Snake handling or serpent handling is a religious ritual in a small number of Pentecostal churches in the U.S., usually characterized as rural and part of the Holiness movement. The practice began in the early 20th century in Appalachia, and plays only a small part in the church service. Practitioners believe serpent handling dates to antiquity and quote the Gospel of Mark and the Gospel of Luke to support the practice:
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. (Mark 16:17-18)
Behold, I give unto you power to tread on serpents and scorpions, and over all the power of the enemy: and nothing shall by any means hurt you. (Luke 10:19)
Another scripture used to support snake handlers' belief is Acts 28:1-6, which relates that Paul was bitten by a venomous viper and suffered no harm.
George Went Hensley preaching in 1947 outside a Hamilton County, Tennessee courthouse in which a snake-handling minister was on trial (from Taking Up Serpents: Snake Handlers of Eastern Kentucky by David L. Kimbrough)
George Went Hensley (1880–1955) introduced snake handling practices into the Church of God Holiness, circa 1910. He later resigned his ministry and started the first holiness movement church to require snake handling as evidence of salvation. Sister-churches later sprang up throughout the Appalachian region.
Snake handlers today and practices
As in the early days, worshipers are still encouraged to lay hands on the sick (cf. faith healing), speak in tongues (cf. glossolalia), provide testimony of miracles, and occasionally consume poisons such as strychnine. Gathering mainly in homes and converted buildings, snake handlers generally adhere to strict dress codes such as uncut hair, ankle-length dresses, and no cosmetics for women; and short hair and long-sleeved shirts for men. Most snake handlers preach against any use of tobacco or alcohol.
Some of the leaders in these churches have been bitten numerous times, as indicated by their distorted extremities. Hensley himself, the founder of modern snake handling in the Appalachian Mountains, died of a snakebite in 1955. In 1998, snake-handling evangelist John Wayne "Punkin" Brown died after being bitten by a timber rattlesnake at the Rock House Holiness Church in rural northeastern Alabama. While members of his family contend that his death was probably due to a heart attack, Brown's wife had died three years earlier after being bitten in Kentucky. Another snake handler died in 2006 at a church in Kentucky. In 2012, Pentecostal Pastor Mack Wolford died of a rattlesnake bite sustained while officiating at an outdoor service in West Virginia, as did his father in 1983.
Herpetologists have opined that the risk of fatal bites is significantly reduced by the familiarity of the snakes with humans, and by the poor health of snakes that are insufficiently fed and watered.
The states of Alabama, Kentucky, and Tennessee have passed laws against the use of venomous snakes and/or other reptiles that endangers the lives of others, or without a permit. The Kentucky law specifically mentions religious services; in Kentucky snake handling is a misdemeanor and punishable by a $50 to $100 fine. Most snake handling, therefore, takes place in the homes of worshipers, which circumvents the process of attempting to obtain a government permit for the practice. Law enforcement usually ignores it unless and until they are specifically called in, which does not usually happen unless a death has resulted.
In July 2008, 10 people were arrested and 125 venomous snakes were confiscated as part of an undercover sting operation titled "Twice Shy." Pastor Gregory James Coots of the Full Gospel Tabernacle in Jesus' Name (father of Jamie Coots, who would later be featured in a National Geographic Channel program, Snake Salvation, on the practice) was arrested and 74 snakes seized from his home as part of the sting. A Tennessee woman died in 1995 due to a rattlesnake bite sustained during a service at the FGTJN church. Coots was cited again in 2013 for illegal possession and transportation of venomous snakes when three rattlesnakes and two copperheads were discovered in his vehicle during a vehicle check in Knoxville, Tennessee.
Snake handling is legal in the state of West Virginia, as the current state constitution does not allow any law to impede upon nor promote a religious practice.
Snake handling was made a felony punishable by death under Georgia law in 1941, following the death of a seven-year-old of a rattlesnake bite. However, the punishment was so severe that juries would refuse to convict, and the law was repealed in 1968.
