By Tate Delloye
Colorado investigators are looking into a property owned by a Christian fundamentalist cult known as 'Twelve Tribes' as the source of the massive wildfire that destroyed nearly 1,000 homes in the suburbs around Boulder last week.
Authorities were tipped off to the location through a viral video depicting a shed set ablaze on the organization's 4.3 acre compound that was taken by a passerby on the morning the unprecedented Marshall Fire ravaged 6,219 acres.
One member of the group who insisted on anonymity told DailyMail.com: 'We don't really have any comment right now. We are waiting for the investigation to be completed.
'The allegations are that it started on our property, but it's not even clear to us if that's the case.'
Colorado authorities have not charged anyone in the cult in connection to the fire.
Twelve Tribes is an international religious movement that sprang out of a wayward youth Bible study group in Chattanooga, Tennessee in 1972. It was founded by a former high school teacher and guidance counselor named Eugene Spriggs (who died in January 2021) and his fourth wife, Marsha.
The cult's name reflects the belief that they are recreating the 12 ancient tribes of Israel. Their goal, is to 'produce an army of 144,000 male virgins, who would prepare the way for Christ's second coming.'
According to their now defunct website, the reclusive sect currently has 3,000 followers in 74 communities across the United States and countries worldwide. The Boulder, Colorado chapter opened in 2009 and has roughly 30 members.
On first impression, the organization that runs a string of popular hippie-vibed restaurants, preaches communal farm living, and derives wholesome satisfaction from folk music and Israeli circle-dances - can seem idyllic.
But a deeper investigation into Twelve Tribes reveals a sinister history of child abuse and labor violations in addition to extremist teachings on race, homosexuality and women.
Former members described how Eugene Spriggs (known to his followers as Yoneq), cultivated absolute obedience through fear and brainwashing and exerted intense control over everything from when single men should masturbate to how much toilet paper should be used in the restroom.
The fringe group refers to themselves as 'an emerging spiritual nation.'
'We are a confederation of twelve self-governing tribes, made up of self-governing communities,' explains the Twelve Tribes website. 'We mean families and single people who live together in homes and on farms.'
Twelve Tribes was founded by Eugene Spriggs and his wife Marsha, at the height of the Jesus Movement in the 70s in Chattanooga, Tennessee. Originally known as 'Vine House,' Spriggs hosted Bible studies and other meetings that attracted runaways and drug addicts. As the organization grew, they became increasingly reclusive and extremist in their beliefs.
The Boulder outpost started in 2009 when its leader, 68-year-old Andrew 'Sehyah' Wolfe, a 30-year veteran of the Vermont community, moved west with his wife Deborah to establish a Twelve Tribes presence in Colorado. At first the group held meetings in their homes until they moved onto a 4.3 acre compound on the corner of State Highway 93 and Marshall Road in 2014.
According to Boulder County property tax records, the land was purchased by 'Common Life Dwellings LLC' for $1.4million. The lot contains five dwellings and multiple accessory buildings; including the shed which is alleged to have sparked the wildfire last week.
When asked if they were a cult, Andrew Wolfe responded: 'If the Twelve Tribes is a cult, the Catholic Church is a cult.'
In short, the group is a monogamous, taxpaying (but non-voting) fundamentalist sect dedicated to following the teachings of Yahshua (Jesus) through prayer, song and work. They abstain from drugs, alcohol, premarital sex, and posses no firearms.
'We just want to go back to the original pattern of what the first church was before it became an organized religion with all its various offshoots,' explained a current member to DailyMail.com. 'We just want to get back to a pure, simple devotion to God and to one another.'
'Our men have beards because men were created with facial hair,' their website reads. 'It is priestly for a man to bind his hair at the back of the neck and keep it trimmed as indicated in Ezekiel 44:20.'
Female members keep their hair covered to 'serve as an outward symbol of her subservience to her man,' and wear long homespun peasant clothes out 'of their desire to be modest.'
The website gushes of their pride in being 'tribespeople' who 'live together like an extended family.'
