Snake handling or serpent handling is a religious ritual in a small number of Pentecostal churches in the U.S., usually characterized as rural and part of the Holiness movement. The practice began in the early 20th century in Appalachia. The practice plays only a small part of the church service of churches that practice snake handling. Practitioners believe serpent handling dates to antiquity and quote the Gospel of Mark and the Gospel of Luke to support the practice:
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. (Mark 16:17-18)
Behold, I give unto you power to tread on serpents and scorpions, and over all the power of the enemy: and nothing shall by any means hurt you. (Luke 10:19)
George Went Hensley (1880–1955) introduced snake handling practices into the Church of God (Cleveland, Tennessee), circa 1910. He later resigned his ministry and started the first holiness movement church to require snake handling as evidence of salvation. Sister-churches later sprang up throughout the Appalachian region.
However, many of the followers were brought into the movement in the late 19th century by charismatic traveling preachers who boasted of great miracles and allegedly demonstrated wonders. James Miller claimed to have received a Revelation from God to handle serpents and baptize in the Jesus Only formula of Acts 2:38 in the King James Bible. By the beginning of the 20th Century, snake handling had spread to Canada, where a small number of Canadians embraced the Mark 16 revelation.
Another key scripture used to support their belief is Acts 28:1-6, which tells that Paul was bitten by a venomous viper and suffered no harm.
Snake handlers today and practices 
As in the early days, worshipers are still encouraged to lay hands on the sick (cf. Faith healing), speak in tongues (cf. Glossolalia), provide testimony of miracles, and occasionally consume poisons such as strychnine. Gathering mainly in homes and converted buildings, they generally adhere to strict dress codes such as uncut hair, ankle-length dresses and no cosmetics for women, and short hair and long-sleeved shirts for men. Most snake handlers preach against any use of tobacco or alcohol.
Most religious snake handlers are still found in the Appalachian Mountains and other parts of the southeastern United States, especially in Alabama, Georgia, Kentucky, Tennessee, West Virginia, and Ohio. However, they are gaining greater recognition from news broadcasts, movies and books about the non-denominational movement.
In 2001 there were about 40 small churches that practiced snake handling, most of them considered to be holiness-Pentecostals or charismatics. In 2004 there were four snake handling congregations in the provinces of Alberta and British Columbia, Canada. Like their predecessors, they believe in a strict and literal interpretation of the Bible. Most Church of God with Signs Following churches are non-denominational, believing that denominations are 'man made' and carry the Mark of the Beast. Worshippers attend services several nights a week. Church services, if the Holy Spirit "intervenes", can last up to five hours; the minimum is usually ninety minutes.
Some of the leaders in these churches have been bitten numerous times, as indicated by their distorted extremities. Hensley himself, the founder of modern snake handling in the Appalachian Mountains, died from fatal snakebite in 1955. In 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. Members of his family contend that his death was probably due to a heart attack. However, his wife had died three years previously after being bitten while in Kentucky. Another snake handler died in 2006 at a church in Kentucky. In 2012, Pentecostal pastor and snake handler Mack Wolford died from a rattlesnake bite he had received while performing an outdoor service in West Virginia, as did his father in 1983.
In 1991, Glenn Summerford, pastor of The Church of Jesus Christ With Signs Following (in Scottsboro, Alabama), was arrested for the attempted murder of his wife, Darlene. Summerford, in a drunken rage, had put a gun to his wife's head, forced her to write out a purported suicide note and then forced her hand into a cage of rattlesnakes used in church services, until she was repeatedly bitten (his church condemned divorce, so he found it convenient to become a widower). She narrowly survived only because he soon fell into a drunken stupor and she was able to make her escape. He was convicted and sentenced to 99 years of prison.
The states of 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. The Kentucky law specifically mentions religious services; in Kentucky snake handling is a misdemeanor and punishable by a $50 to $250 fine. Most snake handling practices, therefore, take place in the homes of worshippers, which avoids the process of attempting to obtain a government permit for the church. Law enforcement officers usually ignore these religious practices unless and until they are specifically called in. This is not usually done unless a death has resulted from the practice.
In July 2008, 10 people were arrested and 125 venomous snakes were confiscated as part of an undercover sting operation titled "Twice Shy." Pastor Gregory James Coots of the Full Gospel Tabernacle in Jesus Name was arrested and 74 snakes were 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 Tabernacle church. Coots was cited again in 2013 for illegal possession and transportation of venomous snakes when three rattlesnakes and two copperheads were confiscated from his vehicle during a traffic stop in Knoxville, Tennessee.
The practice is legal in the state of West Virginia as the current state constitution does not allow any law to impede or promote a religious practice.
Snake handling was made a felony punishable by death under Georgia law in 1941, following the death of a seven-year-old girl from a rattlesnake bite. However, the punishment was so severe that juries would refuse to convict, and the law was repealed in 1968.
Snake handling churches 
In popular culture 
Robert Schenkkan's play The Handler deals with the apparent death of a first-time snake handler and the involvement of law enforcement; in this case, the sheriff also being a snake handler.
Ray Stevens's "Smoky Mountain Rattlesnake Retreat" comedically portrays a couple going to a Bible camp where snakes are passed around. It ends with the singer's wife stomping the rattlesnakes to death. It appears on his Surely You Joust album.
The second season of Saturday Night Live included a sit-com parody called The Snake-Handling O'Sheas.
The X Files episode "Signs and Wonders" deals heavily with snake handling.
In the fourth season episode of the television series The Simpsons, titled Homer the Heretic, the local bartender Moe Szyslak, when asked to join a different religion, declares, "I was born a Snake Handler, and I'll die a Snake Handler." He then displays his badly snakebitten and bandaged hands.
