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Snake Handlers

I became fascinated with snake handlers after I watched the X-files episode Signs and Wonders. I did not know at the time if such practices existed and if this X-files episode was hyper-exaggerated or fake. So from then on I did a bit of research on snake handling and did discover that the X-files episode was not as unrealistic as I expected. Some people think that everything produced by Hollywood is exaggerated or unreal, but that simply is not true. Snake handlers do exist and are as vivid and real as the snake handling Church of God with Signs and Wonders congregation that I saw on the X-files episode. Unfortunately recent attempts to locate the website or phone number of such a church have failed, so unfortunately I wonít be able to provide any photo or videos of such practices in this article.

 

Founder:

Although others prominently figure into the history of this religious movement it was George Went Hensley who is commonly considered the "[father] of contemporary Snake handling" (Burton 1993, 7).


Date of Birth:

Born around 1880 [No specific date exists]-died July 25, 1955 [from a snakebite] (Kimborough 1995, 133). 


Birth Place:

Hills of Tennessee (Kimborough 1995, 133).


Year Founded:

No exact date exists; Hensley is thought to have taken up the practice in 1908. (Burton 1993, 34).
 

History:

Snake handlers are sometimes known as the Church of God with Sign and following. Under this term you can find "Pentecostalism practices and philosophies. The Snake handling practice was born out of the Pentecostal-Holiness movement, which birthed out of the first two decades of the twentieth century.

George Hensley is known to have been the originator of the Snake Handling practice in the state of Tennessee (Melton 1996, 636). During one of his sermons on Mark 16, some men in the audience dropped a box of rattlesnakes in front of him. Hensley then picked up the snakes and was able to preach the entire time holding them. By 1914 this practice had spread throughout the Church of God . But Snake Handlers only made up a very small minority of the Church of God . By 1928, snake handling became the activity of only a few small churches located in the Appalachian Mountains . Snake Handlers located in North Carolina , Kentucky , Tennessee , and Virginia all trace their heritage to George Hensley. However the followers in Alabama , Georgia , South Carolina and other regions have a different origin. 

 

Cult or Sect:

Church Education Resource Ministries cannot completely conclude that the Snake handling practice is cultic. For if a Snake Handler believes in the Lord Jesus Christ and trusts in Him for his or her salvation, then as the Bible says nothing can separate him or her from their eternal salvation (Rom 8:38-39).

But there is much solid evidence to conclude that Snake Handlers very badly misinterpret the scriptures and are not following God in their practices. But this alone does not make such snake handlers "unsaved" or "unchristian."

 
Size of group:

An exact number of snake handler members is not known. But estimates range between 1,000 to 2,000 members of this practice (Burton 1993, 165). Snake handlers can be found as far south as Florida, as far west as Ohio, and as far north as West Virginia (Melton 1996, 636).

 
Beliefs of the group:

The central tenets of snake handlers revolve around a strict literal interpretation of the Bible (Burton 1993, 17). The ritual of snake handling then must, necessarily, come from a direct order from the Bible. There are three main passages that mandate the practice:

 
Mark 16:17-18: "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" (Kimborough 1995, 14).

Mark 16:19-20: "So then after the Lord has spoken unto them [Jesus' disciples], he was received up into heaven, and set on the right hand of God. And they went forth, and preached everywhere, the Lord working with them, and confirming the word with signs following" (Burton 1993, 18).

Luke 10:19: "Behold, I give unto you the power to tread on serpents and scorpions, and over the power of the enemy: and nothing by any means shall hurt you" (Kimborough 1995, 14).

For sign followers to receive the power of the Holy Ghost (described above) it "takes repentance, remission of sins, and a godly life." Only after these three steps will the Holy Ghost enable the snake handlers to follow the signs. The signs themselves include "speaking in tongues, casting out of demons, handling serpents, drinking deadly things, [and] healing the sick" (Burton 1993, 17-18). Some members will also anoint themselves with oil [as part of healing], "[hold] fire" and "[stick their] fingers into live electrical sockets" while engulfed in the power of the spirit (Covington 1995, 24-26).

Snake handler groups tend to be very legalistic. They believe that there should be a very strict moral code. Dress for example must be very plain, and jewelry is kept to a minimum. Many of these snake handlers use 1 Peter 1:18 as the authoritative passage behind this philosophy.