New members are forced to give up all their of belongings and wealth once they join Twelve Tribes so that the entire community can share the resources equally.
According to their website, the tradeoff for joining is 'new friends, a new job, a new hairstyle, a new address and, most importantly, a new Master, who will direct every aspect of your life.'
The agrarian based communities are entirely self-sustaining, 'For the most part, our farms are small-scale operations. We mainly grow food for ourselves but sometimes sell our produce at our own farm stands or farmer's markets.'
'We don't work secular jobs,' explained one member to DailyMail.com.
Followers who belong to 'The Community' (as they call it), live and work together in cult-owned businesses. If they're not laboring on the commune, then members are working in one of their many companies.
The group supports itself through lucrative endeavors in 'hospitality' (The Yellow Delis, The Mate Factor Café, Blue Blinds Bakery) - 'service industries' (which includes multiple construction companies, a printing press and shoe shop) - and 'cottage industries' (which manufactures and distributes products for large cosmetic companies).
The sect is most famously associated with their popular chain of organic 'Yellow Deli' cafes. Spriggs opened the first location in 1974 as a way to support his growing flock in Chattanooga, Tennessee. Members worked for room and board. Today, the Tribes operate 21 Yellow Delis around the world from Boulder, Colorado to Kyoto Japan, and Katoomba, Australia.
'All of the income from our various endeavors goes into a common purse, from which all our needs are met,' explains their FAQ. Their shared earnings go to pay for property taxes, food, electricity, phone, car insurance, clothing, and health care.
Children raised in the Twelve Tribes cult are homeschooled, dressed in puritanical bonnets, and kept sheltered from the outside world. They are taught an anti-evolution curriculum with an emphasis on music and communication. They are not allowed to engage in any type of playing (like play-pretending to be an airplane) nor join sports teams or clubs. Toys, radio, secular books, TV and the internet are strictly verboten.
'Childhood was hell,' said Alex, an ex-member who spoke to The CU Independent. 'That's my only childhood milestone, to stay alive till the next day.'
Alex, from the New York compound, detailed regular 'vicious beatings' with wooden rods for trivial infractions like not singing loud enough during religious ceremonies, opening the fridge without permission, or talking too much. 'You talk out of line or sometimes you never even knew what the hell you did but all of a sudden you're getting your feet beaten bloody with the rods.'
In the past, the group has defended corporal punishment as something rooted in the bible and members are quick to rattle off a list of proverbs that support their actions.
Despite never having raised a child in the group (he had one son who lived with his first wife) - Spriggs had extensive rules on child-rearing which he outlined corporal punishment in a colossal 800-page manual titled, 'Authority Teachings.'
'The rod must be used to correct wrong thoughts, wrong words, and wrong deeds,' states the handbook. Parents are supposed to strike children - or inflict 'stripes that wound' - whenever they misbehave.
'We know that some people consider this aspect of our life controversial, but we have seen from experience that discipline keeps a child from becoming mean-spirited and disrespectful,' says their FAQ.
A proselytizing Twelve Tribes brochure titled, When the Spanking Stopped, All Hell Broke Loose cited Proverb 13:24 that said: 'He who spares his rod, hates his son, but he who loves him disciplines him promptly' to make the following conclusion: 'If you love your child you take the rod and discipline him.... It's not optional; it's a command.'
'Spriggs was fond of saying we should be proud of these wounds our children bore,' said former member Roger Griffin to Pacific Standard Magazine. 'If you loved your children, you were not swayed by their screams.'
Kayam Mathias told The DailyBeast that he still remembers his infant sister's screams to this day. He was beaten up 20 to 30 times a day before he escaped at age 14.
'The first time I used an ATM or a vending machine was when I left, I knew nothing about the world. It was all so strange and new and was like being born suddenly with an adult body, feeling like a child or an alien, but needing to act like an adult to survive.'
Samie Brosseau, the founder of a non-profit that helps people transition out of cult-like environments, grew up in a Twelve Tribes compound and fled when she was 18. She told the CU Independent how her parents held her captive until she finally escaped out the front door of an isolated Massachusetts cabin to try make her way in a modern world she had never lived in before.
