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The Twelve Tribes: What You Need to Know

Updated on May 7, 2014

The Yellow Deli People - Twelve Tribes Oneonta

Who Are the Twelve Tribes?

A few years ago some differently dressed people began wandering around my small, isolated upstate city of Oneonta, NY. They bought a building. They parked the coolest-ever looking hippie bus around town. They bought a very large house. They bought another building and created a lovely restaurant on the Main Street four corners of town.

As a liberal long-haired type myself, I thought - well cool! But, the librarian in me needed to know more. So I did my research. And then, I educated my daughter.


New religions and cults spring up sporadically in our society, and on occasion one will root itself, gather members and begin to spread. So is the case with The Twelve Tribes, a religion formed in 1972 by leader Elbert Eugene Spriggs.

The Twelve Tribes is a fundamentalist, millennialist religion and chances are that unless you live in one of the few communities where they are embedded, you have never heard of them.

In the news this group is often described as a cult. Indeed, in Ithaca, NY, an awareness group was formed to both inform the public and help ex-tribe and community members affected by the Tribe's practices.

Twelve Tribes wedding.
Twelve Tribes wedding. | Source

Facts About the Twelve Tribes

  • Formed in 1972 by Elbert Eugene Spriggs and his wife Marsha in Chatanooga, Tennessee.
  • The group's doctrine is based entirely on Sprigg's vision and beliefs.
  • Known as The Twelve Tribes, The Yellow Deli People, The Communities.
  • It is a brotherhood.
  • The Twelve Tribes attempts to live the life of the 1st Century Church in the Book of Acts.
  • Although they do not identify with Christianity or any denomination or religion, they are associated with both Fundamentalist Christianity and Messianic Judaism.
  • Upon entering The Twelve Tribes, a person must give all their worldly goods to the group.
  • Women are subservient to men.
  • Marriages must be approved by elders.
  • Children are homeschooled and home birthed. Hospitals and doctors are rarely visited.
  • Toys that encourage imaginary play are forbidden.
  • Corporal punishment in the form of balloon sticks dipped in resin across the bottom and hands is used on children.
  • Promote a "mark and avoid" practice of shunning those who leave the group.
  • There are settlements in Britain, Germany, France, Spain, the Czech Republic, Australia, Argentina, U.S., and Canada.
  • Approximately 3,000 members world wide.
  • Own and operate Common Ground line of bakery goods and Yellow Deli restaurant chain.

40 children rescued from allegations of abuse

The Twelve Tribes: In the News

Over the past 4o years, The Twelve Tribes has been in the news several times for allegations of child labor law violations and child abuse, both in the United States and abroad. Significant concern has been given to their use of resin-dipped balloon sticks (referred to as willow sticks) to discipline even very young children.

Bavaria, Germany
Most recently in Bavaria Germany, police raided and rescued 40 children - not the first time this sect has been charged with child abuse. But, it may be the first time a reporter has provided the courts with some video documentation to use as evidence. (Read more here).

In 2013, journalist Wolfram Kuhnigk went undercover in the tribe's Bavaria compound, claiming to be a wayward soul. During his stay he managed to videotape secret and persistent basement beatings, verifying long-held suspicions. In the past, when charged with child abuse, little if any evidence has been found, leaving the courts to return the children back to their families.

New York
In 2001 the group faced charges of violating child labor laws when The New York Post claims to have broken a story concerning the employment (or forced labor) of 13 and 14 year old children on the factory floors. A later investigation yielded a $2,000 fine of the group's employment of two 15 year old boys who were workers in a soap factory owned by the tribe.

Group leaders emphasize that their children work "alongside" them. "Our work and life is mixed together. We teach our children to work. I teach my sons to work. It's not like labor." (N.Y. officials fine Twelve Tribes)

The Washington Post suspects that an early breaking news story alerted the group to impending investigations. No other minors were found in the factories.

Twelve Tribes: The Children

The biggest concern we should have about this group is their often malevolent treatment of children. Certainly, there are religious groups who operate outside the mainstream in terms of child rearing. What defines a cult? What invisible line must be crossed for us as a society to no longer tolerate a group's behavior?

In an interview that two undercover journalists managed to secure in Glasgow, England earlier this year, a Twelve Tribes mother explained their parenting ideology this way:

"He has everything he needs here and is very happy. How would trips to McDonald's and spending time with children obsessed with computer games and MTV make his life any better?"

But, tellingly, she added: "Our children are never left alone'. From the moment they wake until they go to sleep, there is always an adult with them.

"If you leave two children alone together they will get silly. They'll egg each other on and fool around. They might get into mischief.

"If they always have an adult guiding everything they do then this doesn't happen."

But surely fooling around and getting into scrapes is a natural and important part of child development? "No," she told me firmly. "Children are like apple trees -- they need to be pruned so they can grow tall and straight. (Twelve Tribes.....)

Those who have left the cult report basement isolation for weeks at a time; denial of food; threats of physical punishment if they did not comply or make admissions of sin.

The Twelve Tribes bus
The Twelve Tribes bus | Source

The Redeemed

Perhaps one way to identify a cult is to listen carefully to the stories of those who have left, as well as to examine a group's practices in recruiting new members. For the Twelve Tribes, to join the group is to separate entirely from family and friends, including children and spouses. What is it like upon re-entry? What are the experiences of children raised in the Twelves Tribes when they return to mainstream society?

Read more about this group in article 2: The Twelve Tribes: The Peacemaker and The Redeemed


"Germany: Fundamentalist Twelve Tribes Members Caught Beating Children on Camera." International Business Times - US ed. 11 Sept. 2013. General OneFile. Web. 16 Nov. 2013.

