The Twelve Tribes, Child Abuse, and Michael Farris

The village of Klosterzimmern near Deiningen, Germany is home to the "Zwoelf Staemme" (or, "Twelve Tribes").
The village of Klosterzimmern near Deiningen, Germany is home to the “Zwoelf Staemme” (or, “Twelve Tribes”).

HA note: The following is reprinted with permission from Libby Anne’s blog Love Joy Feminism. It was originally published on Patheos on September 11, 2013.

Last week, German authorities removed 40 children from the Twelve Tribes sect.

Police raided a Christian sect in southern Germany, taking 40 children into foster care on suspicion they were physically abused and seizing sticks allegedly used to hit them, authorities said Friday.

Members of the so-called “Twelve Tribes” sect acknowledged that they believe in spanking their children, but denied wrongdoing.

The Twelve Tribes sect, founded in Tennessee in the 1970s, boasts 2,000 to 3,000 members and has faced child abuse complaints and the removal of their children in the past. In Germany, they have run up against both the country’s ban on spanking and its ban on homeschooling. Last year, the Twelve Tribes community there, which resides in its own compound separated from the surrounding community, founded its own private school to get around the ban on homeschooling; within the last couple of weeks, that school was shut down when it was found that it did not employ the required certified teachers. Accusations of abuse cropped up at the same time, and last week Germany authorities removed the children.

Several days ago Jörg Großelümern, who runs Netzwerk Bildungsfreiheit (Education Freedom Network) in Germany and is listed on HSLDA’s Germany page as one of two contacts for German homeschoolers, posted a link to the story on Michael Farris’s facebook wall along with some explanatory text. Michael Farris responded (for those who don’t know, Farris is the founder of the Home School Legal Defense Association—HSLDA—and is probably the most prominent spokesperson for homeschooling in the United States). You can see the exchange as follows:


Later that day, one of Farris’s followers posted another link, voicing her dismay, and Farris again responded. You can see the exchange below:


Today, the full extent of the charges against the Twelve Tribes group have come to light. And guess what? They have it all on film. [Trigger warning for abuse.]

The little blonde-haired boy is about four years old. He simpers as a middle aged woman drags him downstairs into a dimly-lit cellar and orders the child to bend over and touch the stone floor with his hands. Another little boy watches as the woman pulls down the first boy’s pants and then draws out a willow cane.

“Say you are tired!” commands the woman in an emotionless voice. The swoosh of the willow cane is audible as it strikes the screaming child’s bottom three times. The little boy refuses to say he is tired so he is hit again and again – a total of ten times – until, in floods of tears, he finally says “I am tired.”

Within the space of a few hours, six adults are filmed in the cellar and in an underground school central heating room beating six children with a total of 83 strokes of the cane. The graphic and disturbing scenes were shown on Germany’s RTL television channel last night.

They were filmed by Wolfram Kuhnigk, an RTL journalist equipped with hidden video cameras and microphones, who infiltrated a 100-strong religious community run by the fundamentalist “Twelve Tribes” sect in Bavaria earlier this year. Kuhnigk claimed to be a lost soul to gain entry. “Seeing this systematic beatings made me want to weep, it made me think of my own two children,” he said. He collected 50 beating scenes on camera.

Samantha, a fellow homeschool graduate, posted the link to the article detailing the filmed abuse to Farris’s facebook wall, and again he replied. Here is the exchange:


Farris should have waited for the facts before speaking—and he really needs to find more reliable sources.

To be honest, one of my biggest concerns about Farris is that he seems to always give the parents the benefit of the doubt and to assume that abuse allegations are false (invented by vengeful authorities with corrupt motives, of course). Assuming that parents are innocent before even looking at the evidence means that abused children go unnoticed and ignored. (Not coincidentally, speaking before having the facts is how HSLDA attorney Scott Sommerville ended up calling child abuser Michael Gravelle a hero. Oops.)

The default should not be to assume that the parents are innocent and the charges drummed up by vengeful authorities and lying children. The default position should be to take immediate steps to protect the children and then remain cautious and wait for the facts to come in. Somehow I don’t find it surprising that Farris places the interests of the moment above its children.

25 thoughts on “The Twelve Tribes, Child Abuse, and Michael Farris

  1. Ashley September 11, 2013 / 2:17 pm

    Dr. Farris did not say anything inappropriate. In fact, his initial responses are tactfully hesitant. After the proof of abuse is presented to him, he backs down.

    Dr. Farris is not some monster who supports child abusers. You shouldn’t constantly berate his every little action. He’s won and preserved more freedoms for families, and not just homeschoolers, than probably anyone else in recent history.

