In the lush hills of Appalachia, small community churches beckon visitors to come worship. The weathered signs near the entrance show no indication of the slithery liturgy. Few signs will welcome all to “Come worship with us!”
From Pennsylvania to Georgia, in the Southeastern Appalachian Mountains, serpent handling remains a steadfast form of Sunday worship and praise. Only six states deem serpent handling a legal form of religious tradition. The practice came into fashion during the early part of the 1900’s and shows little sign of falling out of vogue with the sect. Although most churches are family affairs and seem to be unsuccessful and uninterested in a robust program of evangelism in the US, the practice abides. Alabama, Georgia, Kentucky, Tennessee, West Virginia, and Ohio- as well as some provinces of Canada – recognize and allow the use of venomous serpents in religious services.
Signs of Faith
The practice of snake handling is scripturally supported in the Book of James and the final chapters of the Book of Mark.
“Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says.“ – James 1:22
“And these signs will accompany those who believe: In my name they will drive out demons; they will speak in new tongues; they will pick up snakes with their hands; and when they drink deadly poison, it will not hurt them at all; they will place their hands on sick people, and they will get well.” – Mark 16:17-18
While many mega evangelical Pentecostal churches practice the driving out of demons, speaking in tongues and the laying of hands, very few if any will establish the drinking of poisons and handling of vipers as outward signs of faith. These light wing evangelists will hide behind Baptism in Jesus’ Name- Acts 2:38.
For those small churches that do ‘take up the signs’, the action deepens the individual’s faith in God. It is a communion of scripture and faith based action. From a non-practitioners perspective, to observe this first hand is to witness something beautiful, terrifying and alien.
Signs of faith are only an observable reflection of the deeply rooted beliefs of this sect. Observation is not an understanding of scripture with participation, which is why it is the second least reliable form of data to support skepticism. The least reliable would be simply reading an account without observation and subsequently dismissing the sign of faith as fakery or sideshow dalliances.
Growing up in Appalachia I have a profound respect for those that choose to test their faith with these Biblical signs. While not my brand of faith expression, this respect has more to do with my faithless, tinkle inducing fear of poisonous snakes than geographical bias. I have never understood the ‘fun’ of playing chase with a fat, glistening black racer either. While non-poisonous, I just don’t like that challenging look in the eye that says “Com’on, let’s see who’s faster.”
My faith and bladder are not strong enough for these tag matches. I am weak. I have attended a snake handling service, but I don’t have the will to handle. The response from some in the serpent handling faith is a clear condemnation, “The Bible does speak of a reprobate mind.” Amen, that’ll have to do.
Persecution of and by God’s Children
The serpent handling churches are tightly knit because of a history of persecution. The established families that carry on the faith are viewed by outsiders as ‘inbreds’, which in turn magnifies persecution and exclusivity as a reaction. Name calling is probably one of the least onerous forms of persecution endured by the sect.
It is their exclusivity that can prompt limited protest against efforts to ban the tradition through legal means. Community efforts to drive out the practice have included the exclusion of church member interment from community cemeteries. This seems the cruelest form of persecution in a country founded on freedom of religion. For families clinging to faith and enduring loss, to have the privilege of burying Mom next to Daddy snatched away at a vulnerable point seems merciless.
Occasionally, the local news would report the arrival of a New York sociologist bent on studying, analyzing and perhaps returning home with a few members from the congregation in bell jars. This would always make me cringe in anticipation of the broad swath of comments and erroneous claims about Appalachia in general. Some churches will tone down the handling to manage these visits and avoid greater persecution. Visitors, in my experience are treated kindly and are respected. There is little chance an observer will be bit. No one is forced to handle. The risk and faith is fully carried by the handler.
Other Pentecostal churches will persecute those that handle serpents. They will hide behind Baptism as the only requirement of faith. Snake handlers, even without their slithery witnesses of faith are unwelcome in many churches. For some this creates a greater abyss of suspicion and exclusivity.
The handling congregations near my hometown do not practice ‘cousin marriage’, 13 year old child bride indoctrination or have intelligence quotients below national norms. One of the ‘handlers’ I grew up with is a mechanical engineer and no longer lives in the area. While her well founded fear of drowning leaves her open to mockery amongst co-workers, the unbitten hand capture and release of a copperhead at a work site as well as effective project planning and execution makes her legendary in the minds of witnesses. Another friend of this faith is a nurse. I don’t think either includes their church experience on their resume or shares this secret openly with associates. When they return to the hills, they go home to the faith.
Skeptics and Atheists – Y’all Just Put that Lampshade on Your Argument
Some skeptics will note that as a snake becomes used to handling it will become more docile. One commenter, “busterggi” recites the common skeptic argument that these snakes are pets and no real danger exists for handlers.
Granted that snakes aren’t cuddly nor are they brilliant intellectually, but as someone who has owned snakes (including wild ones which I caught) I can testify that most of them calm down enough to be handled as soon as they learn they aren’t in any danger & that their handlers are supplying them with food.
No miracles necessary for handling pets.
Busterggi’s stupidity seems to depend on the religion of Cain rather than understanding. While some will keep snakes in boxes, on any given Sunday near my hometown one can see the faithful walking beside the road with a sack and hook. Some out of towners will mistake them for the poor collecting soda cans. (Shout out to the cousins from New Jersey for that nugget!)
While correct in saying the practice of serpent handling isn’t a miracle (it is a sign of faith for believers), these are not pets. The practice is part of a communion with scripture in the mind of the practitioner who believes the word of God to be true. The handling is a scripturally based sign of that faith. Who would want a snake as a pet anyway? Calling this practice ‘pet handling’ seems unreasoned. It’s like calling kittens biscuits just because the cat gave birth in the oven.
While Busterggi can ‘testify’ the snakes calm down, I question if he/she uses the same handling techniques. I’m not aware if it is common practice amongst pet snake enthusiasts to dance around and swing the venomous snake up and down like a rag doll while speaking in tongues, banging a tambourine and employing a mid body hold.
Personally, I think the smell of ‘reprobate’ urine makes snakes antsy and ‘bitey’. I don’t feel inclined to test the different methods of handling.
In 20 years, spanning 2000 to 2009, 16 human fatalities have occurred from bites sustained by captive venomous snakes in the United States. Only 7 of those cases were due to religious handling, leaving 9 deaths of ‘experienced’ pet owners. It is interesting to note that religious handlers freely accept the will and judgment of God and do not accept anti-venom as treatment, while those bitten by pets seek anti-venom immediately. I can also proudly note that no reported deaths occurred in my home state where snake handling is practiced.
The paradox of Busterggi’s analogy of religious handling equal to pet handling is that nearly every state in the US will allow the keeping of poisonous snakes as pets if proper permits are filed, while only six states recognize the religious practice as ‘legal’. Perhaps if more had his skeptical outlook, the practice would be more wide spread. It must be a bitter pill for an agnostic to support the legalization of religion.
In summary, the true believer isn’t so concerned with skeptics or those that see the practice as usurping the Baptism. They concern themselves with the scripture and God’s judgment.
“Also, when the day comes that a country will thoroughly condemn snake handling, a practice in the Scriptures; will be the day that the country will sign itself over for expulsion to Hell. Same sex (sodomite) marriage, prostitution, and immunity to criminals by lenient judges – just to name a few examples out of many of those other gross and indecent abominations mentioned in the Bible that are condoned in various countries should be highly ashamed of themselves and are not true Christians.” – Holiness Snake Handlers Official Website