ARCADIA — The girls in their scarves and flowing cotton dresses are up by 4:30, long before dawn’s light glistens on the dew.
There are goats to milk and feed, as well as cattle to tend to, and turkeys, and chickens, and biddies, and eggs to gather. They check the traps for sneaky nocturnal varmints.
At ages 17, 14, and 10, the Peterson girls know how to prevent B2 vitamin deficiencies in their birds, and understand the importance of purifying water with drops of iodine. They know how to make fresh bread in the electric mixer with yeast and flour and eggs and water and oil. They keep an eye on the incubation schedules of the eggs protected in the Quonset-hut barn.
By 7 a.m., alongside parents Tom and Susan, this first generation of children born into a controversial communal theology called the Twelve Tribes will have arrived in Arcadia’s historic residential district for the daily breakfast gathering. They will join about 22 fellow members in song, perhaps variations of traditional Israeli folk dancing, and offer blessings for the day ahead.
Then they will return to the Tribe’s rustic, 27-acre Peace River Farm for home studies and more farm work. “Our family,” says Susan, “has a burden for the animals and the chores.” They will reconvene for supper at the house in Arcadia by 7 p.m. By 8 p.m., the Petersons will be ready to retire.
Their birth-certificate names are legal constructs; their adopted fraternal names are Hebrew. They follow the teachings of Jesus, but they do not consider themselves Christians, not in a contemporary sense. They call him Yahshua, the original Hebrew name.
At Peace River Farm, the road to self-sufficiency amid the approaching end times is being paved, for now, with two dump trucks, a chipper, a stump grinder, a lift, three Bobcats, a Bush Hog landscaper, and the Quonset hut.
“This is the last Tribe to be established before the fulfillment of the prophecy,” says Tom Peterson, whose Benyamin Tribe is affiliated with half a dozen other clans scattered east of the Mississippi River and south of the Mason-Dixon Line.
Like most of his adult male colleagues, he sports a full beard and his hair is pulled back into a modest ponytail. If he and his family were to leave Peace River Farm, they would be utterly destitute. But that idea is inconceivable.
“We are a living demonstration of the spiritual Israel,” Peterson says. “You’ve got to plan ahead for what’s to come. That’s why it’s so wonderful to live together the way we do.”
“All the believers were in one heart and mind. No one claimed that any of his possessions was his own, but they shared everything they had.” — Acts 4:32
An argument could be made that California’s Summer of Love in 1967 was the high-water mark for hippie utopians, and that the Jesus Freaks who spun off in its immediate aftermath were a short-lived Christian fad.
But then, you would have to factor in the legacy of Elbert Eugene Spriggs.
In the early 1970s, the young Tennessean returned from California disillusioned by the way a generation’s egalitarian bromides had degenerated into “hippie-crit” materialism. Spriggs imported his own vision of Christianity to Chattanooga, which he circulated through a chain of health-food restaurants called the Yellow Deli.
The vision called for reconstituting the Twelve Tribes of Israel — in Scripture, descendants of the 12 sons of Jacob — to set the stage for the Messiah’s return. According to the Book of Revelation, each tribe will dispatch 12,000 messengers to warn the world of imminent tribulation. Spriggs’ formula, based on “first-century Christianity” before church hierarchies were institutionalized, requires believers to surrender their possessions to the group at large.
“The difference between this and Marxism is, Marxism is forced secular-humanism,” says Rick “Aquila” Kendrick. “This is for the glory of God.”
“So likewise, whosoever he be of you that forsaketh not all that he hath, he cannot be my disciple.” — Luke 14:33
Although the Twelve Tribes forbid a clerical establishment, the gregarious Kendrick is the de facto spokesman of the Arcadia community. His Bible is well worn and ink-lined; verbatim Scripture rolls conversationally from his tongue.
He and about 17 others share a grand old 19th-century home, called the John Lee & Mourning Jones House, just outside the commercial district. Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the roomy manse was built by a niece of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee. Out back are the cabanas where the single men reside.
No sooner had the Tribe acquired the Jones House in 2004 than Hurricane Charley tore it apart. Today, the place is a showcase of expert restoration and landscaping. It is the backdrop for weddings and celebrations; nonmembers attend open houses.