Hayward, Ed, and Dave Wedge. "N.Y. officials fine Twelve Tribes cult for use of child labor." Boston Herald 4 Oct. 2001: 039. General OneFile. Web. 16 Nov. 2013.

"Twelve Tribes.....Inside the cult that canes kids; SUN REPORT ON THE SECT MIRED IN CONTROVERSY." Sun [London, England] 15 Oct. 2013: 30. Infotrac Newsstand. Web. 16 Nov. 2013.


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    • profile image

      Yochanan 2 years ago

      "As a Liberal long haired type"...? They're not liberals, never were..They're devout Messianic Christians. They're not for abortion, premarital sex, homosexual marriage, feminism..etc, everything you as a liberal "progressive" would most likely support and subscribe to.

      Many of the charges levied against them by critics like yourself, are gross exaggerations, promoted by people who have an axe to grind against the Twelve Tribes, due to some personal issue (..A disgruntled ex-member that didn't get his or her way, held wrong expectations and intentions, regarding how life would be in the community..etc ), or they simply don't like what the Twelve Tribes Community represents. A affront, an offense to their liberal, secular values and world view.

      As an ex-member my self..I left not because of anything they did wrong, but because I wanted to live differently, "out in the world", and that's what I did. Their lifestyle wasn't for me, but it is for many other people, and it can be a very wholesome and beautiful way of life. Perhaps one day I will return, but for now, I'm just to selfish and attached to my worldly trinkets and life.

    • Hendrika profile image

      Hendrika 3 years ago from Pretoria, South Africa

      This is horrible. Worse is that I know how easy people get suck in to a cult. Sometimes it starts out not too bad, but than it goes from bad to worst and it is always the children that pats the pays the price.

    • cocobutler profile image

      Corean Strong 3 years ago from Danbury, CT

      Very informative. I was not aware of them. Information like this helps us to protect our loved ones as best we can. Thanks for sharing.

    • elemenopy profile image

      Mary Rokhvadze 3 years ago from Oneonta, NY

      Ruby :) It is a testimony to the fact that religion can truly drive some people to the extreme. I just wonder what the end of times looks like for them. And when.

    • elemenopy profile image

      Mary Rokhvadze 3 years ago from Oneonta, NY

      Hi Deborah, yes, I wanted my daughter to be aware. These folks look so groovy it would be difficult to distinguish between the "Rainbow People" and the Twelve Tribes. I see why they target young adults at rock concerts. Shame on them!

    • Ruby H Rose profile image

      Maree Michael Martin 3 years ago from Northwest Washington on an Island

      Agreed, so unfair to the children. Scary that people are still willing to believe one man's way of controlling things. Yikes. Thanks for sharing this awareness with us. Important to know for sure.

    • profile image

      Deborah Sexton 3 years ago

      Very interesting and it's good you are sharing this information.

      Cults can be quite scary and it is important to inform our children so they don't go near and become fooled into joining these groups.

      Thank you, great hub

    • elemenopy profile image

      Mary Rokhvadze 3 years ago from Oneonta, NY

      JP...I think sometimes people are reticent to speak out. We live cloistered, unto ourselves, minding our own business - and this may be what allows cults (like Waco, for example) to exist. I wonder what the future for holds for this group. That is my real concern. Glad you stopped by :)

    • jponiato profile image

      jponiato 3 years ago from Mid-Michigan

      Great eye-opener here. Let's hope that more awareness of this and similar groups helps to mitigate their impact, if not eliminate them altogether.

    • elemenopy profile image

      Mary Rokhvadze 3 years ago from Oneonta, NY

      Dear Nitin, I'm glad you found this useful. Yes, this is a small group. But they are everywhere in my small city. I wish folks would take the time here to learn about what they really do. People are so hesitant to judge. Sometimes, it has to be done.

    • elemenopy profile image

      Mary Rokhvadze 3 years ago from Oneonta, NY

      Hi Diana, From what I have researched, I believe that children are held against their will. Mind control and other techniques are used to the control the behavior of many members. I think members are afraid to leave, a distinguishing hallmark of a cult. It is sad that vulnerable people come to these groups seeking something so good. Not all is always as it appears.

    • Nitin Kulkarni profile image

      Nitin Kulkarni 3 years ago from India Pune

      Thanks for increasing the knowledge. I was not aware of this group of people!

    • Diana Lee profile image

      Diana L Pierce 3 years ago from Potter County, Pa.

      I have never heard of them. Hope they are not keeping people against their will as other groups have been said to do.

    • elemenopy profile image

      Mary Rokhvadze 3 years ago from Oneonta, NY

      Free will is indeed a gift. They have costumes they wear as well. And the men all must have beards. I would not like to marry only on permission of an elder, either. 'tis true these things do not make them a cult. But, I do wonder.

    • Mel Carriere profile image

      Mel Carriere 3 years ago from San Diego California

      It always amazes me how some people would willingly sell out their precious gift of free will to some insane cult leader. I had never heard of this group before, and this was a fascinating article. Great hub!

    • elemenopy profile image

      Mary Rokhvadze 3 years ago from Oneonta, NY

      Hi and thanks for stopping by! I think for sure you are right. There seems to be a prevailing emptiness, whether indigenous to Americans I do not know. As a species we are seekers. I am sure they believe they have found the truth. In no way would I ever wish to deny someone their beliefs. Just I think we need to ask, is it at the risk of other people's welfare?

    • carlarmes profile image

      carlarmes 3 years ago from Bournemouth, England

      I never new about this group until I found your hub. I am sure these religious group fulfil some people's needs for belonging to something especially these days with our fragmented society.