When the Rev. Dwayne Long picked up a rattlesnake in church last Sunday to show his faith in God, he was breaking a Virginia law that makes it a misdemeanor to handle dangerous snakes.
A conviction could have cost him $250.
His convictions, however, cost him his life.
Long, 45, died the next day of a snakebite he suffered during an Easter service at a Lee County church, drawing a media spotlight on the practice of handling poisonous snakes as the ultimate submission to God’s will.
“Every time you come to church, it’s a matter of life or death,” biblical scholar Bill Leonard said of the practice.
Followers of the fundamentalist movement, who usually gather in small, rural churches scattered throughout Appalachia, read literally the words of Mark 16:17-18, which includes the “taking up of serpents” as one of five signs that identify true believers.
So fervent is the belief that Lee County Sheriff Gary Parsons figures a misdemeanor citation and a fine would not deter snake handlers from their faith.
The way Parsons sees it, what happened to Long at Arthurs Chapel in the community of Rose Hill is no concern of the law.
“I don’t feel I’m in a position to question the way they believe,” said Parsons. “They make a conscious decision to go in that church and worship in that manner. If it was in a public place, it might be different.”
Although statistics are hard to come by, it’s estimated that between 70 and 80 people have died from snakebites suffered during a church service since the practice began in the early 1900s, according to Leonard, dean of the divinity school at Wake Forest University, who has researched and written about snake handling in Appalachia.
The practice has Pentecostal origins and can also involve drinking poison and speaking in tongues. It’s believed to have about 2,000 followers – although that number, too, is only an estimate.
“Many of these services are way back up in a hollow somewhere, so who knows?” Leonard said.
Relatives of Long, the son of a snake-handling preacher and the father of five children, said through the funeral home that they did not wish to comment. Several members of the congregation also declined to speak or did not return telephone calls.
“They’re very private people,” Parsons said.
As the sheriff fielded calls from local newspapers and The New York Times last week, and as the news of Long’s death was carried across the country and as far away as Canada and Britain, some researchers who have spent time with the snake handlers say the sensational nature of such incidents often leads to unfair stereotypes.
“These people are not just religious fanatics; they’re not strange people,” said Thomas Burton, a professor emeritus of English at East Tennessee State University and the author of the book, “Serpent Handling Believers.”
One such tenet, from the book of Mark, quotes Jesus speaking to his disciples before he ascends to heaven: “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.”
By handling poisonous snakes during their often-frenzied religious services, “they believe they’re verifying the word of God for the rest of us,” Leonard said. “They’re saying that if it’s not possible to take up serpents, then maybe it’s not possible that Jesus rose from the dead.”
Although most Pentecostals do not practice snake handling, historians trace the origin of the practice to George Went Hensley, a Pentecostal minister. He preached in the mountains of eastern Tennessee during the first decade of the 20th century.
By one account, Hensley was in the midst of a sermon about Mark 16 when some men dumped a box full of rattlesnakes in front of him. Hensley is said to have picked up the snakes while continuing to preach, thus starting a practice that ultimately led to his death in 1955.
When a worshipper is bitten by a snake and dies, followers generally accept it simply as God’s decision that it was time to take that soul.
“Some will say that God doesn’t say that you won’t get bit, or you won’t die, he just says to do this,” Burton said.
The decision to take up a serpent is usually made only after intense prayer, often during high-energy services that include music from guitars, drums and tambourines.
Those who feel “anointed,” or overcome with the presence of God, are the ones who handle the snakes, which are kept in “serpent boxes” that are sometimes decorated and branded with Bible verses.
Snake handlers usually represent about 10 percent of the congregation, but all of the worshippers are said to be powerfully affected by the display.
“There’s a kind of voyeuristic danger to it,” Leonard said.
Leonard and others agree that for the most part, members of the congregations come from secluded rural areas where residents face financial and educational hurdles.
“They’ve lived hard, and they get saved hard,” Leonard said. “They’ve often had lives that were … rough and coarse, and some of them have been in trouble with the law. And then they get saved. And just as they sinned hard, they live for Jesus hard.”
But there are questions among biblical scholars about whether Mark 16:17-18 is really part of the Gospel, according to Rusty Simon, a director at Mission Virginia in Roanoke, a Pentecostal-based program that trains young people for the ministry. Even if the verse is genuine, there’s still the question of whether it should be interpreted so literally.
“I like to offer people grace and just assume they are sincere, although sincerely in error,” Simon said.
A right to handle snakes?
Prosecutions for snake handling are rare, even though every state except West Virginia has a law against the practice, Burton said.
“I think that generally, law enforcement feels that these people are better left alone as long as nothing happens,” he said. “If somebody gets killed, that sometimes brings about charges if they feel pressure to do something about it.”
Long’s death was not reported to police, and authorities checked into the incident only after hearing about it through “word on the street,” Parsons said.
After being bitten by the rattlesnake last Sunday, Long decided not to seek medical attention, authorities said. As is often the practice, members of the congregation prayed for Long, who died early Monday at his home in Rose Hill.
In Virginia, it is a misdemeanor to handle poisonous snakes “in such a manner as to endanger the life or health of any person.” The offense does not carry a possible jail term; the maximum fine is $250.
Meredith Farrar-Owens, associate director of the Virginia Sentencing Commission, said a statewide search of often-incomplete misdemeanor records found just one prosecution under the law since 1997, in Henrico County.
It’s unclear if that case stemmed from a religious service. Officials in the Henrico County commonwealth’s attorney’s office could not be reached for comment.
Although many believers assert they have a First Amendment right to pick up a snake or drink poison as part of a religious service, that issue has never been decided by the U.S. Supreme Court, according to Burton.
In researching his book, Burton found several state Supreme Court decisions. One of them, decided in 1947 by the Tennessee Supreme Court, affirmed the convictions of several members of a serpent-handling church. The high court ruled that while the right to believe is absolute, Burton said, the right to practice a religion that entails snake handling is conditional upon the state’s interest in maintaining a “robust citizenry.”
Parsons said he might be more inclined to use the law under different circumstances, such as someone handing a snake to a juvenile or an unwilling participant.
But snake handlers don’t try to coerce anyone to reach inside a serpent box, according to Burton.
“Almost invariably the pastor will say, ‘This is dangerous stuff,’” Burton said. “If you’re not anointed by God to do this, you better not do it. There’s death in that box.”