    By the way, if the default were to assume parental guilt, I’d be dead, and a lot more children would be abused in foster care. The “experts” don’t know everything, and neither do anonymous tippers.


    • TheOnce&FutureSenatorDancergurl September 11, 2013 / 6:28 pm

      Farris isn’t a monster, no, but he certainly hasn’t figured out when to keep his mouth shut, or in this case, his fingers from typing.

      Ole Mike’s done a lot of good over the years, somehow managing to line his pockets with freedom-based, conservative, grassroots money but nobody ever mentions that. Boyfriend lives in Loudoun County after all; there are appearances to keep. This doesn’t make him a bad person, it just makes him human. Please get off this personality cult and remove Mr. F from his expensive pedastool.

      Also, can we please refrain from calling him “Dr.” as HE’S NOT ACTUALLY A DOCTOR!! I know, I get it, I’m a PHC alum, but a J.D. does NOT carry any title other than “Esquire.” For future reference, please question anyone who starts a college and demands to be called by a title he/she hasn’t actually attained.


      • eren September 11, 2013 / 8:36 pm

        “please question anyone who starts a college and demands to be called by a title he/she hasn’t actually attained.”

        Yes. This. Wish my parents had asked a few more questions before they sent kids to PHC!


  2. lmanningok September 12, 2013 / 7:10 am

    As an American, I’m ashamed to know that Germany’s laws protect its citizens better than our beloved (but spinnable) Constitution can. It was a Catholic (Phyllis Schafley) who conspired with evangelicals to defeat the Equal Rights Amendment here.

    I HATE belief in that monster the god of Abraham. Extremists in all three of his warring followers (Jews, Christians, Muslims) treat women like slaves. Note: I hate BELIEF in the monstrous god…I can’t hate the monster because he doesn’t exist outside the minds of his believers, but I hate those Bronze Age barbaric patriarchs who created him for their own selfish agenda. Their descendant patriarchs and their brainwashed wives are creating havoc throughout the world, stirring up wars and beating up on the weak (women and children). SHAME on any Jew, Christian or Muslim who supports such barbarism. The whole world is suffering for your delusions. Sorry for the rant, but I’ve lived on Earth with this horrible god all my life and am sick of him.


  3. Rob Schneider September 12, 2013 / 4:56 pm

    I agree with most of your positions on everything but in this case, you are wrong. Mr Farris is an attorney and believe me he understands the power of words and of the truth, but he also understands innocent until proven guilty. Another thing he knows is that we do live in a world where the powers that be want to shut down all homeschoolers. In his experience most homeschoolers are innocent of any charges,and in any case, all homeschoolers should be treated as innocent until they are proven guilty by evidence,just like everyone else.
    Like I said, I like you and your cause, but you really need to back off in this regarding Mr Farrell. In this case, he made a vague statement in a reply on a facebook page where the innocent until proven guilty/benefit of the doubt came in, and that is the right thing to do until there is evidence. He didn’t vociferously defend those people, and as soon as he had ANY evidence to the contrary, he totally copped to that, and admitted that his sources may not have been correct. He behaved in concert with the facts as they stood, all the exchange that you printed proves is that Michael Farris is a man of integrity. This is a non issue. Move on to something else, something where you have a point, where you don’t make yourself look petty, please.


  4. Tim Kroehler September 20, 2013 / 3:21 pm

    Also, the Twelve Tribes does not use “canes” for discipline. See the FAQ on our website. There is much more to the story. We do not abuse our children. Please check out for our response to this situation.


    • R.L. Stollar September 20, 2013 / 3:44 pm

      Tim —

      The film recorded the use of willow canes. It is on camera. Libby Anne’s article is a reference to the video evidence, as documented by the Independent.

      A senior member of the Twelve Tribes personally reiterated the “right to use the willow cane” himself merely 4 days ago: “As you’ll see from our website it’s a fundamental right to use the willow cane, it’s what we all believe.”


      • Tim Kroehler September 22, 2013 / 9:15 am

        I’ll check with Jonathan Stagg, a personal friend and the member who was quoted. I suspect it is a misquote, but I will ask. We have openly said on our website that we use a “reed-like rod” which is how Proverbs 23:13-14 reads in the Amplified Bible. Why not just say that. That is what I saw in the RTL video.


      • R.L. Stollar September 22, 2013 / 2:13 pm

        A “reed-like rod”… like a willow cane?