The Tribe migrated to sleepy Arcadia when its original surroundings in West Palm Beach became, according to Kendrick, “more secular, more sensual, and more and more degraded. This is a much better environment to raise children.”
In essence, they felt too crowded by growth.
Kendrick, a Chattanooga native, is a charter member of Spriggs’ movement. In 1973, he and his wife, Prisca, were the first couple married under its auspices.
“In a very down-to-earth way, Gene talked a lot about love, about caring for one another and even laying down your life for one another,” Kendrick, 54, recalls. “But it’s one thing to talk about it, and quite another to actually live the word of God. Unless you surrender your life to Yahshua, you can’t sustain that vision. But that’s what Gene was doing.”
“And all that believed were together, and had all things common; and they sold their possessions and goods, and parted them to all, according as any man had need.” — Acts 2:44-45
Exactly how many people belong to the Twelve Tribes is a guess. Its twelvetribes.com Web site estimates anywhere from 2,000 to 3,000 members. From its original niche in communal homes in suburban Chattanooga, the group now counts 32 clans spread across the United States, Canada, Germany, England, Spain, France, Argentina, Brazil and Australia.
Unlike churches listing their tax-exempt status as 501(c)(3), the American Tribes pay taxes as a 501(d), despite being registered as a “religious or apostolic association or corporation.”
According to the Internal Revenue Service office in Jacksonville, the designation — which recognizes “a common treasury” — is so obscure that only 20 applications for it were filed in the United States in 2006, and six were granted.
Bill Hinchcliff covers the business end of the Arcadia branch. Its prime source of revenue is a tree service called Forest Keepers, LLC. It also works construction contracts as far away as Fort Myers.
“All the money we make on trees goes into a household checkbook, so that all of the needs here are met,” Hinchcliff says. “Yahshua said, ‘Give unto Caesar what is Caesar’s,’ so we don’t want a bigger tax break than anybody else. We want to pay our fair share.”
Just how Caesar spends that money does not much matter to Hinchcliff. He says he never voted in an election.
Kendrick says he visited the polls once: “I voted for Jimmy Carter. That,” he says with a chuckle, “was a mistake.”
“In like manner, that women adorn themselves in modest apparel, with shamefastness and sobriety; not with braided hair, and gold or pearls or costly raiment, but through good works. Let a woman learn in quietness with all subjection. But I permit not a woman to have dominion over a man, but to be in quietness.” — 1 Timothy 2:8
Fresh-cut gardenia blossoms perfume the sitting room of the quiet, air-conditioned Jones House. The men have left for a construction job outside town. Some of the women and girls are still puttering in the kitchen. Between preparing meals for two dozen people, and the laundry and the housework and the yard, their labors are never truly finished.
There are no TV sets in evidence on the ground floor. Or computers, for that matter. Those distractions are upstairs.
“Television is very defiling,” says Prisca Kendrick, who dropped out of the “hypocrisy” of church, school, and practically everything else as a teenager. “It teaches your children to be idiots.”
Eschewing makeup, hands folded in the lap of her ankle-length dress, Kendrick says meeting Spriggs and his wife, Marsha, in 1972 after wallowing in a druggy, itinerate haze “was like going from dark to light.”
Sacrificing her possessions for the Tribe? “I didn’t have any possessions to give up,” she says. “I was 19. I was a hippie. There was no adjustment to make.”
She and her husband have raised and home-schooled three children within the Twelve Tribes’ system. One 20-year-old daughter has moved on to another community; their teenagers remain in Arcadia. Sewing, cooking, gardening, how to select natural foods, home repairs — as the tribulation approaches, the old skills will prevail.
Prisca Kendrick knows the world.
“It’s an uncontrolled environment for us,” she says. “I’m not saying it’s all bad, but there’s so much violence and drugs and abusive language. It’s like First Corinthians says, bad company corrupts good character.”
She says the Tribes’ lifestyle has taught her about reconciliation. After committing to it, she recalls with a vestige of an Alabama drawl, “I came back to my mother with tears of repentance for all the pain and hurt I brought her.”
“But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people of his own, so that you may announce the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light.” — 1 Peter 2:9
The Twelve Tribes own printing presses, psychedelic-painted buses and mobile health-food restaurants. They set up at rock concerts and mass gatherings, where they distribute recruiting papers situationally edited for readers as diverse as fans of Pink Floyd and Promise Keepers.
