Snake handling in religion

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Snake handling at the Church of God with Signs Following at Lejunior in Harlan County, Kentucky, 15 September 1946 (NARA). Photo by Russell Lee.

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.[1][2] 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.[3][4] 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.[5] In July 1955, Hensley died following a snakebite received during a service he was conducting in Altha, Florida.[6]

Hensley's role in initiating the practice has been disputed by academic studies.[7] 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.[7] Hood and Williamson similarly argue that the beginnings of Pentecostal snake handling rituals cannot be ascribed to a single person,[8] and that the observance arose independently on multiple occasions.[9]

However, historians agree that Hensley's advocacy, leadership, and particularly his personal charisma, were important factors in advancing the Pentecostal snake handling[10] and spreading it throughout the southeast United States.[9] Coverage of Hensley's ministry was influential in prompting various churches to include the practice in their services.[11] The media has focused on popular snake handlers such as Hensley, and the deaths of ministers due to snakebite have received particular attention.[12]

Modern snake handling pentocostalism is unconnected to ancient sects like the 2nd century Ophites. While the Ophites reportedly also handled snakes during their services,[13] they also worshipped the serpent and held a Gnostic theology.[14]


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.[15]

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".[16] 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".[17]

Beliefs and practices[edit]

Practitioners believe serpent handling dates to antiquity and quote the Gospel of Mark (chapter 16) 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 passage from the New Testament used to support snake handlers' beliefs is Acts 28:1–6, which relates that Paul was bitten by a venomous viper and suffered no harm:

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.[18] 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.[19]

Legal issues[edit]

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.[20]

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.[21] 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.[22] The American Civil Liberties Union has defended the religious freedom of snake handlers against various attempts to have the practice banned.[23]

In 1992, Glen Summerford, a serpent-handling preacher, was convicted of attempted murder of his wife with a rattlesnake.[24][25] 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.[26]

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.[27]

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.[28] 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.[29] Coots died on 15 February 2014 from a snakebite.[30]

Andrew Hamblin, who appeared alongside Jamie Coots in Snake Salvation, was cited for having dangerous wildlife in 2014, but a grand jury declined to indict him.[31]

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.[citation needed]


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".[16] Jamie Coots, a pastor who subsequently died from a snakebite, said, "Handlers get bitten all the time, and every few years someone dies".[32]

Various figures for the total number of deaths from snakebite during religious services have been proposed:

  • "over 100 documented deaths" (2003) by Ralph Hood[16]
  • "around 120" (2005) by Robert Winston.[2]
  • "about 100 deaths" (2013) by Julia Duin, a journalist who has covered snake handling churches and is writing a book on the subject.[33]
  • "91 documented snake bite deaths" (2015) by Paul Williamson, professor of psychology at Henderson State University and co-author of books with Ralph Hood.[34]

Another source indicates that 35 people died between 1936 and 1973.[35]

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.[36] Those who handle are consenting adults and as few as ten to fifteen percent of congregants handle the snakes in services.[citation needed] Children do not participate,[citation needed] and those not handling the serpents sit apart from the ritual as it proceeds.[citation needed]

Media coverage[edit]

Snake handling in the Holy Ghost People documentary

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.[37] 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.[38]
  • 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.[39]

Known snake-handling churches[edit]


  • Old Rock House Holiness Church in Section (sometimes "Old" is omitted or "Rock House" written as a single word)[24][40][41]




North Carolina

South Carolina


West Virginia


In popular culture[edit]