 

1 Peter, Chapter 1, Verse 18, New International Version
For you know that it was not with perishable things such as silver or gold that you were redeemed from the empty way of life handed down to you from your forefathers,

Looking at the CONTEXT of the passage, the passage does not forbid wearing jewelry. The passage is referring to the doctrine of Sanctification and being separated from sin. Peter states in verses 18-19 that it is not silver or gold that saves you, but salvation comes through the Lord Jesus Christ as mentioned in verse 19. Using this verse and having it say that the Bible forbids wearing jewelry is really ripping the verse right out of the context and the intended meaning of the verse.

Snake handlers are very big on dependence on the Lordís ability to heal them. They believe in it so much that they do not believe in receiving medical treatments or medications. Those that visit doctors or receive medications are considered to be lacking in faith and are usually isolated from the church or group. While it is possible that God can heal instantly and without the help of a doctor or medication, it is rare that He does heal in these ways in the Church age. The Spiritual sign gift of healing ceased and is no longer practiced today. For more on this subject refer to CERMís article on the sign gifts.

Another practice unique to sign followers is that of the "Holy Kiss." When members meet they give each other a kiss on the lips. This is usually done only to same sex members of the church. Different groups have different reasons for the practice. Some churches cite Romans 16:16 "salute another with a Holy Kiss" other use 2 Corinthians 13:12-13 "Greet one another with a Holy Kiss" (Kimborough 1995, 33).

Sign followers, like Pentecostals, believe in the three stages, "salvation, sanctification and the baptism of the Holy Ghost." The steps occur when one realizes first "salvation from sin," then sanctification in the form "instantaneous...eradication of one's sinful nature," and finally the baptism of the Holy Ghost as manifest in the nine spiritual gifts (Burton 1993, 6-7). The nine spiritual gifts are specified in 1 Corinthians 12:8-10:

"For to one is given by the Spirit the word of wisdom; to another the word of knowledge by the same Spirit; To another faith by the same Spirit; To another the gifts of healing by the same Spirit; To another the working of miracles; another prophesy; to another discerning of spirits; to another divers kinds of tongues; to another the interpretation of tongues" (Burton 1993, 173).

Sign followers and Pentecostals tend to diverge in the "interpretations of other signs, which include the taking up of serpents" (Burton 1993, 7). Within the sign-following community there also exists a minor schism between two interpretations of the Holy Trinity. Incidentally, mainstream Pentecostals and Holiness denominations argue over this topic as well. The first group is referred to as Jesus' Name or Unitarians. They feel that the Holy Trinity (the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit) are all one in the same. They are merely names reflecting the "diverse features of Christ's person." The Jesus' Name people cite Acts 2:38 as their proof: "Then Peter said unto them, Repent, and he baptized everyone of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins and ye shall receive the gift of the Holy Ghost" (Kimborough 1995, 31).

The Trinitarians, however, cite biblical passages to support their claim that the three parts of the Holy Trinity are separate entities. They quote Luke 3:16 as their definitive proof: "For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son, that whosoever believeth in him shall not perish but have everlasting life" (Kimborough 1995, 32). This difference of opinion is a rather small disagreement because of the relative autonomy of each individual church. In fact, this argument largely boils down to one of theological semantics since the effect that it has on actual worship is nonexistent.

 

Issues with Snake handlers

Snake handlers have taken Mark 16 and other various passages out of context. Few if any take them seriously, and snake handling is in question in both religious and secular circles. For example I made some attempts to locate a Snake Handler Church but my attempts all but failed.

 

Snake Handler Churches

Alabama
* Rock House Holiness Church on Sand Mountain in the rural northeast 

Alberta , Canada 
* True Holiness Believers Gathering, Lethbridge
* Holiness Fire Church Of Lord Jesus With Signs Following, Edmonton

British Columbia , Canada
* The Right Hand Of Jesus With Signs Following Church , Kamloops ,
* Small Believers Of Light Church With Signs Following, Revelstoke

Georgia
* The Jesus Name Believers Holiness Church , Canton
* Holiness Church of God in Jesus' Name, Kingston
* Holiness Church Of Lord Jesus, Roopville
 

Indiana
* Hiway Holiness Church of God, Fort Wayne 

Kentucky
* Crockett Church , Fields
* East London Holiness Church , London

Michigan
* Apostolic Church, Warren

Ohio
* Full Gospel Jesus Church, Cleveland
* Full Gospel Jesus Church, Columbus
 

South Carolina
* Holiness Church of God in Jesus Name, Greenville

Tennessee
* Holiness Church of God in Jesus Name, Carson Springs
* House of Prayer in Jesus Name, Morristown