In the 2012 movie The Campaign, Congressman Cam Brady (Played by Will Ferrell) attempts to boost his campaign popularity by joining a church of Snake Handlers in their sermon, where he is bitten.
Whistle Down the Wind (musical) by Andrew Lloyd Weber and Jim Steinman features two characters who have traveled to town for a revival meeting that includes snake handling.
Season Four of the FX series Justified features a character named "Billy St. Cyr" a captivating snake handling preacher.
Singer Kate Campbell wrote the song "Signs Following" about snake handlers on Sand Mountain.
See also 
- Church of God with Signs Following
- Mark 16
- Heaven Come Down
- Holy Ghost People
- Nag Panchami
- Ophites, an early Christian heresy that venerated snakes
- David L. Kimbrough (February 2002). Taking up serpents: snake handlers of eastern Kentucky. Mercer University Press. pp. xiv, 37–51. ISBN 978-0-86554-798-8. Retrieved 26 June 2011.
- Encyclopedia of American Religions gives the year as 1909; the Encyclopedia of Religion in the South gives it as 1913.
- Anderson, Robert Mapes (1979). Vision of the Disinherited: The Making of American Pentecostalism. New York, New York; Oxford: Oxford University Press. p. 263.
- Hood, Jr., Ralph W.; Williamson, W. Paul (2008). Them That Believe: The Power and the Meaning of the Christian Serpent-Handling Tradition. Berkeley and Los Angeles, California: University of California Press. pp. xiv, 37, 38. ISBN 978-0-520-25587-6.
- Dennis Covington, Salvation on Sand Mountain: Snake Handling and Redemption in Southern Appalachia (Reading, Mass.: Addison-Wesley, 1995).
- Appalachian Essays.
- CNN 1999 Feb. 12
- USA Today, 2006 Nov. 8
- The Washington Post, 30 May 2012
- Thomas Burton, The Serpent and the Spirit: Glenn Summerford's Story (2004, Knoxville, Univ. of Tennessee Press).
- Woman Fatally Bitten by Snake in Church, Associated Press Nov. 8, 2006, at BreitBart.com.
- Alford, Roger (2008-07-12). "Pastor among suspects in illegal snake bust". Associated Press. Archived from the original on 2008-08-03. Retrieved 2008-07-12.
- Kentucky Pastor Wants Snakes Confiscated in Knoxville Bust," Knoxville News Sentinel, 13 February 2013. Retrieved: 13 February 2013.
- Bastress, Robert (1995). The West Virginia Constitution: A Reference Guide. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press. pp. 102–103. ISBN 0313274096.
- Ruthven, Malise (1989). The Divine Supermarket. London: Chatto & Windus. p. 291. ISBN 0-7011-3151-9.
- Mike Ford, "Should Christians Handle Snakes?." Forerunner, August 2003. Retrieved: 31 January 2008.
- "Kentucky Pastor Wants Snakes Confiscated in Knoxville Bust," Knoxville News Sentinel, 13 February 2013. Retrieved: 13 February 2013.
- Pastor Jimmy Morrow (2005). Handling Serpents. Mercer University Press. p. 8. ISBN 0-86554-848-X.
- Bob Smietana, "Snake-Handling Believers Find Joy in Test of Faith," The Tennessean, 3 June 2012. Retrieved: 3 June 2012.
- Serpent Handling at Jolo, West Virginia and the Legitimacy of the Marcan Appendix. Appalachian State University. Retrieved on 2008-10-29.
- SNL Transcripts: September 25, 1976
Further reading 
- Ralph W. Hood, Jr. and W. Paul Williamson, Them That Believe: The Power and Meaning of the Christian Serpent-Handling Tradition (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2008).
- Dennis Covington: Salvation on Sand Mountain: Snake Handling and Salvation in Southern Appalachia: New York: Penguin: 1996.
- Thomas Burton: Serpent Handling Believers: Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press: 1993.
- Fred Brown and Jeanne MacDonald: The Serpent Handlers: Three Families and Their Faith: Winston-Salem: J.F.Blair: 2000.
- Weston LaBarre: They shall take up serpents: The psychology of the Southern Snake Handling Cult: University of Minnesota Press: 1962.
- David Kinburgh: Taking Up Serpents: Snake Handlers of Eastern Kentucky: Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press: 1996.
- Jim Morrow and Ralph Hood: Handling Serpents: Pastor Jimmy Morrow's Narrative History of his Appalachian Jesus' Name Tradition: Macon: Mercer University Press: 2005.
- Ralph Hood and David Kimbrough: "Serpent Handling Pentecostal Sects: Theoretical Considerations" Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion: 34:3: (September 1995): 311-332
- Stephen Kane: "Ritual Possession in a Southern Appalachian Religious Sect" The Journal of American Folklore: 27:348 (October-December 1974): 293-302.
- Paul Williamson and Ralph Hood Jr: "Differential Maintenance and Growth of Religious Organisations Based on High-Cost Behaviours: Serpent Handling with the Church of God" Review of Religious Research: 46:2 (December 2004): 150-168.
- Paul W. Williamson and Howard R. Pollo: "The Phenomenology of Religious Serpent Handling: A Rationale and Thematic Study of Extemporaneous Sermons" Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion: 38:2 (June 1999): 203-218.
- Shelton, Steve (June 28, 1996). "Taking up serpents". Augusta Chronicle.
- Handwerk, Brian (April 7, 2003). "Snake Handlers Hang On in Appalachian Churches". National Geographic News.
- University of Virginia article on serpent handlers
- Why do we believe in God?, Robert Winston, The Guardian, Thursday October 13, 2005, an article describing snake handling