In recent years, Twelve Tribes has been the subject of multiple investigations that exposed child abuse and labor exploitation. In 2018, the New York Department of Labor found multiple violations involving 12 minors who were engaged in factory work at the farm located in Cambridge, New York.
The farm produced lotions and creams for popular organic cosmetic brands like Acure and Savannah Bee which are sold at Target, Whole Foods and Walmart. In 2001, the same farm was also involved in a child labor scandal that ended their lucrative contracts with Estee Lauder and Origins.
The cult denies allegations of child labor, clarifying, that children work 'side by side with their parents' in household chores that instill 'diligence, thrift, and hard work.'
Twelve Tribes insists that women are encouraged to speak their minds and are 'given an equal voice' in the community; but they have been accused of forcing females into subservient roles as wife and child-bearer, while forbidding the use of contraceptives and drugs during childbirth.
According to Spriggs' later teachings, women have to atone for Eve's original sin by giving birth without painkillers.
'God created woman to be a friend and a helper for man. She was created to be a wife and a mother, to raise children,' reads an article titled 'Modesty' on their website.
'We are not pitiful little housewives that are bossed around all day by overbearing men, but we are happy, liberated women who willingly submit ourselves to our loving husbands.'
Deborah Wolfe, who spearheaded the Colorado sect with her husband Andrew, defiantly told Boulder Weekly: 'I would be happy to talk to any feminist women about the choices I made by having my six children.'
Another news article posted on the group's website, explains that all marriages within the cult are arranged by the families of the bride and groom. During the ceremony, the groom does not kiss the bride — rather she kisses him, as a symbol of her submission.
Jenny Lynn Fiore, a former member told the Southern Poverty Law Center: 'I saw very controlling, overbearing husbands treating their wives pretty badly, and there was no real recourse… they were basically kitchen slaves.'
The cult claims that while homosexuality is discouraged, gays are not expelled from the group.
In reality, their dogma is far more extreme. Their FAQ reads: 'Homosexual behavior is immoral and can be mortally dangerous.'
'We embrace what God says on this subject without regard for political correctness.'
Transcripts of Spriggs past sermons preached that 'homosexuals deserve the death penalty' and that 'homosexuality is a capital offense.'
Noah Jones grew up in a remote Twelve Tribes village in Vermont called Island Pond. He recalled to Pacific Standard Magazine of a time when he and his two brothers were rappelling out of a tree when an elder's wife told them to stop. The elder separated the siblings and locked Noah in the furnace room of an adjacent house where he slept on the cement floor for a week, used a bucket as a toilet, and was fed one meal a day.
Finally, the elder accused Noah of engaging in a homosexual encounter with his brothers. Too young to know what 'homosexual' meant, the leader proceeded to describe gay sex to him in graphic detail.
Twelve Tribes leaders readily admit that they discourage interracial marriages, even though they 'welcome' non-white family units to join their group. 'It should come as no surprise when you see Hispanic or black or Jewish leaders in some of our Communities,' says their FAQ.
A deep dive into the Twelve Tribes doctrine reveals sinister racism throughout their teachings. Spriggs preached that 'black people were destined to be slaves' and openly espoused his hatred for Martin Luther King Jr, stating that, 'All manner of evil filled that man.'
He continued: 'It is horrible that someone would rise up to abolish slavery. What a marvelous opportunity that blacks could be brought over here to be slaves so that they could be found worthy of the nations.'
Tribe leaders evangelized that, 'Submission to [white people] is the only provision by which blacks will be saved.'
In response to outrage over their controversial teachings, an African American leader in the cult named John Stringer (or Yohannan Abraham) - penned a rebuttal titled 'Are the Twelve Tribes Racist?' where he that claimed that their opinions were taken completely 'out of context.'
Former member, Sinasta Colucci, who is mixed race, says the organization's abhorrent teachings about race are revealed slowly to converts as they're indoctrinated.
