Snakes played a prominent part in pagan mythologies and religious ceremonies long before the Judeo-Christian story of the Garden of Eden. The snake has often been regarded as a fertility symbol. In the Mayan scripture Popul Vuh, the plumed serpent assists in the creation of life, as it does in the beliefs of the Aztec and the Pueblo Indians. The deity Dambollah, an African deity most frequently pictured as a serpent, is central to Haitian voudou. Various American Indian tribes have dances in which live snakes are carried, while the Yokut shamans of central California handled rattlesnakes at public ceremonies.
In the early twentieth century, among members of the Church of God (Cleveland, Tennessee), one of the early Pentecostal churches to emerge in the Appalachian Mountains of the American Southeast, the handling of poisonous snakes took on a new life and importance. These practices arose from a quite literal application of the "signs" of Jesus' disciples mentioned in the biblical gospel of Mark (16:17-18): "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."
While Pentecostals had practiced speaking in tongues and healing—both also mentioned as gifts of the Holy Spirit in the writings of the apostle Paul—no one had paid attention to the signs in the passage in Mark until 1909. That year George W. Hensley of Tennessee captured a rattlesnake and brought it to a church service for snake handling as a test of religious faith. In 1914, Hensley was invited to an annual meeting of the Church of God, whose leader Ambrose Tomlinson gave the practice tacit approval. In 1928, the leadership of the church realized their mistake and distanced themselves from the practice, but by that time it had spread among church members throughout the Appalachian Mountains and as far south as central Florida.
Hensley, Raymond Hays, and Thomas Harden eventually founded the Dolley Pond Church of God with Signs Following, in Pine Mountain, Tennessee; it became the mother church of Southern snake handling. Pushed out of the Church of God, the "signs" people founded similar churches in a loose fellowship that became in effect a new denomination. Snake handling became clandestine after World War II, when Tennessee led other states in passing laws to forbid the practice, following the publicity given to the death of a member of the Dolly Pond church. Less known is the associated practice of drinking poison, usually a solution of strychnine, at church services, also forbidden by law.
The astonishing fact is that scores of sincere devotees of snake handling have survived the bites of deadly snakes and the effects of drinking poisons at church ceremonies. Less than 75 deaths have been recorded as of the mid-1990s. The deaths that occurred were ascribed to lack of faith. Interestingly enough, Hensley, after surviving numerous snake bites, died after being bitten during a church service in Florida in 1965. Snake handling adds a dramatic element to religious faith, and has much in common with the earlier practice of the fire ordeal in non-Christian religions.
Present-day members of the Holiness Church of God in Jesus' Name in the Southeast are more concerned about the dangers of persecution through punitive laws against snake handling than from the practice itself. They regard such laws as a breach of their freedom to exercise their religious convictions sincerely in accordance with Holy Scripture.
Carden, Karen W., and Robert W. Pelton. The Persecuted Prophets: The Story of the Frenzied Snake Handlers. New York: A. S. Barnes; London: Thomas Yoseloff, 1976.
Covington, Dennis. Salvation on Sand Mountain: Snake Handline and Redemption in Southern Appalachia. New York: Penguin, 1996.
La Barre, Weston. They Shall Take up Serpents. New York: Schocken Books, 1969.
Sewell, Dan. "Snake Handlers Put Bite into Religion." Santa Barbara News-Press (May 1,1995).
Stekert, Ellen. "The Snake Handling Sect of Harlan County, Kentucky: Its Influences on Folk Tradition." Southern Folklore Quarterly 27 (December 1963).
In the sixteenth chapter of the gospel of Mark, the resurrected Jesus (c. 6 b.c.e.–c. 30 c.e.) appears to his disciples and, before ascending to heaven, sends them forth into the world to preach the gospel. Jesus promises that all who believe in him shall cast out devils and shall speak with new tongues. In addition, believers "shall take up serpents; and if they drink any deadly thing, it shall not hurt them" (Mark 16:17–18).
In 1909, Reverend George Went Hensley (c. 1870s–1955) of the Church of God in Grasshopper, Tennessee, began to teach that those verses in Mark should be taken literally. If believers truly had the Holy Spirit within them, he argued from the pulpit, 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 and backwaters of Tennessee, Kentucky, the Carolinas, Virginia, Ohio, and Indiana.
For a time, the Church of God defended the innovation of snake handling that had been injected into the prescribed order of service by Hensley, but in 1922, it disavowed the practice. Other Pentecostal churches followed suit and discouraged their members from testing the Holy Spirit by picking up venomous snakes or drinking poison. Undaunted, Hensley established the Church of God with Signs Following.
Some researchers of the religious snake handling phenomenon state that the practice sprang up independently on Sand Mountain, Alabama, around 1912 without any assistance from George Hensley. Within a couple decades, snakes were being handled openly in outdoor worship services in east Birmingham. However, in 1950, the Alabama Legislature, reacting to a number of highly publicized snake fatalities, passed an act making it illegal to "display, handle, use, or exhibit any poisonous snake or reptile in such a manner as to endanger the health of another."
