conservative. Even with his conservative Christian past, he insisted that after five months, he still struggled with the minimalist community lifestyle describing it as,
“very different,” and “a definite culture shock,” but “where I’m supposed to be.”
Power and Authority Dynamics:
Since its development in the 1970s, the culture of the Twelve Tribes has become an understood principal for its members. One of the aspects encapsulated within this culture is the understanding of how power is accepted and who holds it. Though all members agree that Yashua (Jesus) has authority over all, men come second in command. The community is a collectivist society, and it gives power to the male elders who hold authority over the women as long as the elders reflect the teachings of Yashua (Hargrove, 2013). According to the Twelve Tribes’ website, men and women are “equal but not interchangeable” as people, but authority is still given to the men (twelvetribes.org, 2014). This is reflected in the jobs that each individual is given. In a setting such as the Yellow Deli, the jobs are quite interchangeable. Members of any age or gender can be seen acting as servers, clerks, or kitchen workers. However, there is a difference in a setting involving carpentry or other heavy labor. In these settings men are given a task that is more suited towards their specific capabilities.
This patriarchal separation does not stop at work and chores. Men are often treated in such a way that promotes their higher form of authority. At community meals both males and females can be found serving or in the kitchen, but male members and male guests are always served before female members and female guests. This practice would be frowned upon in the traditional society within the United States because it goes against the chivalrous acts of social norms. Men are also the figureheads and elders of the community, holding more authority, usually represented by being more prevalent in explaining the clan’s beliefs to guests. This can be easily noticed during conversations with several group members at a time. There is always a figurehead who can dictate the conversation, not allowing for new or curious members to show concentration on an idea that goes against the common teachings of the group. This rule only seems to apply when saving face in front of visitors who could be mislead by contradicting theories and interpretations.
Authority also plays specifically into the lives of individuals. One example that goes strictly against mainstream American traditions is their view on marriage. Young couples must go through a several month trial called a “waiting period.” During this time, their relationship is judged to see if the two are compatible and if their relationship reflects “covenant love” (Palmer, 2010). For those devoted to the Twelve Tribes, love is the only factor, but according to ex-members, other factors can come into play. One former member explains that the marriage will only be approved “if the union benefits the body” (twelvetribes-ex.org, 2014). The blogger also claimed that even after marriage, a husband does not have authority over his family, but a shepherd or elder holds the final authority. Despite these differing opinions, a marriage is consistently based on a group decision, which differs from most traditional Christian and American views.
A Religious Burden:
Along with nearly any religion comes the burden or desire of sharing it with others, especially for followers of Christ who are called to “make disciples of all nations” (Matthew 28). Evangelizing is how many members of the Twelve Tribes occupy their time. Members can be seen in their communities when they are passing out Twelve Tribes newsletters (Hargrove, 2013). They may also go on short walking tours to pass out their newsletters and talk about the Bible with those they meet.
At one point during my research, I encountered two members on their walking journey. Usually, during these walking tours, usually two members set out together with minimal supplies in their backpacks, the faith that Yashua would provide, and nothing more. When I met the pair, they were just starting in Collegedale, TN with hopes of reaching Knoxville, TN. I asked how they would get there and they simply said that either they would walk there or that Yashua would provide another way. They were not concerned with arriving in Knoxville specifically; they simply planned on going wherever they were led. Their plan was to walk and find others who loved God, handing out free papers and talking to anybody that would stop for long enough for a conversation. They seemed to walk with purpose and were pleased that Yashua had already provided them with a place to stay for the night in the form of a “friend they had met earlier” offering a floor to sleep on.
Members who do go on walking tours to evangelize have to be prepared to represent the group as a whole. In this way, they can help to deflect the light that has been shed on it in a negative way. This and other forms of saving face are defined by the attempt to save oneself or one’s group from humiliation, embarrassment, and false statements. Saving face is used by all cultures in order to retain dignity and preserve a reputation. Every cultural group uses this concept in different ways (Ting-Toomey, 1998).
