Snake handling in religion
Snake handling, also called serpent handling, is a religious rite observed in a small number of isolated churches, mostly in the United States, 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. Participants are Holiness, Pentecostals, Charismatics, or other evangelicals.
George Went Hensley (1880–1955) is often credited with introducing snake handling practices into the Church of God Holiness, an association of autonomous Christian Methodist congregations, founding the Dolly Pond Church of God in Birchwood, Tennessee, around 1910. He later traveled the Southeast promoting the practice, eventually resigning his ministry to start the first holiness movement church to require snake handling as evidence of salvation. If believers truly had the Holy Spirit within them, Hensley argued, they should be able to handle rattlesnakes and any number of other venomous serpents. They should also be able to drink poison and suffer no harm whatsoever. Snake handling as a test or demonstration of faith became popular wherever Hensley traveled and preached in the small towns of Tennessee, Kentucky, the Carolinas, Virginia, Ohio, and Indiana. Sister-churches later sprang up throughout the Appalachian region. In July 1955, Hensley died following a snakebite received during a service he was conducting in Altha, Florida.
Hensley's role in initiating the practice has been disputed by academic studies. Kimbrough notes that claims of Hensley being the originator of snake handling are usually found to be unsubstantiated by research, and the origins of the observance are unclear. Hood and Williamson similarly argue that the beginnings of Pentecostal snake handling rituals cannot be ascribed to a single person, and that the observance arose independently on multiple occasions.
However, historians agree that Hensley's advocacy, leadership, and particularly his personal charisma, were important factors in advancing the Pentecostal snake handling and spreading it throughout the southeast United States. Coverage of Hensley's ministry was influential in prompting various churches to include the practice in their services. The media has focused on popular snake handlers such as Hensley, and the deaths of ministers due to snakebite have received particular attention.
Modern snake handling pentocostalism is unconnected to ancient sects like the 2nd century Ophites. While the Ophites reportedly also handled snakes during their services, they also worshipped the serpent and held a Gnostic theology.
Most religious snake handlers are still found in the Appalachian Mountains and other parts of the southeastern United States, especially in Alabama, Mississippi, Georgia, Kentucky, North Carolina, Tennessee, West Virginia, and South Carolina. 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.
Ralph Hood, professor of social psychology and the psychology of religion at the University of Tennessee, who has studied the snake handling movement, indicated in 2003 that the practice is "currently at a fairly low ebb of popularity". A 2013 article by National Public Radio gave a figure of "about 125" churches where snakes are handled, but also indicated that "snake handlers are notoriously private".
Beliefs and practices
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)
And when they were escaped, then they knew that the island was called Melita. And the barbarous people shewed us no little kindness: for they kindled a fire, and received us every one, because of the present rain, and because of the cold. And when Paul had gathered a bundle of sticks, and laid them on the fire, there came a viper out of the heat, and fastened on his hand. And when the barbarians saw the venomous beast hang on his hand, they said among themselves, No doubt this man is a murderer, whom, though he hath escaped the sea, yet vengeance suffereth not to live. And he shook off the beast into the fire, and felt no harm. Howbeit they looked when he should have swollen, or fallen down dead suddenly: but after they had looked a great while, and saw no harm come to him, they changed their minds, and said that he was a god.
As in the early days, worshipers are still encouraged to lay hands on the sick, speak in tongues, provide testimony of miracles, and occasionally consume poisons such as strychnine. Those who die from snakebites are never criticized for lack of adequate faith; it is believed that it was simply the deceased's time to die.
All Appalachian states except West Virginia outlawed the snake-handling ritual when it first emerged. The states of Alabama, Kentucky, and Tennessee have passed laws against the use of venomous snakes or other reptiles that endangers the lives of others 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.
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 from a rattlesnake bite. However, the punishment was so severe that juries would refuse to convict, and the law was repealed in 1968. The American Civil Liberties Union has defended the religious freedom of snake handlers against various attempts to have the practice banned.
In 1992, Glen Summerford, a serpent-handling preacher, was convicted of attempted murder of his wife with a rattlesnake. In his book, Salvation on Sand Mountain, Dennis Covington, a journalist covering the Summerford trial, discusses his first-hand, investigative experiences at a snake-handling church in Appalachia. Because of their snake-handling beliefs, the congregation does not feel that Summerford should have been convicted.[page needed] They fully believe that adherents need to handle the snakes as a demonstration of their having the Holy Spirit within.[page needed] And, if they get bitten by the snake, then they lack the true Spirit.[page needed] Moreover, if they are bitten, then the congregation prays over them.[page needed] If they die, then God intended for that to happen.[page needed] This congregation did not care to put themselves in harm's way. Covington submerges himself into this congregation, and begins to care tremendously for their beliefs.[page needed] That then forms into caring for Summerford, himself.
