The Twelve Tribes, also known as the Messianic Communities, was founded by Elbert Spriggs (known as Yoneq) (b.1937) and his wife, Marsha, in the USA in the early 1970s. It is characterised by its practice of communal living and its cottage industries, particularly health food bakeries and the ‘Yellow Deli’ chain of approximately 15 restaurants worldwide. It is estimated to have just under four thousand members in the USA, Latin America, Canada, Australia, and Europe. In the UK, the Twelve Tribes are based in Honiton, Devon, where they live communally at Stentwood Farm and own the Common Loaf Bakery and the Yellow Deli in Honiton High Street.
Spriggs was previously active in the Jesus People Revolution of the early 1970s and, like that movement, the Twelve Tribes initially attracted young people previously part of the wider counter-culture. The Twelve Tribes retains some of these characteristics in its practices of communal living, health food, music and dance, use of ‘peace buses’ and ‘freepapers’ - although it is opposed to modern society for being in a state of moral decline.
The Twelve Tribes was originally known as the Vine Christian Community Church. When it moved from Tennessee to Island Pond, Vermont, in 1977, it became known as Northeast Kingdom Community Church, as well as the Church in Island Pond. In the 1980s, as the group became more millennial (see below), its members immersed themselves in Island Pond to rid themselves of the ‘perceived flaws of contemporary Christianity’ (Palmer 2010: 66), and became known as the Messianic Communities. In the early 1990s, as further communities were established, the group took the name the Twelve Tribes. The Twelve Tribes are organised geographically into twelve tribes, each being a self-governing community, located across the world: four in the USA; two in Latin America; and one each in France, Germany, Spain, England, Australia and Canada (Palmer 2015). The Twelve Tribes believe themselves to be the spiritual descendants of the ancient Israelites (Palmer 2010: 67) and the Bride of Yahshua (Yahshua is the Hebrew term for Jesus).
The Twelve Tribes consider themselves to be the restoration of the Messianic Jewish community of the first century. As their homepage states: ‘We follow the pattern of the early church in Acts 2:44 and 4:32, truly believing everything that is written in the Old and New Covenants of the Bible, and sharing all things in common’. All members live communally and share a distinctive lifestyle – a physical and artistic culture that is an interpretation of Messianic Judaism for the contemporary age, termed ‘a brand new culture’ (http://twelvetribes.org/articles/brand-new-culture).This culture is simultaneously traditional and innovative (Asadi 2013). It encompasses every aspect of embodied living, from diet, dress, family relationships, work, music, dance and more. For instance, members take Hebrew names; they dress modestly, with shoes and garments made in the community, and men with shirts untucked and full beards; women wear headscarves for worship to signify submission to their husbands who in turn submit to Yahshua; circle dancing is a regular practice, stressing the equality of all members; and the group writes its own music in the conviction that popular music is a corrupting influence. Recent innovations include eating meals with chop sticks to show respect to new members from East Asia (Asadi 2013) and consuming green matte tea to financially assist their community in Brazil (Palmer 2015).
The Twelve Tribes observe Jewish festivals and rituals. They keep the Jewish Sabbath, and visitors are invited to the communities on Friday evenings to share the celebrations. Members are engaged in missionary activities of various kinds including distributing their Freepaper; travelling on the ‘Peacemaker Bus’ in the USA; travelling in pairs as wandering missionaries or ‘walkers’; and through attendance at concerts and festivals, such as Grateful Dead concerts in the USA and the Glastonbury Festival in the UK.
