Busted Halo
feature: religion & spirituality
November 16th, 2008

Uncorrupted Christians?

Descended from the Jesus Movement of the 60s and 70s, The Twelve Tribes strives to restore true Christianity

Twelve Tribes members celebrate Sabbath

Twelve Tribes members celebrate Sabbath

When Shuvael and Matanah Hebert sold their upscale, four-bedroom home in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, to join a controversial Christian commune called the The Twelve Tribes, friends and family said they were crazy. But seven years later, the middle-aged couple insists that they have no regrets, despite sharing bathrooms, a living room, a kitchen and a washing machine with 40 devoted members in a community home in a working-class area of Brunswick, Georgia.

“It’s about surrendering completely to God’s providence,” insists Matanah, 45, who also left behind a well-paying chemist’s job. Matanah, who doesn’t wear makeup, perfume or jewelry because God didn’t create her with them, but who does wear deodorant as a “kindness to others,” says that when Christ asked the rich man in Matthew 19 to sell all his possessions and follow him, he was challenging his believers to strive for a higher spiritual ideal. “Why should Christ then expect anything less from his believers today?” Matanah asks.

The Twelve Tribes has over 2,500 members in over 40 communities worldwide, and in the last ten years has grown 30 percent, according to Yonadab Hayes, 57, a Twelve Tribes leader in Brunswick. Twelve Tribes members attribute their success to communal living, a pious lifestyle—no TV, secular music, smoking or drinking—but most importantly to revitalizing Christ’s true church.

Losing my Religion

End Times and other Twelve Tribes beliefs

Members believe that humanity is moving toward a single world government that will conspire to weaken moral standards and eventually track down and persecute believers. After their forced exile from this global society, members plan to live in wilderness communities and continue to purify their spiritual practices. When the degradation of the world has peaked, they believe Christ will return and—with the help of his believers—defeat evil on earth. As stated on their website, Twelve Tribes believes that its members will ultimately be part of the select few—The Holy—that “will spend eternity as part of the Holy City, ruling over all the nations of the universe.”

Some other beliefs and practices of the Twelve Tribes:

  • Members live communally, giving up possessions.
  • Take Hebrew first names.
  • Children are home-schooled and not sent to college.
  • Don’t smoke or consume alcohol.
  • Don’t vote in political elections.
  • Observe Jewish Sabbath and restrictions on eating pork and shellfish.
  • Don’t celebrate Christmas or Easter, considered pagan holidays.
  • Men have beards and wear hair in ponytails.
  • Women wear dresses and pantaloons.
  • Women don’t wear makeup or jewelry, or use perfume.
  • Don’t watch TV, attend movies or listen to secular music.
  • Believe homosexuality, abortion and divorce are sinful.
  • Communities are self-supporting through various cottage industries.
  • Gather twice daily for religious services.
  • Call Jesus Yahshua (a transliteration of His Hebrew name)
  • Enjoy their own Israeli folk dancing and music

“Christianity lost its way,” says Hayes. “Thousands of years of human history have drifted the Christian faith further from what Yahshua [Christ] intended.” Twelve Tribes—whose name refers to the unifying governing system that God first mandated for the ancient Israelites—insists that they are the restoration of the early church. Members say that their mission is to help usher in the return of Christ by spreading the true gospel to the rest of the world and by being an example of how believers should live in love and community as Christ intended.

Josiah Jones, 28, a Twelve Tribes leader in Savannah, Georgia, says that the first Christian communities in Acts lived their faith in a manner far different from the lives of believers today. Jones quotes Acts 2:44-45: “All the believers were together and had everything in common. Selling their possessions and goods, they gave to anyone as he had need.”

Today, members of Twelve Tribes live in community homes, pool all incomes, and gather every morning and evening for group worship and fellowship. Jones, who like all the Twelve Tribes men sports a beard and a ponytail, says that it’s unfortunate that most Christians don’t live communally because it’s in sharing and living with one another that believers can live out Christ’s commandment to love and cherish each other.

Twelve Tribes’ Beginnings

Inspired by the nonconformist spirit of the Jesus Movement of the early 1970s, Elbert Eugene Spriggs, a former high school teacher from Chattanooga, Tennessee, and his wife, Marsha, began holding informal religious meetings in their home. As their meetings grew in popularity, especially with young people, a commune was started, funded by the profits of a coffee shop they built called the Yellow Deli.

With members attending different churches, the commune had no set theology or religious program, until Spriggs had an epiphany. While walking to church one Sunday, he saw a sign outside that said services were canceled due to the Super Bowl. Angered that a church would place a football game above God, Spriggs organized his own religious services, set up a meeting place and attracted much interest. Soon more communes were formed. By the early 1990s, Twelve Tribes had communities throughout the United States and in several foreign countries, including France, Brazil and Australia.

Jones says living communally is the heart of Twelve Tribes’ culture because it fosters Christian compassion. For example, when someone needs a jacket in the commune and there is no money for one, Jones says, often a member will sacrifice his or her own. This empathy also extends overseas. If a Twelve Tribes community in Europe has a financial setback, then money from other tribes will be sacrificed to meet that tribe’s needs. “It’s all about really loving and caring for one another like Yahshua taught,” he says.

