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The Church of God with Signs Following is a name applied to an informally organized group of Pentecostal churches, ministers, and itinerant evangelists popularly known as snake handlers, who are distinguished by their practice of drinking poison (usually strychnine) and handling poisonous serpents during their worship services. Among those who handle snakes and drink poison, the actions are called “preaching the signs.” The term signs refers to Jesus’ remarks in Mark 16: 17–18: “And these signs will accompany those who believe: in my name they will cast out demons; they will speak in new tongues; they will pick up serpents; and if they drink any deadly thing, it will not hurt them; they will lay their hands on the sick, and they will recover.” The practice, an object of curiosity scorned and ridiculed by outsiders, is commonplace to believers.
The practice of snake handling began with George Went Hensley, a minister with the Church of God (Cleveland, Tennessee) in the very early days of the spread of the Pentecostal message throughout the hills of Tennessee and North Carolina. Converted, Hensley erected a brush arbor at Owl Holler outside of Cleveland and began to preach. One day during a service in which he was preaching on Mark 16, some men turned over a box of rattlesnakes in front of Hensley. According to the story, he reached down, picked up the snakes and continued to preach.
Ambrose J. Tomlinson, then head of the Church of God, having become convinced that his ministry was further proof of the pouring of power on the church in the last days, invited Hensley to Cleveland to show church members what was occurring. By 1914 the practice had spread through the Church of God, though practiced by only a small percentage of members. Hensley settled in Grasshopper Valley, near Cleveland, and pastored a small congregation. A number of years later, after a member almost died from a bite, Hensley moved to Pine Mountain, Kentucky.
Meanwhile, the Church of God was growing and in the 1920s, after Tomlinson left the church, the early support for the practice of snake handling turned to strong opposition. In 1928 the Assembly of the Church of God denounced the practice, and it became the activity of a few independent churches, primarily scattered along the Appalachian Mountains. It was largely forgotten until the 1940s.
During the 1940s, new advocates of snake handling appeared. Raymond Hays and Tom Harden started the Dolly Pond Church of God with Signs Following in Grasshopper Valley not far from where Hensley had worked two decades earlier. During the years since, that church has been the focus of the most intense controversy concerning the practice and become the best-known congregation of the signs people. In 1945 Lewis Ford died of a bite received at the Dolly Pond Church. His death led to the passing of a law against the practice by the state of Tennessee and the subsequent suppression of the group by authorities. Persecution against and demonstrations for the group led to the arrest of Hensley in Chattanooga, Tennessee, (convicted of disturbing the peace in 1948) and the disruption of an interstate convention of believers in Durham, North Carolina, in 1947. Following these events the group again withdrew from the public eye, and, except for the death of Hensley, bitten in a service in Florida in 1955, was forgotten for several decades.
Then in 1971 the group again was in the news when Buford Peck, a member of the Holiness Church of God in Jesus’Name, a second snake handling church located not far from the Dolly Pond Church, was bitten. Though he did not die, he did loose his secular job. Over the next few years three persons in Tennessee and Georgia died, two, including Peck and Jimmie Ray Williams, his pastor, from strychnine poison taken during a service. Subsequent court battles, in part to test the law against the practice, led to a 1975 ban on snake handling and the drinking of poison in public religious services by the Tennessee Supreme Court. Followers vowed to continue the practice.
Members of the snake handling churches are Pentecostals who accept the basic theology by which people seek and receive the baptism of the Holy Spirit, evidenced by speaking in tongues. The snake handlers, however, go beyond the Pentecostals in their belief that snake handling and the drinking of poison (and for some, the application of flames to the skin) are a sign of an individual’s faith and possession by the Holy Spirit. It should be noted that the handling of snakes and the drinking of poison are done only while the believer is in an ecstatic (trancelike) state, referred to by members as being “in the Spirit.” Scholars who have examined the movement have frequently questioned the low frequency of bites, given the number of occasions the snakes are handled and the generally loud atmosphere of the services.
The snake handlers accept the rigid holiness code of the Pentecostal and holiness churches. Dress is plain. The Bible is consulted on all questions having to do with the nature of “worldly behavior.” The kiss of peace is a prominent feature of gatherings. Worship is loud, spontaneous, and several hours in length.
Congregations of signs people can be found from central Florida to West Virginia and as far west as Columbus, Ohio. Each church is independent (and a variety of names are used, mostly variations on the Church of God). They are tied together by evangelists who move from one congregation to the next. They produce no literature.
Observers of the snake handlers estimate between 50 to 100 congregations and as many as several thousand adherents.
Carden, Karen W., and Robert W. Pelton. The Persecuted Prophets. New York: A. S. Barnes, 1976.
Collins, J. B. Tennessee Snake Handlers. Chattanooga, TN: by author [1947?].
Holliday, Robert K. Test of Faith. Oak Hill, WV: Fayette Tribune, 1966.
La Barre, Weston. They Shall Take Up Serpents. New York: Schocken Books, 1969.
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Rarely recognized by observers of snake-handling groups, the Original Pentecostal Chruch of God represents a significant departure from the commonly accepted belief and practice of signs people. They do not believe in “tempting God” by bringing snakes into church services. However, should the occasion arise where the handling of a serpent provides a situation for a test and witness to one’s faith, it is done. Members recount times in which they have encountered rattlesnakes or copperheads outside the church and have picked them up as they preached to those present.
The Original Church of God emerged from the Free Holiness people, the early Pentecostals, in rural Kentucky during the first decade of the twentieth century. Tom Perry and Tom Austin founded churches in rural Tennessee. Perry carried the Pentecostal message to Alabama and in 1910 converted P. W. Brown, then president of the Jackson County Baptist Association. Brown became the pastor of the Bierne Avenue Baptist Church in Huntsville, Alabama, one of the leading congregations of the Original Pentecostal Church. There is little formal organization nor are there “man-made rules.” Congregations are scattered throughout the deep South.