West Virginia
* Church Of The Lord Jesus With Signs Following, Jolo
* Full Gospel Jesus Church, Micco
* Full Gospel Jesus Church, Kistler

The Snake handler churches that are out there, must not have websites and hide their presence from the phone book. So those that know of them can only tell others that they know about them. Snake handler churches must not want the general public to find their churches. Snake Handling authenticity is in question. Their Biblical interpretation of the scriptures is from poorly educated minds that do not understand the art and science of Biblical Interpretation or Hermeneutics. It also overlooks Ecc 10:11 which says. 

Ecclesiastes, Chapter 10, Verse 11, King James Version
Surely the serpent will bite without enchantment; and a babbler is no better.

 Ecclesiastes, Chapter 10, Verse 11, New King James Version
 A serpent may bite when it is not charmed; The babbler is no different.

Perhaps this verse is a strong argumentation against both snake handling and tongues. Snake handlers have also found themselves accused of "misappropriating" Godís power or rather that handling snakes is beyond the purview of mortal men (Burton 1993, 69). The biggest challenge that snake handlers have had to face has been the law. Perhaps this is yet the major reason or a major reason why it was so difficult for me to find snake handler churches. Perhaps most of these churches are in hiding and do not want to be discovered. Alabama and Georgia have ruled Snake handling to be a felony charge. If someone died in one of these two states as a result of a snake handler church than capital punishment would be the response. Unfortunately Alabama and Georgia at a later date would repeal their laws (Burton 1993, 81). The government is at a loss on controlling the snake handlers. Even in states and counties where the practice is banned, nothing can stop the snake handlers from worshipping in their own homes. Such illegal activities are hard to trace, and this all the more makes completely banning the practice of snake handling impossible. Very few Christians are convinced that Snake handling is Biblical, and even heretical Christian groups would agree. While Snake handlers themselves may be saved if they are truly born again and regenerate, the practice of snake handling (although not a cultic activity) is very unbiblical and certainly not a practice that the Lord Jesus wants his followers to engage in. God created the animals and he created them to live in the wild, and he created man to live elsewhere. Snakes belong in the wild and do not belong in the church.

While I cannot stop snake handling, I hope that this article convicts and convinces anyone that practices it of the Biblical truth. I challenge the snake handlers to read the Bible and read it in the Context, rather than ripping isolated passages like Mark 16 out of the context. Mark 16 was addressed to the disciples and was not addressed to the church age. The sign gifts were given only to the 1st century church, and ceased at the closing of the canon of scripture.

 

Links to Snake Handling Web Sites

 

They Shall Take Up Serpents

This article by Ted Olsen focuses on the early history and the role of George W. Hensley in the beginning of the movement. The article appeared in Christianity Today in Spring, 1998.

http://www.christianitytoday.com/ch/58h/58h025.html
 

They Shall Take Up Serpents

Transcript and audio in RealTime of a November 30, 1992 segment from National Public Radio's All Things Considered, David Isay, Producer. Time: 22 minutes.

http://www.soundports.org/serpents.html

 

Religious Snake Handling

A small web page with useful information on Snake Handling and the Law.

http://www.members.tripod.com/Yeltsin/index.html

 

Snakes, Miracles and Biblical Authority"

Terry Mattingly, who writes a weeking religion column for the Scripps Howard News Service, devotes this column to a friendship between Bill Leonard, Dean of the Divinity School at Wake Forest University and Brother Arnold Saylor a celebrated snake handler who died a natural causes at the age of 91.

 

Taking Up Serpents

Article appearing in the Augusta Chronicle about a 23-year-old preacher who was bitten by a timber and nearly didn't live to talk about it. http://augustachronicle.com/headlines/062996/062996serpent.html

 

Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance (site for the discussion of Mark 16)

The Ontario Consultants give an informative discussion of the biblical veracity of snake handling through a look into Mark 16.

http://www.religioustolerance.org/mark_16.htm


Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance (site for the discussion of faith healing)

In this section of the web page the Ontario Consultants look into the practice of faith healing. The site mentions snake handlers prominently in their discussion.

http://www.religioustolerance.org/medical.htm

 

Bibliography

 

Birckhead, Jim. 1997.

