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The Truth About Snake Handling and Snake Handlers
The Practice of Snake Handling!Click thumbnail to view full-size
My Only 'Experience' With Snake Handling!?
Barbara and I are on our way to a new pastorate in a rural area in the Appalachian Mountains. We are anxious, excited and, more than a bit apprehensive. We drive the windy mountain roads, and observe the Creator’s beauty in the bounty of the many scenic backgrounds. As I marvel at God’s handiwork, we chatter the challenge of taking a new pastorate among this hard working, spirited hill folk. I do not know the congregation, and my appointment is an adventurous muddle of faith with some fear, a lot of hope with a smidgen of optimism, and topped with continual prayer. I arrive at the parsonage and am greeted by the church treasurer. He informs me that they are not quite ready for us to begin unloading our moving truck, “Take a few minutes and visit the church first.” He appears to me as a pleasant man, but maybe a bit of a prankster. Barbara and I approach the entrance of the church. We slowly survey the church, and we can feel our faith and optimism grow. I am the kind of fellow that enjoys laughing and some clean tomfoolery. The fact is that I enjoy teasing my wife with some not so practical humor. Earlier, I tried to push Barbara’s buttons by chiding her about these mountain folks handling serpents. Goal accomplished! Of course they did not handle snakes, but that did not stop me from privately taking task with her more serious side. As we approach the exit way, the evening light garnished what appeared to me to be a copper colored rubber play snake. I think how odd this spectacle is. I did not see this snake upon entrance. Having an unsound mental moment, I reasoned, “This is a joke played by my treasurer and the welcome party of the church!” Mountain folks, jokes about snake handling, and a new pastor who needs to be broken in – it all made perfect sense, and it is funny. My confused reasoning brings me to a monumental blunder. Not to be outdone, I upped the ante, “Look my dear! A snake, I will handle him!” I scurry to the spot of the ‘vicious’ serpent, and give the creature a hardy kick. You guessed it; it is not a rubber snake! The snake proceeds to coil himself with a quite menacing gesture, and the joke is on me! It is not poisonous, but I do not know that. This pastor, grabs his wife, and flees with heart in hand, and with humility to the quick. The story travels like buckshot through those mountains. Sister Hatfield (a real descendant of the Hatfield’s and McCoy’s), the rest of our ladies auxiliary and all the elders meet me on my first Sunday with a tale of daring do about their serpent handling minister with his foot in his mouth and his snake on the run!
Jolo, WV Homecoming 2008
Serpent Handler Pastor Jimmy Morrow
Dewey Chaffin of Holiness serpent handler
I write this hub to bring some interesting and helpful facts about these groups. I believe they are sincere, but they are sincerely misguided.
Actually, snake handling is a serious practice by a small number of mostly Appalachian Christians. These Christians should not be demonized, although it is very easy for people to do so. I write this hub to bring some interesting and helpful facts about these groups. I believe they are sincere, but they are sincerely misguided. The practice of the handling of serpents began in the early 20th century in Appalachia, with a scattering throughout mostly coal mining towns. The observance plays only a small part of the church service of churches that believe in snake handling. Practitioners believe serpent handling dates to the distant past and quote the Book of Mark and the Book of Luke to support the practice:
Mark 16:17-18 And these signs shall follow them that believe; In my name shall they cast out devils; they shall speak with new tongues; (18) 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. (KJV Bible)
Luke 10:19 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. (KJV Bible)
As a result of these texts and taking an extremely literal interpretation, these few churches practice snake handling. Not every service and not every believer handles serpents. It is only during some of the church services, some of the people actually handle poisonous snakes. This act allegedly gives evidence that they are true believers who are empowered and sheltered by God. I believe they are sincere but sincerely wrong!
What Would Jesus Do?
Why I Believe A Christian Should NOT practice Snake Handling
Is that what Mark 16:17-18 is really instructing us to do? I know a lot of good Christian people do not see eye to eye with my study of Scriptures, and I respect that. Before the reader of this hub makes a snap judgment, I ask you to take note of the following facts:
- