National Geographic News, Apr. 7, 2003
Brian Handwerk, for National Geographic News
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
For serpent-handling churches, these verses hold no symbolism — they are the literal words of the Lord that have inspired worshiping believers to handle poisonous snakes for a hundred years.
Serpent handling is always controversial and in many areas illegal, yet it shows no signs of disappearing from its traditional home in Appalachia, the mountainous regions of the Southeastern United States stretching from Georgia to Pennsylvania.
Junior G. McCormick is a serpent-handling pastor from Georgia. He explains that, for him, handling snakes is simply following the gospel to the letter. “Other folks don’t do this because their churches don’t believe, or it’s just something they’re scared of,” he said. “They come to that scripture but want to jump over that part because it’s a deadly thing.”
(Practitioners, or self-described sign-followers, prefer the term serpent-handling to snake-handling noting that they incorporate poisonous reptiles not common snakes into religious worship.)
The practice began in the early 1900s. Its popularity has waxed and waned through the years. According to Ralph Hood, a professor of social psychology and the psychology of religion at the University of Tennessee, Chattanooga, serpent handling is currently at a fairly low ebb of popularity. Such fluctuations are characteristic of a faith that persists throughout Appalachia.
The perception that communities that practice serpent-handling church services are poor, isolated rural areas is simply no longer accurate, according to Hood.
“Historically that’s where it emerged, but that’s no longer the case,” said Hood. “Some of these churches are near cities like Atlanta, Georgia, or Middlesboro, Kentucky — and the middle Appalachian region itself is less rural than it used to be. Serpent handling is no longer restricted to miners.”
While a number of churches with small congregations around a dozen members survive throughout the heart of Appalachia, the faith is also practiced in adjacent states of Ohio and Alabama.
Churches survive and grow not by attracting new members, but because of enduring family traditions. “Serpent handling is maintained through powerful families whose children have carried on that tradition for up to four generations,” Hood said. “There are a small number of converts, but they generally maintain themselves through these families, and by people marrying into the tradition.”
While Junior McCormick’s grandparents handled serpents, he said he came to the practice later, after a religious awakening that included baptism and scripture study. “I prayed for this, for God to give me the sign to do this because it was in the scriptures,” he said. “I don’t want to get out of it. I want to get further into it.”
Churches that practice serpent handling tend to be wary of publicity. This desire for privacy stems, in large part, from negative media attention that inevitably follows the practice after injuries or deaths due to snakebite occur.
“There are over 100 documented deaths from serpent bites,” said Hood. “In every tradition, people are bitten and maimed by them. They risk their lives all the time by handling them. If you go to any serpent-handling church, you’ll see people with atrophied hands, and missing fingers. All the serpent-handling families have suffered such things.”
“It’s a misconception that these people believe they won’t get hurt,” Hood explains. “The Bible says to take up serpents, not that they won’t be bitten. If they’re bit, that’s up to God. The issue is obedience to God. There’s no magic power type of stuff. They know the reality of it because so many families have had people hurt and killed.”
Junior McCormick has seen many serpent-handling bites, and experienced them himself. None of those experiences have deterred him from answering his calling. “Some people were bit, and I believe God was ready for them and their time had come,” he said. “I was bit 14 times, by rattlesnakes, copperheads, water moccasins, and I never used anti venom — all I had was just Jesus. I’ve been bitten badly, but I’ll go back the next week and take them out [serpents] again.”
What is it that inspires these worshipers to handle poisonous snakes? Like other Christian fundamentalists, serpent handlers’ beliefs are rooted in a literal interpretation of the scriptures.
These activities don’t dominate services, but play a limited role within more traditional worship. “In almost all serpent-handling churches, they don’t handle them all the time. They usually don’t even handle them every Sunday,” Burton explained.
Tom Burton, a professor emeritus at East Tennessee State University, has attended many snake-handling services and studied the practice for over 30 years. He’s the author of Serpent-Handling Believers, an authoritative study of the belief. Burton says that much of what goes on at such churches would be familiar to other Christians. “If you were there when they were not taking up serpents, or even during other parts of a service where they did, it would be like many other Pentecostal groups,” he explained. “There is singing, preaching, laying on of hands, preying, testifying, and that sort of thing. It’s kind of an expressive church service where people freely share emotions, a very participatory service like most Pentecostal services.”
But those anointed by the Holy Spirit answer the calling by taking up the deadly reptiles or by drinking poisons. Burton said: “Only certain individuals commonly handle serpents, and it goes without saying that they warn people: ‘If you’re not directed by the Holy Ghost to do this, you’d better not.'”
While few outsiders are drawn to the dangerous and controversial practice, Ralph Hood predicts that it’s future is assured. “Since the beginning people have been predicting that it will disappear, but as long as there is Appalachia there will be handlers,” he explained. “It’s an integral part of Appalachian tradition and it’s not going to fade away.”