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Inside the Twelve Tribes

An early look at a Pacific Standard story that's currently only available to subscribers.
(Photo: Joe Toreno)

(Photo: Joe Toreno)

In this country, we celebrate the First Amendment, which prevents the government from interfering with religious beliefs and practices. But what if those beliefs and practices make children suffer? After years of reporting, Julia Scheeres shares the personal stories behind the reclusive and controversial religious sect known as the Twelve Tribes.

ScheeresPacific Standard feature story is currently available to subscribers and will be posted online on Tuesday, September 1st. Until then, an excerpt:

The Twelve Tribes grew out of a Bible-study group in Chattanooga, Tennessee. In 1972, a former high school teacher and guidance counselor named Gene Spriggs and his fourth wife, Marsha, started a gathering of believers in their home. This was during the heyday of the Jesus Movement, whose adherents viewed Jesus as a counterculture hero. The couple recruited heavily outside of local schools and youth hangouts. Spriggs gave informal Bible lectures in his living room that held audiences rapt for hours, former members say. Many of the young people who turned up seeking enlightenment were runaways and drug addicts, whom the couple invited to move in. To support their growing household, the Spriggses opened a restaurant in 1973 called the Yellow Deli, where members worked for room and board but no paycheck. The restaurant featured booths crafted from reclaimed barn wood, and the menu delivered a subtle come-on. “We serve the fruit of the Spirit,” it read. “Why not ask?”

By 1978, Spriggs had opened six Yellow Delis and unofficially re-branded his Bible study as a church: the Vine Christian Community Church. Then came controversy. The Chattanooga Times published interviews with disenchanted former members. “We worked 16 to 18 hours a day, six days a week, until we were so tired we couldn’t think,” one complained. Those who questioned the leadership were told their doubts were “from Satan.”

By this time, Spriggs’ followers considered him a modern-day apostle. “His teachings were considered fresh revelations from God,” said Joellen Griffin, a former member. And the revelations were extreme. Spriggs told his followers that God wanted them to cut themselves completely off from modern society. 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.

Several parents hired a cult deprogrammer to forcibly extract their children from the church—with limited success. Besieged by bad press and desperate relatives, Spriggs pulled out of the Bible Belt altogether, relocating to a remote village in Vermont called Island Pond. Two hundred followers joined him, among them David Jones, the elder who had defended Spriggs in the Chattanooga Times; his wife, Patricia; and their infant daughter, Tamar.

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. 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.”

The tenor of the sect changed now, too. Spriggs began to preach that blacks were destined to be slaves, homosexuals “deserved the death penalty,” and women—who weren’t allowed to use birth control—had to atone for Eve’s original sin by giving birth without painkillers. He drafted rules regulating everything from fingernail length to how married couples should engage in intercourse.

A large portion of Spriggs’ teachings concerned children, though he never actually raised a child in the group. (He and Marsha have no children. He has one son, by his first wife, but he left them when the boy was young.) “If one is overly concerned about his son receiving blue marks,” he wrote to David Jones, “you know that he hates his son and hates the word of God.”

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