  • 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,[76] a fearless snake handler, who hosted evangelical tent revivals in Harlan County, Kentucky.[76]
  • 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.[77][78]
  • The Simpsons character Moe Szyslak states "I was born a snake handler and I'll die a snake handler"[79] but is non-observant, mostly to keep his father happy.[80]
  • 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.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Encyclopedia of American Religions gives the year as 1909; the Encyclopedia of Religion in the South gives it as 1913.
  2. ^ a b c "Robert Winston: Why do we believe in God?". 13 October 2005.
  3. ^ Anderson, Robert Mapes (1979). Vision of the Disinherited: The Making of American Pentecostalism. New York, New York; Oxford: Oxford University Press. p. 263.
  4. ^ 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.
  5. ^ Kimbrough 2002.
  6. ^ See George Went Hensley#Death
  7. ^ a b Kimbrough 2002, p. 191.
  8. ^ Hood and Williamson 2008, p. 37.
  9. ^ a b Hood and Williamson 2008, p. 38.
  10. ^ Hill, Hood and Williamson 2005, p. 118.
  11. ^ Hood and Williamson 2008, p. 41.
  12. ^ Hood and Williamson 2008, p. 39.
  13. ^ Joseph Campbell & M. J. Abadie (1981). The Mythic Image. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, p. 296.
  14. ^ Tuomas Rasimus (2007). "The Serpent in Gnostic and Related Texts". In Painchaud, Louis; Poirier, Paul-Hubert (eds.). L'Évangile selon Thomas et les textes de Nag Hammadi: Colloque International. Presses Université Laval, p. 804.
  15. ^ Eason, Cassandra (1 January 2008). Fabulous Creatures, Mythical Monsters, and Animal Power Symbols: A Handbook. Greenwood Publishing Group. ISBN 9780275994259 – via Google Books.
  16. ^ a b c Handwerk, Brian (7 April 2003). "Snake Handlers Hang On in Appalachian Churches". National Geographic News.
  17. ^ "Snake-Handling Preachers Open Up About 'Takin' Up Serpents'".
  18. ^ Dennis Covington, Salvation on Sand Mountain: Snake Handling and Redemption in Southern Appalachia (Reading, MA.: Addison-Wesley, 1995).
  19. ^ Duin, Julia. "In WVA, Snake Handling is still considered a sign of faith". Washington Post. Retrieved 11 August 2014.
  20. ^
  21. ^ Bastress, Robert (1995). The West Virginia Constitution: A Reference Guide. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press. pp. 102–103. ISBN 0313274096.
  22. ^ Ruthven, Malise (1989). The Divine Supermarket. London: Chatto & Windus. p. 291. ISBN 0-7011-3151-9.
  23. ^ Burton, Thomas (1993). Serpent-Handling Believers. Knoxville, Tennessee: University of Tennessee Press.
  24. ^ a b "Snake Kills Evangelist - HiddenMysteries Spiritual Studies".
  25. ^ a b "history of snake handling". Retrieved 30 July 2014.
  26. ^ Covington, Dennis (1995). Salvation on Sand Mountain. Cambridge, MA: Da Capo Press.
  27. ^ a b Alford, Roger (12 July 2008). "Pastor among suspects in illegal snake bust". Associated Press. Archived from the original on 3 August 2008. Retrieved 12 July 2008.
  28. ^ a b "Kentucky Pastor Wants Snakes Confiscated in Knoxville Bust". Knoxville News Sentinel. 13 February 2013. Retrieved 13 February 2013.
  29. ^ Coots, Jamie (3 October 2013). "The Constitution Protects My Snake-Handling" – via Wall Street Journal.
  30. ^ "Pastor Dies After Snake He Was Handling Bit Him,", 16 February 2014.
  31. ^ a b staff, WATE (8 January 2014). "Grand jury declines to indict Campbell County preacher in snake handling case".
  32. ^ John Burnett (18 October 2013). "Serpent Experts Try To Demystify Pentecostal Snake Handling". National Public Radio.
  33. ^ "'Snake Salvation': Inside the World of Christian Serpent Handlers". The Wall Street Journal. 10 September 2013. Retrieved 23 April 2016.
  34. ^ "Despite pastor's death, followers are still handling snakes".
  35. ^ a b c "Should Christians Handle Snakes?".
  36. ^ Hood, Ralph W. "Them that Believe: The Power and Meaning of the Serpent-Handling Tradition". Retrieved 11 August 2014.
  37. ^ "National Geographic TV Shows, Specials & Documentaries". National Geographic Channel.
  38. ^ a b "Snakebite death of Middlesboro pastor was quick, son says; medical treatment refused".
  39. ^ Schager, Nick (7 December 2020). "The Appalachian Preacher Who Tried to Murder His Wife via Snake Bite". The Daily Beast. Retrieved 8 December 2020.
  40. ^ "Pastor Billy Summerford in Section". Encyclopedia of Alabama.
  41. ^ Mike Ford, "Should Christians Handle Snakes?." Forerunner, August 2003. Retrieved: 31 January 2008.
