The so-called “Twelve Tribes” a purported “cult” that began in Chattanooga, Tennessee, but moved away amidst much controversy more than twenty years ago, appears to be planning a comeback.
This group was known in Chattanooga through its business the “Yellow Deli” during the 1970s. And was led by former carnival barker turned “prophet,” Elbert Eugene Spriggs, who reportedly now lives in Asheville, N.C.
Spriggs followers are spreading the word of their return through “reunion” announcements posted along with their own version of the Twelve Tribes Tennessee history through the Web site Chattanoogan.com.
The first reunion was yesterday on Easter Sunday from 2 to 10 PM.
Was this supposedly symbolic of their group’s Tennessee “resurrection”?
The next reunion is scheduled for June 18, from 2 to 10 PM.
Spriggs “dismissed the concerns of those who view the somewhat controversial church group as controlling and cultish,” reported the Web site Chattanoogan.com.
“We are not a cult, we just had the misfortune of coming together during the time of Jim Jones and the mess in Guyana,” he said.
These gatherings are taking place within the Rose Garden at Warner Park. A public place located at the intersection of 3rd St. and Holtzclaw Ave. not far from the campus of the University of Tennessee and near an old group 1970s address.Twelve Tribes is planning to reopen its “Yellow Deli” in Chattanooga and has launched a Web site.
In 1978 the elders of the group reportedly conceded that their church had an “authoritarian character” reported the Chattanooga Times.
“They call us ‘brain washers.’ I guess we do wash brains,” an elder admitted speaking with Eddie Wiseman to a reporter in 1978. “We must because if we don’t there will be no changing in a person’s life,” he then rationalized.
Wiseman, a native of Chattanooga, has remained a powerful figure in the group along with his wife Jeanne Swantko, its lawyer.
But Wiseman’s own son fled Twelve Tribes and later told the Boston Herald “growing up in there…things…just weren’t right.”
The Herald reported that Wiseman’s son was “abused, forced to work in factories, brainwashed and denied a normal childhood.”
Wiseman, 58, told the Times he plans to relocate to Chattanooga and help operate the new Yellow Deli.
Many other children have also fled the group and described its brutal physical punishment and mistreatment. Some minor children were taken into hiding by Twelve Tribes parents hoping to avoid court rulings regarding child custody, in some cases authorities later made arrests.
Twelve Tribes kids typically do not attend public schools and begin working at an early age. Authorities in New York fined the group for child labor violations.
Twelve Tribes has also been frequently criticized for its racist teachings.
Spriggs has taught his followers that “Martin Luther King and others have been inspired by the evil one to have forced equality” (“Unraveling the Races of Man” 1988).
Spriggs once observed, “It is horrible that someone would rise up to abolish slavery. What a wonderful opportunity that blacks could be brought over here to be slaves so that they could be found worthy of the nations” (“Cham and Servitude” 1991).
The group has also been called “anti-Jewish.”
Twelve Tribes teaches that “‘Jews are hostile to all men’ except those in Messiah…they are contrary, antagonistic…opposite…opposing…against…opposed…obstinate…The Jews double fallen nature is inclined to be a reproach…to the Gentiles…”(“Jews” August 1996).
A new Web site has been launched called “Twelve Tribes Teachings.com,” which includes the complete archives of the group’s in-house periodical InterTribal 1994-96. This archive offers a detailed record of Spriggs teachings in his own words and/or as related by his followers.
Spriggs also is known for his somewhat strange, more obscure teachings regarding such things as air conditioning, how to prepare and eat vegetables and about cheese.
“No cheese. Throw that hard cheese out. We don’t eat it. You can’t get a good Jew to eat it. It’s bad for your system. You have to get something else to compensate for it because it constipates you. Old hard cheeses are no good for you,” says Spriggs.
Since the group’s departure from Chattanooga after the sale of its properties in 1979 Twelve Tribes has accumulated millions of dollars in collective assets. The former carnival barker turned “prophet” controls a substantial financial empire, essentially built upon the backs of his followers.
Twelve Tribes members work hard running coffee houses for the group, and have labored putting together products for Trader Joe’s, L.L. Bean, Estee Lauder and at one time Robert Redford’s Sundance Catalog.
Today Twelve Tribes appears to specialize in buying run down properties in upstate New York, and then using its considerable manpower for rehabilitation.
Also, new members often surrender their assets to the group.
CultNews has learned that when members leave they most often take virtually nothing, despite whatever gifts they may have given the group and many years of hard work.
Meanwhile Spriggs lives in relative luxury, spending his time at various homes in the United States, France and Brazil, while many of his followers subsist modestly in group housing.
Whenever Twelve Tribes or its “prophet” has been criticized and/or scrutinized by anyone, this has frequently been characterized as “persecution.”
It their recent public postings group members claim that “prejudice” and “fear” led to them being “driven from Chattanooga” and compared that experience to the “Salem Witch Trials.”
Twelve Tribes members also say that Spriggs and his wife Marsha moved to New England much like the “brave Pilgrims…fleeing…for freedom of religion.”
Spriggs followers then blame everything on public officials and accept no meaningful responsibility for the group’s bad behavior
Now Twelve Tribes members “from Chattanooga are coming back.”
Will Spriggs triumphantly return to Tennessee as its rich prodigal “prophet”?
Will the town that takes such pride in its “bible belt” status be happy that a man often called a “heretic” is coming home?
“Coming back to Chattanooga is an opportunity for people to see who we are and what we turned out to be,” the Twelve Tribes “prophet” told Chattanoogan.com.
Chattanooga, which seemed relieved to see Spriggs and his people leave, is probably not going to be glad to have them back.