Serpent Handling

Serpent Handling

(religion, spiritualism, and occult)

A regular part of some religious practices, serpent handling has emerged at odd times and places throughout human history. It reappeared early in the twentieth century in rural eastern Tennessee, and within a few decades spread throughout the Appalachian mountains from Georgia to Pennsylvania. The origins of this practice are often traced back to 1909 and the handling of rattlesnakes in services by Pentecostal minister George Went Hensley (d. 1955), who was preaching in Grasshopper Valley not far from Cleveland, Tennessee. In 1914, Hensley was invited by Ambrose J. Tomlinson (1865–1943), the leader of the Church of God (Cleveland, Tennessee), to introduce the practice into the fledgling denomination that was spearheading the introduction of Pentecostalism throughout the American South. During the 1920s the Church of God withdrew its support from the practice, but by this time it had developed a following. These people have continued snake handling, often under the name of the Church of God with Signs Following.

Pentecostalism is built around the biblical passages concerning the baptism of the Holy Spirit and the gifts of the Spirit. The movement teaches that Christians may be empowered by the Holy Spirit and will subsequently manifest one or more gifts of the Holy Spirit (speaking in tongues, healing, working miracles, etc.). Hensley and those who followed him extended their attention to the early church by noting that signs were said to follow those who believed in the Bible. One biblical passage states that “they shall 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). Pentecostals spoke in tongues and prayed for the healing of others, but many seemed to have forgotten the middle part of the passage concerning handling serpents and drinking poisons.

To biblical literalists, the arguments by the serpent handlers were perfectly logical, though many refused to add their support because of their discomfort with the actual practice. Then, in the mid- 1920s, snake handler Garland Defries almost died from a snakebite. This incident led to the Church of God withdrawing its support from the practice.

In spite of the Defries incident, the movement continued to spread and went largely unnoticed by the larger world until 1945, when Lewis Ford, a member of a church near Chattanooga, Tennessee, died from a snake bite. The state of Tennessee responded to the public outrage and outlawed the practice. Over the years, other states banned snake handling. Incidents of fatal or near-fatal snake bites have been so rare, however, that law enforcement officials have rarely charged churches or their ministers because of this practice. One exception occurred in Alabama in 1991, when a minister was convicted of attempted murder after being charged with pushing the hand of his wife into a box of rattlesnakes.

Since the 1960s, snake-handling churches have been the subject of a variety of scholarly studies and journalistic features. Many remain puzzled by the rationale that would lead people to adopt such a dangerous practice, while others find the rarity of negative effects from handling snakes an enigma.

Sources:

Brown, Fred, and Jeanne McDonald. The Serpent Handlers: Three Families and Their Faith. Winston-Salem, NC: John F. Blair, 2000.
Burton, Thomas. Serpent Handling Believers. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1993.
Covington, Dennis. Salvation on Sand Mountain: Snake Handling and Religion in Southern Appalachia. New York: Penguin Books, 1995.
Kimborough, David L. Taking Up the Serpents: Snake Handling Believers of Eastern Kentucky. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1995.
LaBarre, Weston. They Take Up Serpents. New York: Schocken Books, 1969.