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Snake handling, also called 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 passage from the New Testament 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:
And when they were escaped, then they knew that the island was called Melita. And the barbarous people shewed us no little kindness: for they kindled a fire, and received us every one, because of the present rain, and because of the cold. And when Paul had gathered a bundle of sticks, and laid them on the fire, there came a viper out of the heat, and fastened on his hand. And when the barbarians saw the venomous beast hang on his hand, they said among themselves, No doubt this man is a murderer, whom, though he hath escaped the sea, yet vengeance suffereth not to live. And he shook off the beast into the fire, and felt no harm. Howbeit they looked when he should have swollen, or fallen down dead suddenly: but after they had looked a great while, and saw no harm come to him, they changed their minds, and said that he was a god.
George Went Hensley (1880–1955) introduced snake handling practices into the Church of God Holiness, an association of autonomous Christian Methodist congregations, founding the Dolly Pond Church of God in Birchwood, Tenn. in 1910. He later traveled the Southeast promoting the practice, eventually resigning his ministry to start the first holiness movement church to require snake handling as evidence of salvation. If believers truly had the Holy Spirit within them, Hensley argued, they should be able to handle rattlesnakes and any number of other venomous serpents. They should also be able to drink poison and suffer no harm whatsoever. Snake handling as a test or demonstration of faith became popular wherever Hensley traveled and preached in the small towns of Tennessee, Kentucky, the Carolinas, Virginia, Ohio, and Indiana. Sister-churches later sprang up throughout the Appalachian region.
As in the early days, worshipers are still encouraged to lay hands on the sick, speak in tongues, provide testimony of miracles, and occasionally consume poisons such as strychnine. Snake handlers do not worship snakes, instead using the snakes to show non-Christians that God protects them from harm. In church services, when they feel the anointing of the Holy Spirit come upon them, these Christians reach into boxes, pick up venomous snakes and hold them up as they pray, sing, and dance. 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 preach against any use of tobacco or alcohol.
Most religious snake handlers are still found in the Appalachian Mountains and other parts of the southeastern United States, especially in Alabama, Georgia, Kentucky, North Carolina, Tennessee, West Virginia, and South Carolina. In 2001, about 40 small churches practiced snake handling, most of them considered to be holiness-Pentecostals or charismatics. In 2004, there were four snake handling congregations in the provinces of Alberta and British Columbia, Canada. Like their predecessors, today's snake handlers believe in a strict and literal interpretation of the Bible, and most Church of God with Signs Following churches are non-denominational, believing that denominations are human-made and carry the Mark of the Beast. Worshipers attend services several nights a week, where if the Holy Spirit "intervenes", services can last up to five hours; the minimum is usually ninety minutes. Those who die from snakebites are never criticized for lack of adequate faith; it is believed that it was simply the deceased’s time to die.
Although exact records are difficult to substantiate, at least 71 people have been killed by venomous snakebites during religious services in the United States. The first report of a death from a serpent bite occurred in 1922 at the Church of God Evangel. Hensley, 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, although 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. In 1992, Glen Summerford, a serpent-handling preacher, was convicted of attempted murder of his wife with a rattlesnake.
There is no documented case of a non-handling member being bitten by a serpent handled by another believer. Those who handle are consenting adults and as few as ten to fifteen percent of congregants handle the snakes in services. Children do not participate, and those not handling the serpents sit apart from the ritual as it proceeds.
All Appalachian states except West Virginia outlawed the snake-handling ritual when it first emerged. 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, ten 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 (FGTJN) 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.
Jamie Coots (son of Gregory Coots), who was featured in a National Geographic Channel program, Snake Salvation, was cited 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. Coots died from a snake bite on February 15, 2014, after refusing medical treatment. Just months before his death, Coots published an op-ed in The Wall Street Journal, making an argument for US Constitutional protection regarding religious freedom, especially freedom to practice the unique variety of religion found in snake-handling churches.
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. The American Civil Liberties Union has defended the religious freedom of snake handlers against various attempts to have the practice banned.
Kristen Wiley, curator of the Kentucky Reptile Zoo said 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 and kept in crowded areas. Snakes that are maltreated are less likely to strike and the deteriorated condition of the snake produces weaker venom, suggesting that deaths related to snake-handling are more likely to occur when someone is bitten while handling a newly captive snake, still in relatively good health, and then refuses medical treatment. Snakes living in the captivity of snake handlers live an average of three to four months, compared to a well-cared for snake in captivity which can live 10 – 20 years.
The final twelve verses of Mark 16 are a point of controversy. Most scholars, following the approach of the textual critic Bruce Metzger, believe that verses 9-20 were not part of the original text. Chronologically, the Gospel of Mark was the first of the four gospels, and the last twelve verses of Mark are absent from the two earliest manuscripts. Early third-century theologians like Origen and Clement of Alexandria also make no mention of them. Because of patristic evidence from the late 2nd century for the existence of copies of Mark with the longer ending, it is contended by a majority of scholars that the longer ending must have been written and attached no later than the early 2nd century.