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Grooming the grounds for a Bar Mitzvah/Baptism, Twelve Tribes Community, Basin Farm, Bellows Falls, Vermont, from the series "Sweet Earth: Experimental Utopias in America"

A work made of chromogenic print.

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  • A work made of chromogenic print.


June 2005


Joel Sternfeld
American, born 1944

About this artwork


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Photography and Media


Joel Sternfeld


Grooming the grounds for a Bar Mitzvah/Baptism, Twelve Tribes Community, Basin Farm, Bellows Falls, Vermont, from the series "Sweet Earth: Experimental Utopias in America"


United States (Artist's nationality:)

Date  Dates are not always precisely known, but the Art Institute strives to present this information as consistently and legibly as possible. Dates may be represented as a range that spans decades, centuries, dynasties, or periods and may include qualifiers such as c. (circa) or BCE.

Made 2005


Chromogenic print


No markings recto or verso Twelve Tribes is a religious group that believes it is “the restoration of the Messianic Jewish New Testament Community of the first century A.D.” Members adhere as closely as possible to both the Old and New Testaments of the Bible: immediately after a boy is bar mitzvahed at Basin Farm, he is baptized in the nearby Saxton’s River. Founded in Tennessee in the early 1970s, the group’s modern history began in 1977, when several hundred members moved to the small northern Vermont town of Island Pond and took the official name Northeast Kingdom Community Church. Opposition occurred almost immediately. At the center of the controversy surrounding the group, which now has about twenty-five hundred members in nine countries, is their belief in the corporal punishment of children. Spanking is considered God’s remedy for disobedience, and when necessary it should be administered with a thin wooden dowel, producing a stinging sensation in the admonished child, who should not cry and who should, upon completion of the process, thank the disciplining parent. Allegations of child abuse first surfaced in the early 1980s when a former member, Juan Mattatall, sought custody of his five children, who remained in the group with their mother. Despite substantial evidence of his pedophilia, Mattatall won the case. The children then spent much of their childhood in orphanages and foster homes, as their father was charged with sex crimes. His life ended in 1990 when his mother shot and killed him in order to stop the grief he was causing. In June 1984, state troopers raided members’ houses at Island Pond, seizing 112 children. When the matter came to court and no evidence of abuse was found, the children were returned to their parents. These occurrences and one or two other custody battles have created an environment of suspicion that plagues the Twelve Tribes Community around the world. Referring to the Mattatall case, the Religious Movements Project of the University of Virginia found it to be a demonstration of what can happen when raw fear, personal animosity and prejudice toward unconventional religious groups is allowed to run roughshod over law, religious tolerance and reason. Finding “unequivocal evidence of a campaign to manufacture and disseminate misinformation about the group,” the Project notes that almost every new religion experiences some level of conflict with the larger society. “How they balance the tension between their unique message and the suspicions of the broader culture will play a large role in determining whether they survive beyond a first generation of believers.” From the portfolio, Sweet Earth: Experimental Utopias in America, 1982–2005


Image: 26.5 × 33.2 cm (10 7/16 × 13 1/8 in.); Paper: 27.9 × 35.4 cm (11 × 13 15/16 in.)

Credit Line

Gift of Ralph and Nancy Segall

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