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.


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.
References in periodicals archive ?
Second, we will briefly summarize disputes over the longer endings to Mark, focusing only upon Mark 16: 9-20 in the King James Bible, the only Bible used in the serpent handling tradition.
The primary biblical basis for justifying the practice of serpent handling is found in the last chapter of Mark's gospel:
303) has noted, most of what is in the longer ending of Mark is elsewhere in the New Testament, with the possible exception of serpent handling (and drinking poison, which is not our concern here).
Pentecostals who rejected serpent handling often cited Acts 28 in denying that the signs in Mark 16:17-18 are to be taken as mandates (see Alexander, 2006, pp.
However, if we focus upon the intentional following of the signs of Mark 16:17-18, the shift is from the authenticity of text, which is assumed for serpent handling believers, to the actual practice of taking up serpents.
In what has gone unnoticed by scholars of the serpent handling churches, otto (1917/1928) explicitly focused upon Mark 16 in a minimally symbolic sense.
Shasta (California); we read of serpent handling, speaking in tongues; we read of feng shui, milk-drinking statues, statues that move; we read about holy people such as the Dalai Lama and St.
As he struggles to bring his family together again, his adventures range from bare-knuckle prize fighting to voodoo baptism, serpent handling, and when he finds his true love, he gains the ruthless vengeance of her bitter, jilted rival.
Morrow is a native Appalachian, pastor, and long-time serpent handler in Tennessee who has collected extensive oral accounts of serpent handling to integrate with his own experience into a non-sensational description and explanation.
Thomas Burton's narration of Glenn Summerford's story is neither a history of serpent handling nor an analysis of the merits of the events that resulted in Glenn's conviction for the attempted murder of his wife by means of serpent bites.
For those sympathetic to religion but seeking to purify it of its primitive excesses, serpent handling can be seen as a form of religion that gives religion a bad name.
In between photo setups in their small, cramped shanty-like homes, Adams partakes in community BBQs, family gatherings on the porch and even the controversial religious Serpent Handling rituals, all the time falling deeper into a noticeably thicker Kentucky drawl.