Snake Handling: Seeking God Amongst the Serpents
And these signs shall follow them that believe; In my name shall they cast out devils; they shall speak with new tongues; They shall take up serpents; and if they drink any deadly thing, it shall not hurt them; they shall lay hands on the sick, and they shall recover.
For snake-handling churches across the US and Canada, these verses are not purely symbolic, but are considered the actual words of God.
Like other Christian fundamentalist groups whose beliefs are rooted in a literal interpretation of the Holy Scriptures, these passages have inspired believers for over a century to handle poisonous snakes in the name of God.
Snake handling (or serpent handling), is a religious ritual practiced today in a small number of Pentecostal churches of the US (predominantly but not limited to Alabama, Georgia, Kentucky, Tennessee, West Virginia, and Ohio) and a few areas of Canada, that first became popularized in the early 20th century in remote areas of the Appalachian Mountain region, which then spread to regional coal mining towns.
(Practitioners, or self-described “sign-followers,” prefer the term “serpent-handling” to “snake-handling” noting that they incorporate poisonous reptiles, not common snakes, into religious worship.)
Though snake handling plays only a small part in the religious services of such churches, the fact that followers routinely handle rattlesnakes, copperheads, water moccasins and other highly venomous snakes, has come to define them and their religion. And while always controversial, and in many areas illegal, the practice of snake handling shows no signs of disappearing from the traditional Appalachian landscape.
Traced to the late 19th century, the practice of snake handling is most often attributed to George Went Hensley (1880–1955), a preacher forced to leave the Church of God (Cleveland, Tennessee) when Church officials caught him taking part in snake handling rituals. Hensley subsequently established the first official “holiness movement” church dedicated to snake handling in the 1920s.
Many later followers of the movement are said to have been brought into the belief through traveling, charismatic preachers of the era like James Miller who boasted of great spiritual wonders and is said to have demonstrated miracles. Miller (said to have not heard of Hensley's ministry), claimed he received a revelation from God, directing him handle snakes. By the beginning of the 20th century, snake handling had spread into Canada where a handful of followers embraced the Biblical references (current numbers are unknown).
As Junior G. McCormick, a modern serpent-handling pastor from Georgia explains in a recent National Geographic interview, “Handling snakes is simply following the gospel to the letter. Other folks don't do this because their churches don't believe, or it's just something they're scared of. They come to that scripture [in the Bible] but want to jump over that part because it's a deadly thing." Bitten 14 times himself by rattlesnakes, copperheads, and water moccasins, McCormick claims to have never resorted to antivenom—relying solely on Jesus. “I've been bitten badly, but I'll go back the next week and take them [serpents] out again."
With many families of the Appalachian Mountains having now followed the snake handling, “sign-following” tradition for several generations, holiness movement churches continue to survive and grow not by attracting new members, but through enduring, steadfast family dedication. While there are reportedly a small number of new converts, churches generally maintain themselves through these established families, and by people subsequently marrying into the tradition.
As might be expected, churches that continue the snake handling tradition tend to shun publicity. Even so, this non-denominational movement is gaining steady recognition from news broadcasts, movies, and books, and was even the subject of an episode of the famously popular, X-Files. Numerous demonstrations of snake handling can now be viewed on the Internet.
A common misconception from outsiders is that snake handlers believe they won’t be bitten, and can’t be hurt. But while believers defend their tradition with Bible scripture, they do not interpret it to mean they will not be bitten. The issue is obedience to God, and if they're bitten--that's God’s decision. They know that in reality many families have had members hurt and even killed by handling poisonous snakes, and among the snake-handlers of the churches, people with atrophied hands and missing fingers make the dangers evident.
As historic records show, many leaders of snake handling churches have been bitten throughout the past century. As recently as 1998, snake-handling evangelist John Wayne "Punkin" Brown died after being bitten by a timber rattler at the Rock House Holiness Church in rural northeastern Alabama. (His wife had died three years before after a snake bit her in Kentucky.) Another follower of the same Kentucky church died in 2006. In fact, all toll, there have been over 100 documented deaths from serpent bites, attributed to the snake handler tradition.
The popularity of snake handling has waxed and waned through the years, and is reportedly at a fairly low ebb of popularity currently. But the perception that communities that practice serpent-handling church services are poor, isolated rural areas is simply no longer accurate, according to scholars. It has entered mainstream in some unexpected locations.
As in the early days of the movement, snake handlers today are still encouraged to lay hands on the sick, speak in tongues, provide testimony of miracles, and occasionally consume poisons such as strychnine. Gathering mainly in homes and converted buildings so as not to draw attention to what is often illegal activity, they generally adhere to a strict religious doctrine of dress code whereby women must sport uncut hair, ankle-length dresses, and no cosmetics, while men wear short hair and long-sleeved shirts. Most snake handlers preach against the use of all types of tobacco and alcohol.
In 2001 there were about 40 known small churches in the US that practiced snake handling, most considered to be holiness-Pentecostals or charismatics.
Alabama, Kentucky, and Tennessee have passed laws against the use of venomous snakes and/or other reptiles in a place that endangers the lives of others, or without a permit; however, the practice is legal in the state of West Virginia. Kentucky law specifically mentions religious services, with snake handling a misdemeanor and punishable by a $50 to $250 fine. (Thus, most snake handling practices take place in the homes of worshippers, which avoids the process of attempting to obtain a government permit for the church.) Snake handling was made a felony punishable by death under Georgia law in 1941 following the death of a seven-year-old girl by a rattlesnake bite in a snake handling incident. However, the severity of the punishment was such that juries would never convict, and the law was repealed in 1968. In most states, law enforcement officers usually ignore these religious practices until they are specifically called in, which seldom occurs unless a death has already taken place.
In July of 2008, 10 people were arrested and 125 venomous snakes confiscated as part of an undercover sting operation titled "Twice Shy." Pastor Gregory James Coots of the Full Gospel Tabernacle in Jesus Name in Tennessee was arrested and 74 snakes seized from his home as part of the sting. A Tennessee woman died in 1995 due to a rattlesnake bite received during a service at the Full Gospel Tabernacle church.
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