Name: Snake Handlers
Founder: Although other people prominently figure into the history of this religious movement George Went Hensley is commonly considered the "[father] of contemporary serpent handling" (Burton 1993, 7).
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).
Snake Handlers are more generally known as the Church of God with Signs Following. Under this umbrella term falls the loosely organized "Pentecostal churches, ministers and itinerent preachers popularly known as snake handlers." The practice itself developed out of the Pentecostal-Holiness movement which flourished in the first two decades of the twentieth century (Melton 1996, 636).
The practice is believed to have started with George Hensley in the hills of Tennessee (Melton 1996, 636). As church lore has it, snake handling started sometime in the later part of the first decade of the twentieth century while Hensley was preaching at the Church of God, Cleveland, Tennessee. During Hensley's sermon about Mark 16 some men dumped out a box full of rattlesnakes in front of him. Without missing a beat Hensley reached down and picked up the snakes, preaching the entire time. By 1914 the practice had spread throughout the Church of God, however, the actual act of snake handling was only practiced by a small portion of the members (Melton 1996, 636).
Hensley then settled to preaching in the Grasshopper Valley region of Tennessee a few miles away from Cleveland. He stayed here for a number of years. When "a member almost died from a snake bite [Hensley] moved to Pine Mountain, Kentucky." By the Late 1920s the support for snake handling vanished in the old Cleveland church and many of the Church of God branches. By 1928, snake handling became the activity of only a few independent churches nestled in the Appalachian Mountains where it stayed until its revival in the 1940s (Melton 1996, 636).
In the 1940s snake handling saw a resurgence led by Raymond Harris and Tom Harden. These men went on to start the Dolly Pond Church of God with Signs Following in Grasshopper Valley. Lewis Ford a member of the Dolly Pond congregation died from snake handling in 1945. His death led to the official banning of snake handling in Tennessee in 1947 (Burton 1993, 81). Hensley, still alive and practicing, was arrested in Chattanooga under new the statute in 1948. North Carolina which followed suit and banned snake handling as well shut down the Interstate Convention of believers in Durham in 1947. These incidents started the battles with the government over the right to handle snakes [see issues and controversies for more details] (Melton 1996, 636).
Snake handling withdrew again in the early 1950s only to be thrust into the spotlight again in 1971. After three people died in Tennessee and Georgia from either snake bites or strychnine poisoning, snake handling came under attack once more. This time the ban was challenged on First Amendment grounds, the Tennessee State Supreme Court reaffirmed the ban in 1973 (Melton 1996, 636).
An interesting footnote is that while snake handlers in North Carolina, Kentucky, Tennessee, and Virginia all trace their heritage back to George Hensley, the sign followers in Alabama and Georgia have a different origin. Evidently a man named James Miller "took up the serpents" entirely on his own after deep reflection over the scripture. He first brought the practice to Sand Mountain, Alabama around 1912. By 1920 he had spread the practice into southern Georgia, specifically, Berrien and Cook counties (Burton 1993, 7).
Sacred or Revered Texts: The Bible, specifically, Mark 16:17-20 and Luke 10:19
(Kimborough 1995, 14).
Negative sentiments are typically implied when the concepts "cult" and "sect" are employed in popular discourse. Since the Religious Movements Homepage seeks to promote religious tolerance and appreciation of the positive benefits of pluralism and religious diversity in human cultures, we encourage the use of alternative concepts that do not carry implicit negative stereotypes. For a more detailed discussion of both scholarly and popular usage of the concepts "cult" and "sect," please visit our Conceptualizing "Cult" and "Sect" page, where you will find additional links to related issues.
An exact number is unknown due to the autonomy of each individual group, but estimates range between 1,000 and 2,000 total church members [including those who do not actually handle snakes] (Burton 1993, 165). Snake handlers can be found as far south as central Florida, and as far west as Columbus, Ohio and as far north as West Virginia (Melton 1996, 636).
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).
As part of leading a "godly life," sign followers must adhere to a strict moral code. Members of this sect must dress very plainly. In fact, jewelry is kept to a minimum. Some groups go so far as to consider wedding bands or watches as too extravagant. They cite 1 Peter 1:18, "For as much as you know that ye were not redeemed with corruptable things, as silver or gold, from your vain conversation received by tradition from your fathers," to justify their stance (Kimborough 1995, 32). Women, moreover, generally wear their hair long without any artificial curling, straightening or coloring and men must keep their hair short. For the hair restrictions they cite 1 Corinthians 11:14-15, "Doth not even nature itself teach you, that if a man have long hair it is a shame unto him? but if a woman have long hair it is a glory to her: for her hair is given to her for a covering" (Kimborough 1995, 32). Dressing standards for both men and women are very plain. Men wear open necked, long-sleeved shirts and slacks [although jeans and bib-overalls are generally accepted as well] (Kimborough 1995, 32). Women must wear dresses of solid or flowered print (LaBarre 1969, 16).