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The Author : Anthony Chiorazzi
Anthony Chiorazzi writes from Los Angeles and is currently a graduate student at Oxford University.
See more articles by (21).
Please note that the editorial staff reserves the right to not post comments it deems to be inappropriate and/or malicious in nature, as well as edit comments for length, clarity and fairness.
  • http://urantia.org/ Eric Christopherson

    I miss many of the people i used to live with as a Twelve Tribes
    community member and the daily gatherings, but some of their
    apostle’s/prophet’s Teachings are terrible and i am posting a portion of
    these with the hope that Gene or Marsha Spriggs (Yoneq or Haemeq) will
    change these before they pass on and all of their Teachings become
    permanent in the Twelve Tribes communities.
    “The blueness of the wound drives away all evil.””
    (October 1980 Child Training -Notes from Teachers Meeting – Page 5)
    “Unless your son has blue wounds, by this standard, you know what kind of a
    is in you — it is the spirit that hates your son. If one is overly
    concerned about his son receiving blue marks you know that he hates his
    son and hates the word of God.” (No date – Execution of Justice – Page
    Also: the children are not allowed to have or to play with toys,
    nor to have yearly doctor checkups, receive immunizations, or to get a
    high school level education.

    MOVEMENT is condemned as evil and BLACK SLAVERY is taught, for
    dark-skinned people who do not join the Twelve Tribes Community (also
    known by Yellow Deli):
    “What a marvelous opportunity that blacks
    could be brought over here to be slaves so that they could be found
    worthy of the nations. A good master would work by the sweat of his
    brow. If his slaves were lazy and disrespectful he would beat them,
    which is what he was supposed to do.” (Cham, Island Pond, 3/19/91)
    for civil rights is of the world – it is disorder to the established
    social order. In the social order of the world there is distinction
    between black and white. We shouldn’t try to change it and mess it up.
    It is going against something fundamental. Cham (blacks) should have
    been a slave all through history.” (Unraveling the Races of Man)
    the slaves were mistreated, it was the fault of the slave. Even if the
    master was unreasonable the slave was to bear up under it. This was
    Cham’s (black people’s) discipline. For 4000 years Israel had
    slaves….Cham was a servant (slave) to Shem (white people). This is the
    Word. You can’t break the Word. The more men try to liberate Cham (black
    people), the worse he gets. It is more destructive for man to try to
    redeem himself, changing social order. The three races are to be
    distinct.” (Unraveling the Races of Man)
    “Niger means black. When
    people first started saying this word, it wasn’t bad, but it became a
    curse word, having a bad connotation. Before civil rights black men
    would say, ‘Yes, boss man’ in the south. Yes man, no man. This was
    respect. We need respect in people. We must beat respect into our
    children. Cham must get this respect in them. These blacks during the
    pre-civil rights time, were really slaves – they had respect for people.
    They got along well because they were submissive…” [Unraveling the
    Races of Man]
    “Cham is no longer, to his detriment, slaves or
    servants to Shem. This is a terrible thing, a great deception. It is of
    the anti-Christ to think Cham is emancipated when he really is not
    emancipated.” [Cham, Island Pond 6/26/90]
    “This is what Cham should
    be like in the world – like black nannies – this is sort of what they
    were to do. They were to be helper to Shem. It was to be a natural
    thing. There is nothing wrong with this. Civil Rights, forced equality
    is anti-Christ, trying to change the heart – it can’t be done.”
    [Unraveling the Races of Man]
    “The politicians and Martin Luther King
    have taken the provision away (a place in the “Nations” [a lesser
    Heaven for good people who don’t join the Twelve Tribes]). There is no
    equal for the hatred Martin Luther King had for the black people.”
    [Cham, Island Pond 3/19/91]
    “Martin Luther King was filled with every
    evil spirit there is to say Cham doesn’t have to serve Shem. All manner
    of evil filled that man.” [Cham, Island Pond 3/19/91]

  • http://www.facebook.com/KaraL.Kitchen Kara Kitchen

    What about the communities’ teaching and practice of severe corporal punishment of children as young as 3 months old?!

  • Nathaniel Braun

    I spent a few weeks with the Twelve Tribes in Winnipeg. All I really have to say is, best group of people I have ever met in my whole life and definitely the best lifestyle imaginable. If you are looking for something “bigger than yourself,” I can definitely recommend you check it out. It beats joining the army, and I don’t know anything like it in today’s day and age. Today’s New Age and hippie/Hindu pagan teachers pale mightily by comparison… Just my 2c.

  • Eric Christopherson

    I first met the Twelve Tribes in 1989 and first heard about them in 1984. Through the years, they’ve been kind to me as a visitor, member, and ex-member. Over the years, I’ve shared many criticisms of their life together. I currently visit one of the communities in New York State. What I mainly see is love for God and one-another. Many people like myself have left because we didn’t want to work as hard or face things in ourselves that surface when you live closely with anyone, whether it be communal living or a marriage. Am sure the communities have also made their share of mistake as well. I’m still closely examining this lifestyle and find it interesting. The love I see is genuine, and the intent to live as the early New Testament believers.

