Snake Handling
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 (1617–18) ‘‘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
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.
Estimates place the number of snake-handling church members
at about 3000, living chiefly in Ohio, Indiana, and Appalachia.
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,
Kimbrough, David L. Taking Up Serpents Snake Handlers of
Eastern Kentucky. Chapel Hill, N.C. University of North Carolina,
Encyclopedia of Occultism & Parapsychology • 5th Ed. Snake Handling
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).

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