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, and plays only a small part in the church service. 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)
Another scripture used to support snake handlers' belief is Acts 28:1-6, which relates that Paul was bitten by a venomous viper and suffered no harm.
George Went Hensley (1880–1955) introduced snake handling practices into the Church of God Holiness, 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.
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, snake handlers 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 due to news broadcasts, movies, and books about the non-denominational movement.
In 2001 about 40 small churches 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, today's snake handlers believe in a strict and literal interpretation of the Bible, and most Church of God with Signs Following churches are non-denominational, believing that denominations are human-made and carry the Mark of the Beast. Worshipers attend services several nights a week, where if the Holy Spirit "intervenes", services 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 of a snakebite in 1955. In 1998, snake-handling evangelist John Wayne "Punkin" Brown died after being bitten by a timber rattlesnake at the Rock House Holiness Church in rural northeastern Alabama. While members of his family contend that his death was probably due to a heart attack, Brown's wife had died three years earlier after being bitten in Kentucky. Another snake handler died in 2006 at a church in Kentucky. In 2012, Pentecostal Pastor Mack Wolford died of a rattlesnake bite sustained while officiating at an outdoor service in West Virginia, as did his father in 1983.
Herpetologists have opined that the risk of fatal bites is significantly reduced by the familiarity of the snakes with humans, and by the poor health of snakes that are insufficiently fed and watered.
The states of Alabama, Kentucky, and Tennessee have passed laws against the use of venomous snakes and/or other reptiles 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 $100 fine. Most snake handling, therefore, takes place in the homes of worshipers, which circumvents the process of attempting to obtain a government permit for the practice. Law enforcement usually ignores it unless and until they are specifically called in, which does not usually happen unless a death has resulted.
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 (father of Jamie Coots, who would later be featured in a National Geographic Channel program, Snake Salvation, on the practice) 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 sustained during a service at the FGTJN church. Coots was cited again in 2013 for illegal possession and transportation of venomous snakes when three rattlesnakes and two copperheads were discovered in his vehicle during a vehicle check in Knoxville, Tennessee.
Snake handling is legal in the state of West Virginia, as the current state constitution does not allow any law to impede upon nor 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 of a rattlesnake bite. However, the punishment was so severe that juries would refuse to convict, and the law was repealed in 1968.
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 sitcom parody called The Snake-Handling O'Sheas.
- 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 1991 movie Cape Fear, the character Max Cady (played by Robert De Niro) comes from a family of snake handlers.
- In several scenes of the 1994 music video for her song God, Tori Amos participates in snake handling during a church service.
- Gina B. Nahai's third novel, Sunday's Silence, tells the story of Adam Watkins, the illegitimate son of little Sam Jenkins, founder of the snake-handling Holiness sect in Appalachia.
- 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 by Andrew Lloyd Webber 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. Billy dies from bites inflicted by a rattlesnake, not realizing that the bites he had previously survived were from rattlesnakes that had been milked by his sister, without his knowledge.
- Singer Kate Campbell wrote the song "Signs Following" about snake handlers on Sand Mountain.
- Snake Salvation, a 2013 program produced by the National Geographic Channel, features modern snake-handlers. (The show specifically features the lives of Jamie Coots, pastor of the Full Gospel Tabernacle in Jesus Name in Middlesboro, Kentucky, and Andrew Hamblin, pastor of the Tabernacle Church of God in LaFollette, Tennessee.)
- The Snake Woman of Little Egypt, a 2010 novel by Robert Hellenga.
- Church of God with Signs Following
- Mark 16
- Heaven Come Down
- Holy Ghost People
- Nag Panchami
- Ophites, an early Christian Gnostic sect that handled 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, MA.: Addison-Wesley, 1995).
- Appalachian Essays.
- CNN 1999 Feb. 12
- USA Today, 2006 Nov. 8
- Washington Post, 30 May 2012
- John Burnett (2013-10-18). "Serpent Experts Try To Demystify Pentecostal Snake Handling". National Public Radio.
- 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
- 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.
- Julia Duin, "Serpent-handling pastor profiled earlier in Washington Post dies from snakebite," The Washington Post, May 29, 2012.
- Duin: "Death of snake-handling preacher shines light on lethal Appalachian tradition," CNN.com, June 2, 2012
- Duin: "Reviving faith by taking up serpents," The Wall Street Journal, April 7, 2012
- 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