"Snake Handlers: Critical Reflections" in Stephen D. Glazier, (ed). Anthropology of Religion: A Handbook. Westport , CT : Praeger. pp. 19-84.

This rather lengthy essay is substantially a methodological statement about how the author conducted ethnographic research on snake handlers over many years. It also contains a brief literature review and a substantial bibliography..

Burton, Thomas. 1993.

Serpent Handling Believers. Knoxville : University of Tennessee Press.

This book is an excellent source on snake handling. Burton gives a detailed description and study of the practice as well as a thorough discussion of the controversies surounding snake handling.

Covington, Dennis. 1995.

Salvation on Sand Mountain : Snake Handling and Religion in Southern Appalachia . New York : Penguin Books.

Written by a journalist about his own experience with the Church of Jesus with Signs Following located in Scottsboro , Alabama . Covington covers in great detail the attempted murder trial of the Church's pastor Glen Summerford.

Hood, Ralph W. Jr. 1998.

"When the Spirit Maims and Kills: Social Psychological Considerations for the History of Serpent Handling Sects and the Narrative of Handlers," International Journal for the Psychology of Religion. 8(2), 71-96.

Hood, Ralph W. Jr., W. Paul Williamson, and Ronald J. Morris. 2000.

"Changing Views of Serpent Handling: A Quasi-Experimental Study," Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion. 39(3), 287-296.

Kimborough, David L. 1995.

Taking up the Serpents: Snake Handling Believers of Eastern Kentucky. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.

Kimborough's major focus is on the history of the movement. He also offers an interesting study of the effects of the practice on society and society's effect on the practice.

LaBarre, Weston. 1969.

They Take Up Serpents. New York : Schocken Books.

LaBarre, an anthropologist, focuses primarily on the psychological motivations and symbolic meaning of the snake handling ritual. While considered by some to be a classic statement about snake handlers, most contemporary scholars have serious reservations about LaBarre's methodology and the presuppositions he brought to his investigation.

Melton, L. Gordon. 1996.

" Church of God with Signs Following" in Encyclopedia of American Religions, Fifth Edition. Washington , D.C. : Gale Research Inc. p. 636.

A brief but informative history of the Church of God with Signs Following. See also his comments on "Snake Handling" (pp. 83-84). Two short essays that offer excellent background to start a more thorough study of the phenomenon. See also

Poloma, Margaret M. 1998.

"Routinization and Reality: Reflections on Serpents and the Spirit," International Journal for the Psychology of Religion. 8(2), 101-105.

Williamson, W. Paul. 1998.

"Response to a Research Challenge," International Journal for the Psychology of Religion. 8(2), 97-100.

Video Bibliography

They Shall Take up the Serpents. 1973.

John E. Schrader and Thomas G. Burton, Producers. Johnson City : Eastern Tennessee State University .

This is Professor Burton's first video on snake handlers. In just 15 minutes, it offers a good overview of the beliefs that prompt snake handlers to worship as they do.

The Jolo Serpent-Handlers. 1977.

Karen Kramer, Producer and Director. New York : Image Conversions Systems.

Kramer's video discusses rather thoroughly the snake handlers of Jolo , West Virginia . The video shows a snake hunt and an attempt to heal with prayers. Most interesting are interviews with the snake handlers themselves as to why they participate in this form of worship.

Carson Springs: A Decade Later. 1983.

Thomas G. Burton and Thomas F. Headley, Producers. Johnson City : Eastern Tennessee State University .

Burton and Headley focus on the aftermath of the intense scrutiny on the congregation ten years earlier. Two extensive interviews with the Pastor Alfred Ball and Liston Pack (whose brother's death helped create all the attention in the early 1970's).

Holy Ghost People. 1984.

Directed by Peter Adair, Director and Blair Boyd, Producer for Thistle Films. Comtemporary Films [production company]: CRM/McGraw-Hill Films [distributor].

This film is an excellent in-depth (50 minutes) look at snake handling's history. Extensive footage of interviews with believers and of worship services.

Church vs. State: Following the Signs; A Way of Conflict. 1986.

Thomas G. Burton and Thomas F. Headley, Producers. Johnson City : Eastern Tennessee State University .

Burton and Headley discuss briefly the history of the practice. The bulk of the video revolves around a detailed discussion of the legal battles and issues surrounding snake handling.

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