  42. ^ Shelton, Steve (28 June 1996). "Taking up serpents". Augusta Chronicle.
  43. ^ "Jolo Journal; When the Faithful Tempt the Serpent". The New York Times. 11 September 1992.
  44. ^ a b "Woman fatally bitten by snake in church". USA Today. Associated Press. 8 November 2006. Retrieved 13 January 2014.
  45. ^ a b "Kentucky man dies after snake bite during church service".
  46. ^ a b "Custody of 'snake-bite orphans' split between grandparents". CNN. 12 February 1999. Retrieved 13 January 2014.
  47. ^ Pastor Jimmy Morrow (2005). Handling Serpents. Mercer University Press. p. 8. ISBN 0-86554-848-X.
  48. ^ Duin, Julia (7 April 2012). "Reviving Faith by 'Taking Up Serpents'" – via Wall Street Journal.
  49. ^ Smietana, Bob (3 June 2012). "Snake-Handling Believers Find Joy in Test of Faith". The Tennessean. Retrieved 3 June 2012.
  50. ^ a b Duin, Julia (18 October 2011). "In W.Va., snake handling is still considered a sign of faith". Washington Post.
  51. ^ Dorgan, Howard. "Serpent Handling at Jolo, West Virginia and the Legitimacy of the Marcan Appendix". Appalachian State University. Archived from the original on 8 September 2006. Retrieved 29 October 2008.
  52. ^ "Death of snake handling preacher shines light on lethal Appalachian tradition".
  53. ^ Times–News staff (27 July 1955). "Faith Remains Despite Fatal Bite of Chief". Times–News. Hendersonville, North Carolina. p. 3. Retrieved 2 February 2012.
  54. ^ Brown, Joi. "Snake Handling in the Pentecostal Church: The Precedent Set by George Hensley". Virginia Tech. Archived from the original on 18 July 2005. Retrieved 13 January 2014.
  55. ^ "Faith strong at service for snake handlers - Lubbock Online - Lubbock Avalanche-Journal". Archived from the original on 12 May 2016.
  56. ^ a b c "Man dies after being bitten while handling snake during Bell County church service".
  57. ^ "Lakeland Ledger - Google News Archive Search".
  58. ^ "Chicago Tribune - Historical Newspapers". Chicago Tribune.
  59. ^ a b "Web Extra: 1983 Daily Telegraph story detailing the death of Wolford's father, also from a snake bite". Bluefield Daily Telegraph. 30 August 1983. Retrieved 12 June 2012.
  60. ^ Mathews, Garret (3 April 1983). "'Praise-the-Lord-and-pass-the-snake' service is a trip, if you can handle it". The Chicago Tribune. p. J3. Retrieved 23 September 2013.
  61. ^ a b "The Lewiston Journal - Google News Archive Search".
  62. ^ "Snake Bite Proves Fatal". Daily Sitka Sentinel. Sitka, Alaska. 31 August 1983. p. 7 – via
  63. ^ a b Duin, Julia (30 May 2012). "Serpent-handling pastor profiled earlier in Washington Post dies from rattlesnake bite". Washington Post. Retrieved 13 January 2014.
  64. ^ "Months after snake-handling preacher's death, his son recovering from snakebite".
  65. ^ a b "Snake Salvation pastor dies from snake bite". 17 February 2014 – via
  66. ^ "Sincere but Wrong-Dead Wrong". Christian Courier.
  67. ^ "Snakebite kills preacher: Should snake handlers be subject to prosecution?".
  68. ^ "For snake handlers, going to church can prove deadly". 19 April 2004.
  69. ^ "Sarasota Herald-Tribune - Google News Archive Search".
  70. ^ Heller, Matthew. "Nurse Sued for Dissing Faith of Bitten Snake-Handler - Medicine". Archived from the original on 31 May 2016.
  71. ^ "Woman Dies After Snakebite In Church".
  72. ^ "Woman fatally bitten by snake in church". 8 November 2006.
  73. ^ Pond, Lauren (31 May 2012). "Why I watched a snake-handling pastor die for his faith". Washington Post.
  74. ^ A google search reveals numerous reports.
  75. ^ Pendleton, Phil. "Man dies of snake bite during church service in Bell County".
  76. ^ a b "The new preacher man on 'Justified' is the little boy from 'Jurassic Park'".
  77. ^ "Laugh & a Half". 21 January 1994 – via Amazon.
  78. ^ Proverbs243 (22 August 2013). "Wendy Bagwell The Rattlesnake Story" – via YouTube.
  79. ^ The Simpsons, Episode 62: "Homer the Heretic"
  80. ^ The Simpsons, Episode 436: "Eeny Teeny Maya Moe"

Further reading[edit]


  • Bultmann, Rudolf (1963). The History of the Synoptic Tradition. Oxford, England: Blackwell.CS1 maint: ref duplicates default (link)
  • Burton, Thomas G. (1993). Serpent-handling Believers. Knoxville, Tennessee: University of Tennessee Press. ISBN 978-0-87049-788-9.
  • Duin, Julia C. (2017). In the House of the Serpent Handler: A Story of Faith and Fleeting Fame in the Age of Social Media. Knoxville, Tennessee: University of Tennessee Press. ISBN 978-1-62190-375-8.
  • 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.
  • 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.

External links[edit]