Aside from issues of dress and grooming, sign followers do not use tobacco or alcohol, and, depending on the church, caffeine (Kimborough 1995, 32 and LaBarre 1969, 17). In addition, the belief in the healing power of the Lord proscribes any professional medical treatment or even over-the-counter medications. A break with the belief in healing exhibits "a sure sign of lack of faith in God's ability to cure the sick." In some extreme cases churches have been known to ban eyeglasses (LaBarre 1969, 17). However, much like the dress and grooming standards the issue of eyeglasses and even more serious medical attention is variable. Since each church is its own autonomous unit the standards listed in the previous paragraphs will vary to a slight degree when comparing individual sign following churches (Kimborough 1995, 33).
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 nonexistant.
The exotic nature of this form of religious observance (i.e. snake handling, applying fire to the skin, and drinking poison) leaves its practitioners open for an inordinate amount of controversy. Indeed, from the very beginning, the efficacy of snake handling was in question in both religious and secular circles.
The first and most obvious question revolves around the authenticity of snake handling. Detractors, of a secular variety, have made a variety of claims as to why the snakes do not bite the handlers. These detractors assert that the frequent handling has tamed the reptiles, or that they are fed before handling to make them more docile. Other theories have included that the practice is a fraud because the snakes are either milked of their venom or [the snake is defanged] prior to services, making them harmless (Kimborough 1995, 34-36). Anthropologist Weston LaBarre states, and Kimborough among the other authors surveyed on this page agree, that no evidence exists to prove that the snake handlers intentionally or even unwittingly tamper with their snakes prior to religious services.
Snake handlers are also challenged as to the biblical veracity of their interpretation of sign following. In fact, LaBarre cites Ecclesiates 10:11 "Surely the serpent will bite without enchantment; and a babbler is no better." This passage, he argues, can be interpreted to "discourage both snake-handling and speaking in tongues" (LaBarre 1969, 11). Snake handlers have also found themselves accused of "misappropriating" God's power or rather that handling snakes is beyond the purview of mortal men (Burton 1993, 69).
The biggest of all obstacles for snake handlers has occurred in the arena of the law. Since the start, snake handlers have found themselves under the scrutiny of legal authorities of both the state and local municipalities. In the decade between 1940 and 1950 six southern states (Kentucky 1940, Georgia 1941, Tennesee 1947, Virginia 1947, North Carolina 1949, Alabama 1950) banned the practice of snake handling. Each state based their legislation on the premise that the First Amendment right to the free practice of religion was superseded by the potential danger to non-participants (Burton 1993, 81). In Alabama and Georgia it was ruled to be a felony charge while the other four states deemed the infraction only a misdemeanor. The logic for a felony charge was that if someone violated this law and a death occurred then capital punishment was the reasonable as punishment. Alabama and Georgia would later repeal their laws (Burton 1993, 81).
The legislation banning the practice is by its very nature problematic. First the laws were quite vague in both the opinion of law enforcement officials (i.e. the police and sheriff's departments) and prosecuting attorneys. The law as interpreted by the authorities precluded arrest, because local sheriffs generally believed that if a person felt there were danger, he or she would leave. Thus the clause mandating that bystanders have to be in danger for an arrest to be made was rendered void. The other reason is that as often as not, there was not enough evidence to prosecute a snake handler effectively (Burton 1993, 84).
As previously mentioned, the application of these laws is very problematic. A second issue involved in banning snake handling centers on the question, Are legal sanctions an effective means of deterence? Beyond trying and convicting snake handlers, however, will legal action ever stop the snake handlers from worshipping in this fashion? More pointedly: Will the arrest of these people stimulate more snake handling, due to the publicity of the arrest and, or in some sense, martyr the "perpetrators?" An answer from the snake handlers is found in Acts 5:29, "We ought to obey God rather than men" (Burton 1993, 85). If this quote is any indication, then laws will not stop snake handlers from worshipping in their own, albeit, peculiar, fashion.
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.
- 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.
- 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.