In July 2008, ten 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 (FGTJN) in Middlesboro, Kentucky, was arrested and 74 snakes seized from his home as part of the sting.
Jamie Coots (son of Gregory Coots) was cited 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. Later in 2013, Coots published an op-ed in The Wall Street Journal making an argument for U.S. Constitutional protection regarding religious freedom, especially freedom to practice the unique variety of religion found in snake-handling churches. Coots died on 15 February 2014 from a snakebite.
The practice of snake handling in the United States, while illegal, is often not punished because of the incredibly small communities that practice this. Law enforcement is often related or close friends with those that practice so it remains an almost allowed practice.
The handling of venomous snakes has significant risks. Ralph Hood observes, "If you go to any serpent-handling church, you'll see people with atrophied hands, and missing fingers. All the serpent-handling families have suffered such things". Jamie Coots, a pastor who subsequently died from a snakebite, said, "Handlers get bitten all the time, and every few years someone dies".
Various figures for the total number of deaths from snakebite during religious services have been proposed:
- "over 100 documented deaths" (2003) by Ralph Hood
- "around 120" (2005) by Robert Winston.
- "about 100 deaths" (2013) by Julia Duin, a journalist who has covered snake handling churches and is writing a book on the subject.
- "91 documented snake bite deaths" (2015) by Paul Williamson, professor of psychology at Henderson State University and co-author of books with Ralph Hood.
Another source indicates that 35 people died between 1936 and 1973.
Hood also notes that the practice does not present a danger to observers. There is no documented case of a non-handling member being bitten by a serpent handled by another believer. Those who handle are consenting adults and as few as ten to fifteen percent of congregants handle the snakes in services. Children do not participate, and those not handling the serpents sit apart from the ritual as it proceeds.
A number of films and television programs have been made about religious snake handling.
- Holy Ghost People is a 1967 documentary by Peter Adair. It is about the service of a snake handling Pentecostal community in Scrabble Creek, West Virginia, United States. This documentary has entered the public domain and is available at the Internet Archive.
- Heaven Come Down is a 2006 television documentary film about some unusual worship practices of some Pentecostal Christians in Appalachia, including snake handling.
- Snake Salvation is a 2013 series produced by the National Geographic Channel, comprising 16 episodes in a reality television format. The show featured two modern snake-handling pastors and their congregations. The show's focus was on Jamie Coots, who subsequently died of a snakebite. The other featured pastor was Andrew Hamblin, pastor of the Tabernacle Church of God in LaFollette, Tennessee. Hamblin, a protégé of Coots, was worshiping at his mentor's church alongside Coots when the fatal snake bite occurred in February 2014.
- Them That Follow is a Sundance Film Nominee about a small Church and community that practices this religion. The film stars Walton Goggins.
- Alabama Snake is a 2020 HBO documentary which focuses on the 1991 attempted murder of Darlene Summerford by her husband, snake handling pastor Glenn Summerford.
Known snake-handling churches
- Old Rock House Holiness Church in Section (sometimes "Old" is omitted or "Rock House" written as a single word)
- East London Holiness Church, London
- Full Gospel Tabernacle in Jesus Name, Middlesboro
- Mossie Simpson Pentecostal Church, Jenson
- The first report of a death from a serpent bite occurred in 1922 at the Church of God Evangel.
- In 1955, George Went Hensley, the founder of modern snake handling in the Appalachian Mountains, died after being bitten by a rattlesnake during a service in Altha, Florida.
- In 1961, Columbia Chafin Hagerman died after being bitten by a timber rattlesnake during a service at the Church of the Lord Jesus, Jolo, West Virginia.
- In 1967, Jean Saylor, wife of a snake-handling preacher, died after being bitten by a rattlesnake in Bell County, Kentucky.
- In 1982, Rev John Holbrook died after being bitten by a rattlesnake during a service at the Lord Jesus Church in Jesus' Name in Mullensville, West Virginia.
- In 1983, Mack Ray Wolford died after being bitten by a timber rattlesnake during a service at the Lord Jesus Temple in Mile Branch, near Iaeger, West Virginia.
- In 1995, Melinda Brown of Parrottsville, Tennessee, died after being bitten by a timber rattlesnake during a service at the Full Gospel Tabernacle in Jesus Name in Middlesboro, Kentucky.
- In 1995, Kale Saylor (husband of Jean), a Pentecostal preacher, died after being bitten by a rattlesnake during a service at Crockett Saylor Pentecostal Church in Crockett, Kentucky.
- In 1997, Daril Colins died after being bitten by a snake during a service in Bell County, Kentucky.
- In 1998, John Wayne "Punkin" Brown (husband of Melinda), a snake-handling evangelist, died after being bitten by a timber rattlesnake during a service at the Rock House Holiness Church in rural northeastern Alabama.