Robert Schenkkan's play The Handler deals with the apparent death of a first-time snake handler and the involvement of law enforcement; in this case, the sheriff also being a snake handler.
Ray Stevens's "Smoky Mountain Rattlesnake Retreat" comically portrays a couple going to a Bible camp where snakes are passed around. It ends with the singer's wife stomping the rattlesnakes to death. It appears on his Surely You Joust album.
The second season of Saturday Night Live included a sitcom parody called The Snake-Handling O'Sheas.
In the 2012 movie The Campaign, Congressman Cam Brady (played by Will Ferrell) attempts to boost his campaign popularity by joining a church of snake handlers in their sermon, where he is bitten.
Snake Salvation, a 2013 program produced by the National Geographic Channel, features modern snake-handlers. (The show specifically features the lives of Jamie Coots, pastor of the Full Gospel Tabernacle in Jesus Name in Middlesboro, Kentucky, and Andrew Hamblin, pastor of the Tabernacle Church of God in LaFollette, Tennessee.)
^Encyclopedia of American Religions gives the year as 1909; the Encyclopedia of Religion in the South gives it as 1913.
^Anderson, Robert Mapes (1979). Vision of the Disinherited: The Making of American Pentecostalism. New York, New York; Oxford: Oxford University Press. p. 263.
^Hood, Jr., Ralph W.; Williamson, W. Paul (2008). Them That Believe: The Power and the Meaning of the Christian Serpent-Handling Tradition. Berkeley and Los Angeles, California: University of California Press. pp. xiv, 37, 38. ISBN978-0-520-25587-6.
^Dennis Covington, Salvation on Sand Mountain: Snake Handling and Redemption in Southern Appalachia (Reading, MA.: Addison-Wesley, 1995).
Ralph W. Hood, Jr. and W. Paul Williamson, Them That Believe: The Power and Meaning of the Christian Serpent-Handling Tradition (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2008).
Dennis Covington: Salvation on Sand Mountain: Snake Handling and Salvation in Southern Appalachia: New York: Penguin: 1996.
Thomas Burton: Serpent Handling Believers: Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press: 1993.
Fred Brown and Jeanne MacDonald: The Serpent Handlers: Three Families and Their Faith: Winston-Salem: J.F.Blair: 2000.
Julia Duin, "Serpent-handling pastor profiled earlier in Washington Post dies from snakebite," The Washington Post, May 29, 2012.
Duin: "Death of snake-handling preacher shines light on lethal Appalachian tradition," CNN.com, June 2, 2012
Duin: "Reviving faith by taking up serpents," The Wall Street Journal, April 7, 2012
Weston LaBarre: They shall take up serpents: The psychology of the Southern Snake Handling Cult: University of Minnesota Press: 1962.
David Kinburgh: Taking Up Serpents: Snake Handlers of Eastern Kentucky: Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press: 1996.
Jim Morrow and Ralph Hood: Handling Serpents: Pastor Jimmy Morrow's Narrative History of his Appalachian Jesus' Name Tradition: Macon: Mercer University Press: 2005.
Ralph Hood and David Kimbrough: "Serpent Handling Pentecostal Sects: Theoretical Considerations" Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion: 34:3: (September 1995): 311-332
Stephen Kane: "Ritual Possession in a Southern Appalachian Religious Sect" The Journal of American Folklore: 27:348 (October-December 1974): 293-302.
Paul Williamson and Ralph Hood Jr: "Differential Maintenance and Growth of Religious Organisations Based on High-Cost Behaviours: Serpent Handling with the Church of God" Review of Religious Research: 46:2 (December 2004): 150-168.
Paul W. Williamson and Howard R. Pollo: "The Phenomenology of Religious Serpent Handling: A Rationale and Thematic Study of Extemporaneous Sermons" Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion: 38:2 (June 1999): 203-218.