      • Tim Kroehler September 22, 2013 / 1:01 pm

        I wrote to Jonathan Stagg. He said the reporter was trying to draw him into making a statement, and Mr. Stagg never responded. He denies making that statement. He writes, “At no point did I say anything about using a ‘willow cane’, other than telling him the verses in the bible that talk about using the rod. He says that clearly in the next sentence, contradicting himself: ‘Mr. Stagg would not confirm if he or other members used the cane.'”

        This is a current example of how the press is reporting the truth about us, but changes things to make the story more sensational or popular. Our website explains our practices, which are based on the Bible Why not just quote our website. The website is consistent with what you can see in the RTL video, which was obtained by violating people’s privacy. (I don’t know why more people are not upset about that. Their bedrooms may be next.)


      • R.L. Stollar September 22, 2013 / 2:17 pm

        You are going on record that what you see in the RTL video is true and universal?

        Then you use willow canes.


  5. gwen September 21, 2013 / 2:02 pm

    The film that this reporter made was sensationalist, true, but even if you “subtract” the pomp and circumstance bits that are part of rtl’s culture, it was deeply disturbing. The whole vid (for those who know German) is on youtube, btw.


  6. gwen September 21, 2013 / 2:27 pm

    Part II: Germany introduced a ban on corporal punishment for children in 2000, because attitudes were changing. Ever since, German culture has changed dramatically – people do see it as violence and child abuse nowadays. Most Germans think the same way about homeschooling: isolating children in small closed systems where religious fanatics inbreed cripple them and make them unable to prosper (even survive) as a citizen in a democratic and pluralist society. So they will forever be dependent on the system they came from. Or work hard to overcome ptsd, Which can be seen in those defectors that were also interviewed in rtl’s film.


  7. gwen September 21, 2013 / 2:40 pm

    @TimKroehler: I hope the children find loving foster families and never ever have to go back to their abusers. If according to the cult a. “children need to be beaten in order to drive the devil out” and b. the “outside world is the devil”, then you don t have to be a master of logic to complete the syllogism in case the children are returned to their “parents” and “guardian”.


    • Tim Kroehler September 22, 2013 / 9:12 am

      @Gwen, have you looked at the children’s cards to their parents. I hope that there are judges that will look at the whole picture, not just a news clip from an illegal-obtained and sensationalist news show, before drawing a conclusion like the one you are advocating. These people you are calling so quickly calling “abusers” I know to be very loving and caring people, who love their children greatly. And their children love them, as you can read about in their cards. I have my doubts if any newspaper will even mention that in their story.

      I agreed with your second comment, however. That really is a key point. Corporal punishment has been a centuries-old parental act, but values have changed.


      • Jen Furst October 30, 2013 / 12:13 am

        Hey Tim. 🙂
        Man, I miss you guys. Hope everything is good. Wish I could see you all someday.


      • Tim Kroehler October 30, 2013 / 9:18 am

        Hi Jen, thanks for your kind words and expressing your convictions. Well said.

        Jen, I hate to even say this, considering the nice things you wrote, but what was your name in the community? I’m trying to place your name…


  8. gwen September 22, 2013 / 1:38 pm

    @Tim Kroehler
    Oh, I do not doubt that those misguided parents think they “love” their children. Their definition of love just is completely sick. Haven t you heard the testimonies of the defectors? A boy being waken up to beatings at 2 am every night, because he had started wetting his bed again (in his trauma reaction to the abuse by the community). Two former TT children telling about several beatings a day being the normal routine. And all defectors suffer from heavy PTSD as a result of this “love” and need intensive psychological care now!

    FYI, those testimonies resemble so much what you read by ex TT members from all around the world that not only they are highly believable, but also indicate that abuse is systemic in the Twelve Tribes. As to the postcards by the children: every psychologist will tell you that even sexually abused children will stand by their parents, because they have been programmed to think they “deserve what they get”, that “it is worse out there”, etc. And frankly, the lexicon and mindset that these rescued children possess and display in their postcards are unnatural and freaky enough to someone who is not TT. But, as psychologists also know, the iron grip of a cult’s programming may wear off, once children are exposed for some time to a non-violent environment. That is what the TT is so scared of at the moment, that the children might start discovering in their foster families: wait a minute, there are forms of love that do not try to break me, that do not hurt me, that let me be a child, not a “trained up” dog, that know mercy and respect of my human rights.

    You Mr Kroehler are in a state of denial, and I sincerely hope that one day you wake up and see what monster you have defended. Until then: May you never have children.


  9. gwen September 22, 2013 / 2:32 pm

    @TimKroehler: I forgot to reply to your reply to Comment II (“Corporal Punishment as a century-old parental act”).