With elevated visibility comes elevated criticism. While the Tribe’s views on issues such as abortion and homosexuality are consistent with conservative Christian denominations, Spriggs has been called racist, anti-Semitic and a master of mind control.
“You can accomplish a lot of things if you exploit free labor,” adds Rick Ross, whose nonprofit institute of the same name in Jersey City, N.J., studies cults in America. “There’s no transparency. And what’s sad is, a significant number have been around for 25, 30 years and they’re getting up in age. It’s a pyramid; they desperately need new members to support them.”
Yet, the Tribes remain standing after enduring some high-profile body blows.
In 1984, state police raided their homes in Island Pond, Vt., and seized 112 youngsters as prosecutors investigated allegations of child abuse. A court ordered the children returned within 24 hours and tossed out all charges.
In 2001, the Tribes lost manufacturing contracts with the likes of Este’e Lauder, L.L. Bean and Robert Redford’s Sundance catalog after getting busted in the state of New York for child-labor violations. They received slap-on-the-wrist fines of $2,000.
Attempts to contact Spriggs at his home in North Carolina were unsuccessful. But in Asheville, Tribes spokesman Michael Porterfield says Spriggs “doesn’t do a whole lot of interviews.”
“God knoweth your hearts, for that which is highly esteemed among men is an abomination in the sight of God.” — Luke 16:15
Bill Hinchcliff protested the Vietnam War as a college student in Ohio. He liked to smoke dope, and he immersed himself in the counterculture.
He moved to California for a lucrative “sellout” career as a reactor technician in a chemical plant. An accident on one job spilled 100 gallons of hydrochloric acid in San Francisco Bay. “I was such a hypocrite,” he says. “I couldn’t stand it.”
Today, Hinchcliff, a plumber, is monitoring the progress on a construction site at a horse rancher’s home outside the crossroads village of Nocatee. He thinks about John Lennon singing “Imagine” and wonders why the ex-Beatle didn’t walk the walk by giving up his own possessions.
At age 55, Hinchcliff is not looking for a Social Security check because “I haven’t paid anything into it in 30 years.” His family’s covenant is with the Tribe.
“My whole life has been based on trusting relationships,” says the man who rejected his country-club roots for a social experiment. “If this isn’t true, then my whole life has been a sham.”
“Therefore, go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” — Matthew 28:19
The Tribe is expanding its presence in Arcadia, slowly and systematically. This year, it purchased an old bed-and-breakfast within a stone’s throw of Jones House. The place was ruined by Hurricane Charley, but the Tribe is planning a massive restoration. And downtown, they have bought a derelict dry-cleaning building they intend to turn into a Yellow Deli restaurant.
“Well,” says Arcadia City Manager Ed Strube, “they’re a pretty quiet bunch, but they were very aggressive in helping clean up city and county properties after Charley. I think you have to respect their initiative.”
“And they sang a new song before the throne and before the four living creatures and the elders. No one could learn the song except the 144,000, who had been redeemed from the earth.” — Revelation 14:3
Nightfall Friday at Peace River Farm, the beginning of the 24-hour Sabbath. Twenty members have gathered inside on this humid evening, along with four guests.
Festivities begin with the blowing of the shofar (a horn made from the antler or horn of any kosher animal, except a cow or calf), followed by a lively hora, a traditional folk-dance circle.
A piano carries the melodies, but Hinchcliff says the Tribe wants to build its own percussion, string and woodwind instruments.
“We’ve researched all this, and we’ve learned so much,” he says, as members sing or rotate in and out of the dance circle. “Sometimes we’ll use the Hebrew words, or sometimes we’ll put in the English words. But we’re starting to write our own music and create our own dances.”
Following prayers for unity and expressions of gratitude come tasty meals of roasted potatoes, cole slaw, spelt-flour bread, smoked mackerel and a dessert of custard pie. No one works tomorrow. Members linger a little longer.
“God prophesied the restoration of all things by the third generation of the Twelve Tribes of Israel,” says Kendrick, as he contemplates how many of the children here have grown into young adults, ready to start their own families.
“You’re seeing the second generation,” he says in anticipation, as a woman’s discreet hands clear his empty plate.
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