- In 2004, Dwayne Long, a Pentecostal pastor, died after being bitten by a rattlesnake during a service in Jonesville, Virginia.
- In 2006, Linda Long died after being bitten by a timber rattlesnake during a service at East London Holiness Church, London, Kentucky.
- In 2012, Mark Randall "Mack" Wolford (son of Mack), a Pentecostal pastor, died after being bitten by a timber rattlesnake while officiating at an outdoor service at Panther Wildlife Management Area, West Virginia.
- In 2014, Jamie Coots died after being bitten by a timber rattlesnake during a service at the Full Gospel Tabernacle in Jesus Name in Middlesboro, Kentucky. Coots starred in the TV series Snake Salvation and his death was widely reported.
- In 2015, John Brock died after being bitten by a rattlesnake during a service at Mossie Simpson Pentecostal Church in Jenson, Kentucky.
In popular culture
- The seventh-season X-Files episode "Signs and Wonders" focuses on a snake-handling church in Tennessee.
- In 2013, during the fourth season of FX's Justified, actor Joseph Mazzello played Preacher Billy, a fearless snake handler, who hosted evangelical tent revivals in Harlan County, Kentucky.
- Gospel singer Wendy Bagwell's song "Here Come the Rattlesnakes" describes his Gospel band, Wendy Bagwell and the Sunliters, performing in a small, remote Kentucky church that practiced rattlesnake handling.
- The Simpsons character Moe Szyslak states "I was born a snake handler and I'll die a snake handler" but is non-observant, mostly to keep his father happy.
- In the Teenage Bounty Hunters episode "Our Ham is Good", the sisters investigate their mother's family history to a rural small town church, the Tabernacle Church of Christ the Redeemer, The Living God, and His Army, where one of the congregation's snakes died.
- In the 2012 comedy The Campaign (film), politician Cam Brady attends a snake handling church as part of his re-election campaign efforts.
- Encyclopedia of American Religions gives the year as 1909; the Encyclopedia of Religion in the South gives it as 1913.
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- Kimbrough 2002.
- See George Went Hensley#Death
- Kimbrough 2002, p. 191.
- Hood and Williamson 2008, p. 37.
- Hood and Williamson 2008, p. 38.
- Hill, Hood and Williamson 2005, p. 118.
- Hood and Williamson 2008, p. 41.
- Hood and Williamson 2008, p. 39.
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- Hill, Peter C.; Hood, Ralph W.; Williamson, William Paul (2005). The Psychology of Religious Fundamentalism. New York, New York: Guilford Press. ISBN 978-1-59385-150-7.
- Hood, Ralph W.; Williamson, William Paul (2008). Them That Believe: The Power and Meaning of the Christian Serpent-handling Tradition. Berkeley and Los Angeles, California: University of California Press. ISBN 978-0-520-25587-6.
- Kimbrough, David L. (2002). Taking Up Serpents: Snake Handlers of Eastern Kentucky. Macon, Georgia: Mercer University Press. ISBN 978-0-86554-798-8.
- Leonard, Bill J. (1999). "The Bible and Serpent Handling". In Williams, Peter W. (ed.). Perspectives on American Religion and Culture. Malden, Massachusetts: Wiley-Blackwell. ISBN 978-1-57718-118-7.
- Dennis Covington: Salvation on Sand Mountain: Snake Handling and Salvation in Southern Appalachia: New York: Penguin: 1996.
- Fred Brown and Jeanne MacDonald: The Serpent Handlers: Three Families and Their Faith: Winston-Salem: J.F.Blair: 2000.
- Weston La Barre: They shall take up serpents: The psychology of the Southern Snake Handling Cult: University of Minnesota Press: 1962.
- Jim Morrow and Ralph Hood: Handling Serpents: Pastor Jimmy Morrow's Narrative History of his Appalachian Jesus' Name Tradition: Macon: Mercer University Press: 2005.
- Pond, Lauren. 2017. Test of Faith: Signs, Serpents, Salvation. Duke University Press.
- Hood, Ralph W.; Williamson, William Paul (December 2004). "Differential Maintenance and Growth of Religious Organizations Based upon High-Cost Behaviors: Serpent Handling within the Church of God". Review of Religious Research. 46 (2): 150–68. doi:10.2307/3512230. JSTOR 3512230.
- Stephen Kane: "Ritual Possession in a Southern Appalachian Religious Sect" The Journal of American Folklore: 27:348 (October–December 1974): 293–302.
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- 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.
- Washington Post photo gallery
- University of Virginia article on serpent handlers
- Vice Magazine interview with Andrew Hamblin
- Chattanooga Times Free Press article on snake handlers
- MA thesis on Appalachian snake handling
- Ralph W. Hood and W. Paul Williamson Holiness Churches of Appalachia Recordings and Interviews