    Let us remember that “corporal punishment” and the rape of wives was a century-old act and prerogative of husbands; that witch-burning was a century-old act by “Christian” communities; that “Negro” slavery was a century-old act of many Christian countries… But wait: did not Mr Spriggs, the founder of TT, say that slavery had been a “blessing for Blacks” and that “Martin Luther King deserved to be killed”? Yes, this community certainly has a great definition of Christian love.

    Just saying: cultural values change and with them interpretations of the Holy Scriptures (which are as much about human experience of God as God’s word). It is hard to justify why you do not marry a widow off to the husband’s brother, why you do not stone people to death, sacrifice your daughters on the altar like Jephta etc etc. But somehow those cults always lay great emphasis on the “biblical right” to abuse children. A fine selection of what should be taken literally, and what shouldn t. I would call it arbitrary if I did not suspect other motives…

    God has given us a brain, so we may study the world around us, conduct research and develop. One of those findings has been that beating children and “breaking them” will lead to long term damage, both for the individual victim and society. Let me reiterate: Most of the ex-TT members suffer from the after-effects of the way they were raised; the symptoms they display are not unlike those of torture victims from, say, Iran’s dungeons. Do you still not get it?


  10. Cassey October 1, 2013 / 1:04 am

    CHILD PUNISHMENT is frequent and painful for even the slightest attitude or foolishness.
    Corporal punishment may be applied by any adult member “with love.”
    “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 standard 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 1)
    “We must beat respect into our children. [Unraveling The Races Of Man][Twelve Tribes Teachings of Apostle Elbert Eugene Spriggs]


  11. Rivkah October 16, 2013 / 11:01 pm

    I would like to comment firsthand about my experiences with the Twelve Tribes.They genuinely love their children and God.They do not abuse their children and I’ve seen it firsthand. They are very good friends of mine and I hold them in high regards, especially when it comes to their children .We are definitely in a world where good is seen as evil,and evil is seen as good.Anyone who portrays these God-fearing people as Child abusers is totally stupid and perhaps does not see the grave state that our world is in if children are left to themselves.Anyone intelligent enough understands this.


  12. Jen Furst October 29, 2013 / 11:57 pm

    As Someone who lived 95% of their life in the TT, I can tell you that as a whole the kids are not abused. Maybe a few people have spanked in a manner that is wrong, but as a whole, they love their children more than anything. I know this for a fact. I was born and raised there and I was spanked a lot. It is normal. My grandparents spanked my parents a lot harder and with belts and things and they are main stream members of society. If you train a child when they are young with a few swats with a flexible reed, they will not have to be “trained” in prison when they are adults = which is what is happening in this society!!!
    I am no longer a part of the Twelve Tribes, but I am SO grateful for the good things I learned there.
    And Gwen… you are being hateful and mean to TimKroehler. He is an AMAZING god fearing man who I consider one of the best friend’s I have ever had. And let me tell you… If someone was truly abusing their child, he would be the first to intervene and turn that person over to justice.
    Let me repeat myself. A few light swats that sting for just a few moments, is NOT CHILD ABUSE.
    Taking kids and putting them in Strange Foster Homes where they can/probably will be really abused and sexually molested is the most Evil thing I can think of happening to those precious children.


  13. Jen Furst October 30, 2013 / 12:12 am

    @Cassey It’s interesting how people quote from writings that are 30 years old. If anyone bothered to look for the truth they would know that since those days, things have changed. I used to get a paddle in the 80’s… that is fine, it didn’t hurt me, taught me respect for authority, honesty and all those good things that have helped me be a good, law abiding citizen out here in the big bad world.
    For the past 20+ years, it has been the rule that the kids are only spanked with thin dry reeds by their parents or by select individuals who the parents give express authority to.
    The only time I was left with bruises was by my dad for being a little disrespectful brat to my mother.
    It’s amazing how the past 60 years has changed; suddenly the common sense, normal practices of life from the past 10000 years is so ‘terribly wrong’.
    It never ceases to amaze me how people ‘know so much better’ now days, yet crime and corruption has exploded worldwide since kids stopped having consequences and stopped being trained to respect authority and live within the confines of the law.
    I think it is worth noting that Elbert and Marsha never had kids. And from my decades of experience there, I can tell you, most of the parents never carried discipline so far as to violently beat their kids.
    Not saying everything is perfect and mistakes weren’t made, but all humans err. The bottom line, is there are so many lies out there, but only a sliver of truth is available.
    Maybe I should go on Dr Phil and set the record straight. 🙂


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