Members of the Twelve Tribes are no exception to this concept. In fact, being a part of a group commonly thought of as a cult, they may be even more familiar with the concept than most. Because they are more of a collectivist group, when it comes to saving face, they often are more inclined to uphold the honor of the group, which in turn upholds their own honor. The group becomes each person’s identity.
During my observations, it was easy to notice members taking actions within a conversation to keep the focus on certain topics or ideas. One particular example was when I arrived at the community on a Friday night to be a part of their vespers program. While there I was able to speak with Abraham. We talked about the origins of the Twelve Tribes and how their views differ from the average Christian view. As it often does with community members, the conversation immediately became deeply theological; it is nearly impossible to talk about anything else with the older members of the Twelve Tribes. Abraham said that not one of today’s Christian churches can be God’s chosen people because they all come from the same bad tree: the Catholic Church. According to the Twelve Tribes and the Bible, “No bad tree can bear good fruit,” (Matthew 7:18, Luke 6: 43). This is one of their favorite sayings. I found this to be odd because during its forming, the Twelve Tribes started as members of the First Presbyterian Church. If the First Presbyterian Church could be considered a “bad fruit” because of its ties to the “bad tree,” the Catholic Church, then by the same logic, the Twelve Tribes would be a “bad fruit” of the “tree” that is the First Presbyterian Church. When I made an effort to tactfully bring this up it was disregarded and the formerly talkative Abraham addressed it only by saying, “That’s different.”
Older, usually male, members also stay alongside young or new members when they are having religious discussions with visitors. These elders are present to save face and to prevent the younger members from embarrassing the community by saying something that would go against their beliefs. During one Friday night vespers, I discussed the religion with Joseph and an elder named Adam. Adam sat alongside Joseph, a new member, and occasionally corrected or redirected some of his ideas back towards the fundamental beliefs of the Twelve Tribes. The corrections were always given with tact and the greatest respect for Joseph’s feelings. Saving face for the community was not a way of embarrassing Joseph but strengthening the group as a whole. This guidance from Adam was important because it helped Joseph to become aware of what he thought the Twelve Tribes believed and what they actually believe.
There are times when saving face causes members to act differently than they would like, especially for younger members in the presence of elders. When I and another observer were able to visit with some of the younger female members away from the rest of the group, there was an immediate change in their conduct. The girls were giggly and boisterous, shifting from their normally quiet and mild demeanor. They told funny stories about work, complained about how tired they were from working the night shift, and acted as I would expect any group of young people working late at a deli. Their ability to behave differently in this how concerned they were about how they portrayed themselves in front of the rest of the community. If different members were continually rude or abrupt with how they introduced ideas or could only ever show one side of their character, it would be arduous to continue living in such close proximity.
Members of the Twelve Tribes are not only capable of saving face for their own community, but also for visitors who come to learn. Community members do not necessarily become immediately theological, but eventually conversations tend to turn that way. When this does happen, it takes a great deal of skill to tell somebody that the religion or thought process they have been following for their entire life is not the true one and will only surely end in death rather than eternal life. Even still, the members of the Twelve Tribes have a way of coming off as relatively non-judgmental, kind, and caring. This works, in part, because they tell individuals everything that the Twelve Tribes believes is right and not what is wrong with their religion or thought process. This is not the key ingredient though. The most important factor is that they truly care and want what is the best for that individual’s life.
Saving face is a very important aspect of how members of the Twelve Tribes relate to others as well as within the group. Whether members realize it or not, saving face is the saving grace that keeps this group together in such close quarters.
The Twelve Tribes is an American cultural group that is unlike most others. Their community values contrast strongly with those of individualistic America. Saving face is a large part of their community dynamic, especially because of their rocky history and the negative stereotypes that have been pressed against their group due to their cult-like religious aspects. Saving face is a community value prevents a loss of dignity and upholds their outward appearance with the community. The value of the individual is less than the value of the group. This selfless act is something that is important to consider as an individualistic society. Placing so much value on one’s self is sometimes more harmful than helpful, and the Twelve Tribes community has discovered that. The members don’t seem to care about being viewed as a normal religion because they consider themselves to be set apart. As long as they continue on, they will be fulfilling their calling of being set apart, and in the end, that is all that matters to the members of the Twelve Tribes.
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