He remembers the time John Stringer picked him up from the airport. 'At that time, I was fully inundated, I was brainwashed,' he tells the SLPC. 'It was like meeting a hero. I kind of idolized him. Here's this strong, powerful black man who's going to bring in more black people, because we need more diversity. That's the way I thought about it.'
Eventually Colucci became disillusioned with the cult's theology and left the Twelve Tribes in 2021' by 'getting on a bus with his future wife the day after President Obama's reelection.'
The cult regulated everything from fingernail length to how married couples should engage in intercourse.
Colucci recounts in his memoir, how the group exerted control over everything from when single men should masturbate ('Usually about every other day or every few days') to how much toilet paper one should use in the restroom. 'There really is a teaching about taking three to four squares of toilet paper, folding it to the size of one square, then wipe, fold, wipe, fold, and repeat until you have this tiny, poop-stained square that you flush.'
He added that masturbation is strictly intended to be a 'mechanical release' and that 'you're supposed to try not to think about anything as you're doing it.'
'They really begin to control your internal reality, how you process things, how you see reality,' said Bob Pardon, who has helped many former members of the Twelve Tribes transition to normal life. 'There's a lot of emotion control — you feel guilty about things you shouldn't feel guilty about, and not guilty about things you should, and the same with fear, you fear things you shouldn't and you don't fear things that you probably should.'
Twelve Tribes instills the fear of 'second death' which is described in their teachings as a spiritual death where people suffer in 'The Lake of Fire' or Hell. Former member Sami Brosseau said the cult uses the concept of second death 'to cultivate obedience in the community.'
An ex-member of Vermont's Island Pond community named Hannah said, 'The cult would say if you were sick it was because God was punishing you for being evil.'
Mary Wiseman, the wife of Spriggs' right-hand-man once balked at the severity of the cult's teachings and threatened to leave the community when Spriggs paddled her six-year-old daughter. She didn't leave, but when she died of cervical cancer at 39, Spriggs claimed that her 'unconfessed sin'—criticizing his authority—had killed her. 'Guilt and unconfessed sin is how you get sick,' he wrote in a teaching on the immune system. 'This is why people die young.'
'They do not go to the doctor ever, unless there's some sort of catastrophic injury,' said one former member.
A Boston Herald story from 2001 cited multiple instances of stillbirth, with mothers allegedly being refused medical treatment during labor. 'In fact, stillbirths are so common that the cult's private burial ground in Island Pond, Vermont, includes several unmarked graves of dead children.'
'We are very concerned about our health,' reads the FAQ. 'This is why we place so much emphasis on a healthy diet, getting regular exercise, fresh air, and rest. When we need the services of dentists, doctors, or hospitals, we seek them out.' Though testimony from former members says otherwise.
When Bruce Whittenburg's 15-month-old daughter became with whooping-cough in the 1980s, elders told him: 'If God wants her to live, He'll save her.' She died a few hours later. 'It was the worst thing that happened to us,' he said to Pacific Standard Magazine. Whittenburg left the Tribes in 2001.
'Medical care is a matter of personal choice based on each person's faith and conviction. While we as a people prefer the simplest and most natural means of healing possible, we do not restrict people's access to medical care, nor do we presume to know just how their healing will come,' explains the Twelve Tribes website.
The Twelve Tribes are a fundamentalist Christian group.
They grew out of an early 1970s youth Bible study group led by Elbert Eugene Spriggs and his wife Marsha in Chattanooga, Tennessee.
They count 3,000 people among its members and believe in Jesus, who they call Yahshua. They also strictly follow the Old and New Testaments.
The group operates the Yellow Deli in Boulder and Mate Factor Cafe in Manitou Springs.
'Our men have beards because men were created with facial hair,' a Google search index of the group's website reads.
'Our women wear the clothes they do because of their desire to be modest.'
The group has been accused of holding racist and homophobic beliefs and of child labor exploitations.
In 2001, the New York State Department of Labor found two violations involving children at its factories, which make shampoo and other products.
Sources: Southern Poverty Law Center, New York Times
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