Twelve Tribes cult accused of sparking huge Colorado wildfire

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 ‘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 cult's goal is to produce an army of '144,000 virginal males' before the second coming of Jesus Christ.  The group distributes whimsically-designed pamphlets that proselytize their beliefs at the businesses, farm stands, and cafes they own and operate

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 ‘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 

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.

History of Child Abuse:     

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. 


1 thought on “Twelve Tribes cult accused of sparking huge Colorado wildfire

Leave a Reply