Following on from Sunday’s Forbidden Bible Verses, I said that I would give you more information on the small number of churches with snake handlers.

Appalachia in the eastern United States was settled by the British in the 1700s, mostly of Scots-Irish descent, but some who were from northern England.  The region is in the heart of the Appalachian mountains.  Most families who have settled there have been there as long as America has been independent.  I’ve travelled through it, albeit some time ago, and it is a difficult terrain, one without major highways or rail service.  Consequently, the lifestyle is quite basic and all down to fundamentals.  There are small hamlets and villages, among which are interspersed a few towns.  It’s not somewhere you would move or wish to settle.  It has always been what it is and is unlikely, for geographic and economic reasons, to ever progress much beyond what it is today.  Having said that, people in Appalachia understand the land, know whom to trust and live life as quietly and as best they can.  They don’t play the victim card, they know the difference between right and wrong, they extend hospitality to the stranger and don’t believe in high-falutin’ flim-flam.  They are mountain people and proud of it.

Those who have lived in the Southern part of the United States will have heard of small independent churches — like the ones featured in Sunday’s Forbidden Bible Verses — which have as part of their worship snake handling and poison drinking.  As discussed, this comes from Mark 16:17-18:

And these signs shall follow them that believe; In my name 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.

These are words that the Risen Christ spoke to His disciples on Easter.  They were meant for the apostolic age of the church, the initial years when the apostles and the other disciples, altogether 70 people, would spread the Good News of Jesus Christ to as much of the world as they could.

Not everyone knows this, however, because either they haven’t grown up with reliable Bible commentary or believe that the Bible can be interpreted literally, a fundamentalist or primitive form of sola Scriptura, one of the tenets of the Reformation.  Looking to the Bible as a source, as many Protestants do, the people (only 2000 North Americans with regard to snake handling) say that if the Bible says something, then we can take that word as written.  Note the use of ‘shall’ in the aforementioned verses from Mark.  When an adherent of one of these churches sees this, he believes that Jesus commands him to do that particular act.  So, if it says ‘they shall take up serpents and if they drink any deadly thing’, i.e. strychnine, some believe that they should do it and that they will be safe.  For them, it is a matter of faith. DO NOT TRY THIS YOURSELF OR WITH ANYONE ELSE!  IT CAN BE FATAL — DEADLY!

The churches with serpent handlers are churches within the Holiness movement, which is part of the larger Pentacostal movement, which stems from Methodism, which stems from Anglicanism, which, in the United States, stems largely from a puritanical Calvinism.  There will be a series of posts here on these movements.  Please note that not all Holiness churches feature serpent handling or poison drinking in their services.  In fact, most do not. 

These particular Holiness churches focus on the signs and wonders emanating from the gifts of the Holy Spirit as exercised through these verses in Mark.  In ‘What Is a Serpent Handler?‘ novelist Vincent Louis Carrella explains:

These [verses] are not metaphors for such believers, but in some cases, controversy over the interpretation of a single word (such as the word shall, in “They shall take up serpents.”) has fractured churches, leading to new movements and new ways of thinking among fundamentalist Christian congregations. Such is the case with serpent handlers who sprang from the Pentecostal Church in the early part of the 20th century…

But the handling of serpents is only one aspect of a rich and complex faith that stems from a focus on the powers and gifts promised by Jesus to the most faithful believers, via what is perhaps the most enigmatic figure in the bible – the Holy Spirit. We cannot understand those who handle serpents without first attempting to understand that concept, because serpent handlers believe it is the Holy Spirit who bestows the gift of protection to those who handle snakes and drink poison

Jesus explicitly mentions this sign in Mark 16, and the fervent belief in its literal truth gave rise to the practice of handling poisonous snakes as an additional demonstration of devotion, purity and faith. Since many, if not most, Pentecostals take the Gospels at their word, it was not much of a leap from speaking in tongues and healing the sick to handling snakes, and though the ending of Mark itself has been called into question (there are those who believe that part of it, including Mark 16, is a late edition forgery, and those who argue over the translation of the Greek word for shall) serpent handling Christians adhere to its efficacy and validity.

This particular branch of the Holiness movement started between 1908 and 1910 (accounts differ) by an ex-bootlegger named George Went Hensley in Tennessee.  He was turning his life around following Biblical precepts, when he began meditating on these verses from Mark.  Hensley was also preaching at the Dolley Pond Church of God in Grasshopper Valley, Tennessee.  Accounts vary as to his first encounter with snake handling.  Some say he was in the woods when suddenly a poisonous snake appeared in front of him and he picked it up and handled it, coming to no harm.  Other accounts say that he was preaching at Dolley Pond when a member of the congregation let loose poisonous snakes in front of the pulpit, whereby he safely picked one up and handled it in front of the congregation, preaching all the while. No harm came to him.  Afterward, he added a few words after the church’s name: ‘With Signs Following’.

A church in Sand Hill, Alabama, independently of Hensley, also started handling snakes in 1912.  The practice spread throughout the Churches of God in the South, including Appalachia.  Again, only a few congregations of the many Churches of God that are in the region, allowed it.        

Church Education Resource Ministries (CERM) says:

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.

My opinion says it’s not right, although CERM maintains that the practice is not in error or heretical, explaining:

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” …

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 handlers are very big on dependence on the Lord’s 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 CERM’s article on the sign gifts

Their lifestyle is legalistic (strict codes on attire and jewellry) and pietistic (no drinking, no smoking).  As the name of their Christian movement — Holiness — implies, they focus on that which is holy to lead them to salvation.  Theirs is more of a free-will (no predestination), works-based (instead of faith-based election through God’s grace) belief.  We will examine the Holiness movement in more depth in another post.

What happens if they die or lose a finger?  They consider that, at the very least, they obeyed God’s command.  If they die or lose a digit, it was His will.  Mr Hensley died of a church-related bite in 1955. 

These people do not wish to encourage others into their churches to experience this phenomenon.  They do not say it is the only way to Heaven, although they believe it is their way.  Currently, the only state where it is legal to handle venemous snakes in church is West Virginia.  However, in other states or Canadian provinces, the authorities are likely to turn a blind eye to this religious freedom.

Do I personally believe this is error?  Yes, because it is tempting God and asking for ‘signs and wonders’.  AVOID THIS AT ALL COSTS — IT IS DANGEROUS AND VERY POSSIBLY DEADLY — FATAL! 

Please note that no harm comes to the snakes, who are not drugged, sedated or killed.  They live full lives, unlike some of the churchgoers who tempt God by handling them.

You can see these particular Churches of God in action here —

‘The Snake Handling’ — full history and practice from the History Channel:

News feature as seen on Fox’s Sean Hannity show:

Snake handling church service in northern Alabama:

For more information, see:

‘Serpent Box — a novel by Vincent Louis Carrella’

‘Snake Handlers’ – CERM

‘Reptile Religion’ from AnimalPlanet TV (ties in with the Hannity feature)

‘In the hands of faith: Serpent handling has deep roots in region’ – Blount County (Tennessee) Daily Times (ties in with the Hannity feature)

‘Snake Handling’ — Encyclopedia of Alabama

‘In the Army of the Lord: Serpent Handlers in West Virginia’ – Dave Peyton for The Huntington Advertiser (West Virginia) and the Alicia Patterson Foundation

‘Another Snake Handling Preacher Dies’Watchman magazine

‘For snake handlers, going to church can prove deadly’ — Rick Ross

‘Snake Kills Evangelist’ — HiddenMysteries