Church of God with Signs Following
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The Church of God with Signs Following and The Church of Lord Jesus with Signs Following are the name applied to Pentecostal Holiness churches that practice snake handling and drinking poison in worship services, based on an interpretation of the following biblical passage:
"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,"
Each church body is independent and autonomous, and the denominational name is not consistent in all areas, although it is almost always some variation of the name "Church of God" (Trinitarian) or "Church of (Lord) Jesus" (Non-Trinitarian).
The exact membership is unknown, and has recently been estimated as low as 1,000 and as high as 5,000 with possibly fifty to a hundred congregations. According to the Encyclopedia of American Religions, churches "can be found from central Florida to West Virginia and as far west as Columbus, Ohio." The snake-handling sect of beliefs and practices go as far as to cross the border into Western Canada in 2004 to Lethbridge and Edmonton, Alberta.
The practice of handling snakes has been made illegal in a number of states. In Tennessee, it is illegal to display any venomous reptile in a manner that endangers anyone. Alabama has a similar statute. In Kentucky, it is illegal to display any reptile at a religious ceremony. Prosecutions, however, are rare.
The Church of God with Signs Following
The practice of snake-handling first appeared in American Christianity around 1910 and was associated with the ministry of George Went Hensley of Grasshopper Valley in southeastern Tennessee. Hensley was a minister of the Church of God, now known as the Church of God (Cleveland), founded by Richard Spurling and A. J. Tomlinson. In the 1920s, the Church of God repudiated the practice of snake-handling, and Hensley and his followers formed a separate Trinitarian body.
The Church of Lord Jesus with Signs Following
Serpent-handling in north Alabama and north Georgia originated with James Miller in Sand Mountain, Alabama at about the same time. Miller apparently developed his belief independently of any knowledge of Hensley's ministry. This section of the snake-handling churches is non-Trinitarian, and is broadly known as the Church of Lord Jesus with Signs Following. This version dominates snake-handling churches north of the Appalachians.
Beliefs and practices
Worship services usually include singing, praying, speaking in tongues and preaching. The front of the church, behind the pulpit, is the designated area for handling snakes. Rattlesnakes, cottonmouths, and copperheads (venomous snakes native to North America) are the most common, but even cobras have been used. During the service, believers may approach the front and pick up the snakes, usually raising them into the air and sometimes allowing the snakes to crawl on their bodies. The snakes are considered incarnations of demons, and handling the snakes demonstrates one's power over them. Members are not required to handle the snakes. Some believers will also engage in drinking poison (most commonly strychnine) at this time.
Over sixty cases of death as the result of snakebites in religious worship services have been documented in the United States. If a handler is bitten, it is generally interpreted as a lack of faith or failure to follow the leadership of the Holy Spirit. But individual incidents may actually be understood in a variety of ways. Bitten believers usually do not seek medical help, but look to God for their healing. Beginning in 1936, six southeastern states outlawed snake-handling. George Went Hensley died in Florida in 1955 from a venomous snakebite.
In other areas of belief, the Church of God with Signs Following holds doctrines and practices similar to related Church of God and Oneness Pentecostal bodies. They maintain a strict teaching of standards of holiness in daily living, baptism in the Holy Spirit, divine healing, water baptism, and footwashing. They also stress Romans 16:16 - "Salute another with a Holy Kiss."
Believers generally adhere to strict dress codes such as uncut hair, no cosmetics, the wearing of ankle-length dresses with pantyhose for women, and short hair and long-sleeved shirts for men. Most ministers preach against any use of all types of tobacco and alcohol.
The distinctive practice of these churches is variously known as serpent-handling, snake-handling, and taking up serpents. Many people consider snake-handling to be a part of uneducated folk religion, however, churches who practice snake handling claim their scriptural mandate from the Gospel of Mark 16:9-20. Curiously, this passage is arguably a later addition to Mark, and is footnoted as such in most well known translations of the Bible. Even those denominations who affirm this passage as canonical do not interpret the passage as a call to handle serpents; they regard snake handling as the grave error of "tempting God" and the passage as a statement of signs demonstrating Paul's apostleship (cf. Acts 28:3-6).
- Encyclopedia of American Religions gives the year as 1909; the Encyclopedia of Religion in the South gives it as 1913.
- American Originals: Homemade Varieties of Christianity (1997), by Paul K. Conkin
- Appalachian Mountain Religion: A History, by Deborah Vansau McCauley ISBN 0-252-02129-0
- Encyclopedia of American Religions (1996), J. Gordon Melton, editor
- Foxfire 7, Paul F. Gillespie, editor ISBN 0-385-15244-2
- Salvation on Sand Mountain: Snake-Handling and Redemption in Southern Appalachia, by Dennis Covington ISBN 0-14-025458-7
- Serpent-Handling Believers, by Thomas Burton ISBN 0-87049-788-X
- Snake Handlers: God Fearers or Fanatics?, by Robert W. Pelton & Karen W. Carden
- Taking Up Serpents: A History of Snake Handling, by David Kimbrough ISBN 0-86554-798-X
- The Serpent and the Spirit by Thomas Burton, University of Tennessee Press.
- The Serpent Handlers: Three Families and Their Faith by Fred Brown and Jeanne McDonald ISBN 0-89587-191-2