Children have a special place within the community in the belief that those born into the community, and who do not sin, will be sanctified in a number of generations. The children will also have a special place in the End Times, being amongst the 144,000 who will usher in the millennium. Children are home schooled within the movement with a focus on practical education, assisting the adults in cottage industries when they are old enough. They are not excluded from worship, socialising or work and take an equal place in the communities – although along traditional gender lines. Like the adults, they must demonstrate an unselfish nature and a willingness to participate and help others. Children are physically disciplined by their parents and sometimes other adults until the age of around thirteen by which time it is believed that they have the requisite logic and reasoning to abide by the community’s teachings. Children are disciplined with the ‘wisdom of the rod’ (drawing on Proverbs 22:6, 19:18 and 13:24, amongst other passages). (http://twelvetribes.org/articles/on-child-discipline)
This controversial practice, alongside home-schooling, has been the source of many ‘cult’ claims against the movement, as well as media and legal investigations, and raids of the community in the USA (1984), France (2006, 2008), and Germany (2002, 2013). In 2013, 40 children were removed from the communities in Germany and placed in foster care whilst claims of physical abuse were investigated. Some were still in care in 2019. Corporal punishment is an unequivocal and non-negotiable teaching within the group. Spriggs attributes the current moral decline of society to the rise of parent’s lenience with their children. This permissive form of childrearing was influenced by Dr Benjamin Spock’s books on childcare in the 1940s-60s,  according to Spriggs. The Twelve Tribes teachings on this are conveyed in the booklet, and now video, called ‘When the Spanking Stopped, All Hell Broke Loose’. The Twelve Tribes claim that the breakdown of the nuclear family, including through women entering the workforce, and the pursuit of individual and selfish goals, is contributing to the moral degeneration of society.
What is the significance of the Twelve Tribes teachings on child-rearing and communal living for a blog on millennial beliefs? Members stress that through their communal lifestyle, they are living as true disciples of the Son of God, Yahshua. The sharing of all things in common, the purposeful cultivation of unselfishness, and the raising of children in ‘loving discipline’ (http://twelvetribes.org/articles/on-child-discipline), are demonstrations of their love for Yahshua and one another. ‘The Tribes understand their community to be the “body of the Messiah,” the physical manifestation of Yahshua’s love on earth’ (Palmer 2015). (https://wrldrels.org/2016/10/08/twelve-tribes/) It is this embodied lifestyle which marks them as true disciples of Yahshua. And it is this distinctiveness which will allow Yahshua to recognise them on His return. As the sociologist Torang Asadi writes, the Tribes’ distinctive culture ‘serves the theological position that Yahshua will be able to tell TT members apart from others in the End of Days’ (2013: 153). For, above all else, the Twelve Tribes are a millennial movement, ‘building a nation together’ (http://twelvetribes.org/articles/brand-new-culture). The moral and physical decline of current society, evidenced in environmental crisis and the breakdown of the family, amongst other things are, according to the Twelve Tribes, signs of the coming End Time.
In the mid-1980s, Spriggs reported having received a revelation about the significance of Nebuchadnezzar’s dream and the ‘Stone Kingdom’ (Palmer 2015). Since this time, the building of communities which live ‘the life Yahshua taught us to live’ (http://twelvetribes.org/), has been the focus of the movement. There is a conviction that Yahshua will not return until the Twelve Tribes are restored on earth.
In the Book of Daniel, Daniel interprets his dream of Nebuchadnezzar, King of Babylon, of a Colossus, a giant statue, made of four metals: a golden head; chest and arms of silver; stomach and thighs of bronze; legs of iron and feet of a mixture of iron and clay. In the dream, Nebuchadnezzar watches as a stone, cut from the mountains but not by human hands, rolls down the mountain, crashes into the Colossus’ feet and the statue immediately turns to dust. The stone became a mountain that filled the earth. Daniel explains to Nebuchadnezzar that the four metals represent four successive kingdoms which will ultimately be destroyed by the ‘indestructible kingdom of God’ (represented by the stone and the mountain). (http://twelvetribes.org/publication/dream-colossus)
In the Twelve Tribe’s interpretation of Daniel’s Prophecy, the Colossus represents human-made civilisation. Gold stands for Babylon; silver for Persia; bronze for Ancient Greece; and iron for Ancient Rome. In the contemporary period, the Roman Empire has been revived in an approximate form with the unity of Europe (the feet of iron and clay, which are weak as these two materials cannot be mixed). More specifically, the iron represents the state, the ‘force’ of governmental control over individuals and nations; whilst the clay represents religion. The Twelve Tribes teach that Christianity became corrupted when it allied itself with Rome with the conversion of the Roman Emperor, Constantine, in the early 4th century. The Twelve Tribes claim that they are followers of Yahshua and disciples, not ‘normal Christians’ who are ‘nearly indistinguishable’ from ‘unbelievers’. (http://twelvetribes.org/articles/what-difference-between-normal-christian-and-normal-disciple) Christianity is only a ‘counterfeit’ of the stone. (http://twelvetribes.org/publication/dream-colossus)
Ten kings or ruling powers in Europe, represented by the ten toes of Colossus, will soon be established. The unity of the world will allow for the emergence of the Antichrist (the Beast, the Man of Lawlessness) as the world leader. And it is at this time that the Kingdom of God will be established:
The Stone is a people for God’s own possession, and when is it cut out of the mountain of the world? In the days of the ten kings, the ten toes of the feet of iron and clay.