Those who have investigated snake handling have found that it is a popular misconception that the snakes won't bite the snake handlers in their religious ritual or that, if bitten, the handlers, under the direction of the Holy Spirit, won't die. Although exact records are difficult to substantiate, at least 71 people have been killed by poisonous snakebites during religious services in the United States. And that number includes the founder of the snake handling movement, George Went Hensley, who, it has been estimated, had been bitten over 400 times before his death in 1955. While some might consider such deaths as strong reasons to discontinue the practice of actually handling poisonous snakes during services, devout snake handlers say that it is a good thing that one of their members occasionally dies as a result of a snake bite. Such fatalities only prove to skeptics and nonbelievers that they are truly using dangerous snakes in their worship services.
In those rural churches in the Appalachian highlands where snake handling remains popular, no members of the congregations are required to handle the snakes, and in most churches, no one under the age of 18 is permitted to pick up the serpents. The American Civil Liberties Union has defended the religious freedom of snake handlers against various attempts to have the practice abolished. In Thomas Burton's Serpent-Handling Believers (1993), Burton states that snake handling is a complex traditional religious belief of a group of American Christians which should be respected for what it is.
Burton, Thomas. Serpent-Handling Believers. Knoxville, Tenn.: University of Tennessee Press, 1993.
Crim, Keith, gen. ed. The Perennial Dictionary of World Religions. San Francisco: HarperSanFran cisco, 1989.
Farnell, Kathie. "Snakes and Salvation." Fate, December 1996, pp. 28–32.
Throughout most of the twentieth century, snake-handling Appalachian Christians, who refer to their practice as "serpent handling," have been and continue to be part of the region's most sensationalized and least understood religious tradition. Serpent handling epitomizes the religions of Appalachia as the first and often only tradition that comes to mind in the popular national consciousness. Serpent handlers are a small independent Holiness group distinctive to the mountains, small valleys, and plateaus of Appalachia. The most informed estimates average two thousand participants scattered throughout the region, excluding out-migration.
David L. Kimbrough's Taking Up Serpents: Snake Handlers of Eastern Kentucky (1995) affirms that serpent handlers are not peculiar unto themselves but are clearly a part of Appalachia's much larger and older independent, nondenominational Holiness tradition, from which they are distinguished in worship practices and beliefs only by the inclusion of serpent handling, fire handling, and drinking poison. Clear distinctions prevail between different theological traditions of serpent handlers, from Oneness or Jesus Only groups to Trinitarian groups, a common division in the larger Holiness-Pentecostal movements within and outside of Appalachia. As part of Appalachia's larger Holiness tradition, Kimbrough affirms serpent handlers' strong, plain-folk, camp-meeting heritage in the region, stating that their "practices and beliefs represented an intensification and elaboration of traditional norms" (p. 77).
More thorough and persuasive than any other scholar to date, Kimbrough evaluates long-circulating accounts and only recently discovered information that decisively identify the practice's most probable origins long thought to be associated with George W. Hensley. At a revival in 1910 near Cleveland, Tennessee, Hensley took literally Mark 16:18, "They shall take up serpents," as a command Holiness people should keep. Taking Up Serpents also provides a solid social history of serpent handling. It follows the path of the Saylor family of eastern Kentucky, one of Appalachia's premier serpent-handling families, from their Presbyterian heritage, which they brought with them when they first settled in Kentucky at the beginning of the nineteenth century, through their shift to Primitive Baptist Calvinism, and finally to Holiness traditions at the end of the nineteenth century. The Saylor family embraced serpent handling by way of Hensley's work in eastern Kentucky in the early 1930s.
The Saylor family social history demonstrates the strong historical and theological commonalities that unite the varieties of Appalachia's religious traditions rather than their apparent yet misleading differences that are more distinguishing than divisive. Kimbrough also provides a persuasive contextual framework that rejects the cliché of fatalism for a sacramental interpretation of serpent handling that expresses a hope-infused, situational realism.
The crush of media fascination in the 1990s, from best-selling novels and I-was-there accounts to feature stories on Oprah and Dateline NBC, became white-hot following publication of Salvation on Sand Mountain: Snake Handling and Redemption in Southern Appalachia (1995) by Dennis Covington, a New York Times reporter on Appalachia. Covington's repetitive flair for the dramatic more often than not is at the expense of careful accuracy about the real-life people he names and portrays; nonetheless he provides a human face to Appalachia's serpent-handling Christians. As of this writing, popular media continue to highlight serpent handlers as though they stand separate and apart from an all but invisible multitude of interrelated groups that together make Appalachia the nation's largest and—second only to New England—oldest regional religious tradition.
Burton, Thomas. Serpent-Handling Believers. 1993.
Covington, Dennis. Salvation on Sand Mountain: SnakeHandling and Redemption in Southern Appalachia. 1985.
Daugherty, Mary Lee. "Serpent-Handling as Sacrament." Theology Today (October 1976): 232–243.
Smith, Lee. Saving Grace. 1995.
Deborah Vansau McCauley