Snake week continues with a dramatic return to my native Appalachia. Up in the mountains, devout Christianity has taken on a great many colorful forms, but arguably none are quite as exciting as the rites celebrated by the Pentecostal Snake-handlers. Snake-handling in Appalachia is said to have a long history rooted in 19th century revivals and tent-show evangelism, but its documented history starts with an illiterate but charismatic Pentecostal minister named George Went Hensley. Around 1910 Hensley had a religious revelation based on two specific New Testament Bible verses. Couched in the flinty vaguely apocalyptic language of the Gospels, the two verses which obsessed Hensley read as follows:
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
And he said unto them, I beheld Satan as lightning fall from heaven. 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: 18-19)
While many believers might chose to understand these lines as a general affirmation of Christ’s devotion to his flock, Hensley was very much a literalist (and a showman). Believing that the New Testament commanded the faithful to handle venomous snakes, he set about obtaining a number of poisonous snakes and incorporating them into his ministry. The practice quickly spread along the spine of the mountains and beyond. Even today the Church of God with Signs Following (aka the snake handlers) numbers believers in the thousands.
A service at the Church of God with Signs Following includes standard Pentecostal practices such as faith healing, testimony of miracles, and speaking in tongues (along with much boisterous jumping and testifying), however what sets the ceremony apart are the live poisonous snakes which are located in a special area behind the alter located at the front of the church. Throughout the service, worshipers can come forward and pick up the serpents and even let the snakes crawl over their bodies. Native pit vipers such as copperheads, timber rattlers, and water moccasins are most commonly used in the ceremonies but exotic poisonous snakes like cobras are sometimes included. The snakes act as a proxy for devils and demons. Handling the reptiles is believed to demonstrate power over these underworld forces. If a congregant is bitten (which has happened often), it is usually regarded as an individual or group failure of faith. Upon being bitten devout snake-handlers generally refuse treatment, regarding this as part of their sacrament.
Not only do snake handlers handle snakes they also sometimes drink strychnine to prove their devotion. Additionally (although less alarmingly) they adhere to a conservative dress code of ankle-length dresses, long hair, and no make-up for women, and short hair and oxford shirts for men. Tobacco and alcohol are regarded as sinful.
Snake handling has a long and twisty relationship with state laws. In Georgia, in 1941, state legislators passed a bill which made Pentecostal snake handling into a felony and mandated the death penalty for participants, however the law was so extreme that juries refused to enforce it and it was eventually repealed. A number of states still have old laws clearly designed to curtail the practice of the faith (often these were instituted after particularly controversial deaths, particularly those of children).
The founder of snake handling, George Went Hensley, also had a twisty serpentine course through life. After founding and popularizing the church during the World War I era, he strayed somewhat from the life of a minister. During the 20’s he had substantial problems in his home life caused by drinking and moonshining. After being arrested for the latter, Hensley was sentenced to work on a chain gang but he beguiled the guards into other duties with his likability and, on an errand to fetch water, he escaped and fled from Tennessee. He worked various occupations including miner, moonshiner, and faith healer and married various women before returning to his ministry in the mid-thirties. During the next decades, Hensley led a vivid life involving a multi-state ministry (which was the subject of a miniature media circus), various drunken fits and conflicts, multiple marriages, and lots of poisonous snakes. The odds caught up to him in Altha, Florida in 1955 when he was bitten on the wrist by a venomous snake which he had removed from a lard can and rubbed on his face. After becoming visibly ill from the bite, he refused treatment (and is said to have rebuked his congregation for their lack of faith) before dying of snakebite. When he died he had been married 4 times and fathered 13 known children. He also had claimed to have been bitten over 400 times by various snakes.
Hensley always asserted that he was not the father of snake-handling, however he certainly popularized the movement. Even today, Christians of a certain mindset can prove their faith by harassing toxic reptiles (although the religion’s legality is disputed in many states where it is practiced).