  • Joanna

    Linda you shouldn’t judge them before you have even taken the chance to get to know them. They actually do NOT turn away the needy. Frequently people come to them with nothing and they clothe and feed them. A friend of mine was homeless and living in a shelter and though she told them she didn’t want to join them even though she was very fond of them, they would bring her meals and clothing. You may not agree with them but they are good people.

  • Eric Christopherson

    I’m an ex-member of the Twelve Tribes communities who first joined in 1990, and have visited on and off since then. Through the years I’ve had good and bad things to say about them. It was easier for me to shift blame onto them, versus taking a good look at my own ways that sometimes hurt or failed others. So far, no one has been able to show me a more meaningful life. Their life isn’t for everyone, and they don’t claim that it is. The only way to really understand their culture is to simply visit and get to know the people. They seek to follow Yahshua-Jesus, and I agree with them that Christianity barely resembles the love and community of the first followers and communities of Jesus. I give them credit for what they are doing.
    Having been conservative Mennonite for four years and lived with Hutterites, I see healthy similarities. Be prepared to work hard and be honest with yourself and others. They have given up everything for Jesus and one-another, but their church is open to the needy 24/7. They took me in when I had nothing and have been some of my best friends.

  • D. E.

    I just spent over 6 weeks with this group of people at their Virginia community. They are a wonderful giving people. They bend over backwards to help you and spare no cost or time. Soon i will be back with them after i resolve my worldly issues. D. E.

  • Daniel

    This was an interesting article. It reminded me of that one (I believe was a) Christian family in the movie “Son of Rambo”. The Twelve Tribes[in this article]reminded me of that movie that I’v recently seen.
    As one who was and is born Catholic, I don’t 100% agree with this lifestyle, but I still think that we should all learn to accept everyone–no matter their group affirmation or class or religion or race or gender, etc. Shouldn’t we all love another?–isn’t that what Jesus told us in one of his two greatest commandments? Just a comment to this interesting article.

  • Chezikah

    As a former member of the tribes, I am very disappointed with this article. They are NOT a Christian group but hate Christianity and all that it represents. The Twelve Tribes believe Christianity is apostate, fallen and corrupt. Here are some quotes from their founder Elbert Spriggs concerning his beliefs about Christianity. These teachings are widely disseminated throughout the various communities! “Christianity is a mountain, a high place, where you worship idols, a false place of worship.” “The Christian church is good for nothing – not even good enough for the dung heap.” Please don’t give your readers the impression that this group is a continuation of the first church that started at Pentecost! THEY ARE NOT CHRISTIANS!

  • Bill McGarvey

    Thanks for your comment DGT. We did a story on Shane a while back. It can be found here: http://www.bustedhalo.com/features/the-simple-way/

  • DGT

    From the article this group sounded really great. A quick look around their website reveals some disturbing things. They are against racial integration, discourage interracial marriage and have some pretty kooky theories about the innate qualities of each race. I encourage you to go their website and read some of their own statements on these matters.

    If you are looking for a little more faithful witness of real Christianity I suggest looking up Shane Claiborne and “The Simple Way” community in Philadelphia. I highly recommend his books “The Irresistible Revolution” and “Jesus for President.” There are Catholic groups doing this sort of thing too.

  • Amber

    First of all great article! Its great there are people in the world that would do such, but personally I wouldn’t do it. I can live my christian life with jewelry & makeup. So I don’t see it as such a bad thing to do if you can actually go through with it.

  • Valentine Chase

    I guess who are we to judge,,thats not whywe are here on this earth !

  • Amy Meeks

    Amazing article. Just how many people in today’s world could “give up” their world to do this? I think these people are for the most part trying to live the life Jesus would want.

    People in today’s world are too consumed with themselves and should take a few minutes to study their life…. We should commend people of the world such as The Twelve Tribes for glorifying the world with love and goodness.

    Wonderful Article!

  • Cal

    Great story,in a world full of “greed”, it is nice people do care and want a,”simple life”. Not new video game,car,outfits. Most People, buy what Hollywood Sells,ads products,shows,films,”lifestyles”,we do not need.What makes “The Right Christ ” ???look??
    People,All are a product of ” Time and Place” ?
    All are in error ?? Jesus today would look modern !!

  • Linda

    OK this is just silly. This isn’t religion but rather a bunch of nutbags who decided to withdraw from the world. And they aren’t living as Jesus intended–they only give their resources to people who think like they do. If some starving non-believer needed a buck they’d probably refuse them because they weren’t part of their hippy cult.

  • Gideon

    Not to be too cynical but when Penderass asks if people would spend more time with their children or perhaps invent cure for cancer if they stopped watching tv than the only response I have is “Would you invent a cure for cancer if you stopped praying for 8 hours a day?”

    Horses for courses.

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