In other words, now, or at least very soon. (http://twelvetribes.org/publication/dream-colossus)
As one Twelve Tribes member wrote in his abstract for a paper on prophecy given at the 2008 Inform Seminar:
We live in exciting times. For the first time in human history, all but a very few of the nations of planet earth are in communication and trade with each other. A worldwide system of communication, travel, and commerce depends on the dominance of one culture. This singular world-dominating culture clearly descends from the kingdom ruled over by Nebuchadnezzar in ancient Babylon. (Shebet, abstract for Inform Seminar, Autumn 2008.)
(Whether Brexit and the potential disintegration of European unity will effect any changes in this interpretation remains to be seen - most likely it will be interpreted as further evidence of the imminent End Times).
The sociologist Susan Palmer (2010: 68) has described the Twelve Tribe’s interpretation of the unfolding of the millennium (the reign of Christ) in four phases:
- the restoration of the Twelve Tribes
- the blowing of the Jubilee horn, Yahshua’s return on the fiftieth Jubilee year, and His reclamation of the land from Satan
- the destruction of Colossus - the existing ruling powers
- the return of Yahshua to establish His kingdom on earth:
Then the restored, fully-developed Body of the Messiah, the twelve-tribed Israel, will roll down the mountain and crush the toes of the great statue, with Yahshua, the King of Kings leading them, to destroy the kingdoms of the world forever.
Tribulation and the Battle of Armageddon will ensue, with the armies of Satan gathering in the Valley of Megiddo. Yahshua and his armies, including the Twelve Tribes, will battle them for thirty days before emerging victorious. Then the millennium, the 1000 year reign of Yahshua, will begin.
The Twelve Tribes thus believe they have a crucial role in ushering in the millennium. According to Palmer, Yahshua will return ‘after they (the Twelve Tribes) have demonstrated to all the nations of the earth the life of Yahshua, as a foretaste of the age to come’. She argues that the return of Yahshua is also portrayed in the Tribes’ wedding ceremonies, which are public events and hence another missionary activity. The weddings are the ‘millennium in miniature’ (Palmer 2010: 72); ‘dramatic “pre-enactments” of the Last Days, when Yahshua will return to claim his “Bride” (the “Church/Community” itself)’. The groom thus stands in the place of Yahshua, the bride is the community, and together they preside over the ‘Marriage Supper of the Lamb’ (Palmer 2015. See also Palmer 2010: 72-74 for a detailed description of a wedding). Through living their ‘brand new culture’, the Twelve Tribes claim, they are emulating Yahshua’s teachings and demonstrating how to live as proper disciples. They are the ‘literal restoration of God’s People on earth’ (Palmer 2010: 65) and will pave the way for the return of Yahshua.
Twelve Tribes website - http://twelvetribes.org/
Twelve Tribes (2011). Three Reasons Why Jesus Didn't Come Back on October 21, 2011 - http://twelvetribes.org/publication/three-reasons-why-jesus-didnt-come-back-october-21-2011
Asadi, T. (2013). “A Tradition of Innovation and the Innovation of Tradition: The Cultural Developments of the Twelve Tribes Community.” Spiritual and Visionary Communities: Out to Save the World. T. Miller. Aldershot: Ashgate. Pp. 139-235.
Palmer, S. J. (2010). "The Twelve Tribes. Preparing the Bride for Yahshua's Return." Nova Religio 13(3): 59-80.
Palmer, S. J. (2015). “Twelve Tribes”. World Religions and Spirituality Project website - https://wrldrels.org/2016/10/08/twelve-tribes/
Wright, S. and S. Palmer (2016). Storming Zion: Government Raids on Religious Communities. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Sarah Harvey is the Senior Research Officer at Inform and the co-editor of two books in the Routledge-Inform book series: Prophecy in the New Millennium: When Prophecies Persist (2013, with Suzanne Newcombe) and New Religious Movements and Counselling: Academic, Professional and Personal Perspectives (2017, with Silke Steidinger and James Beckford). Her PhD research explored the beliefs and practices of natural childbirth groups in the contemporary UK.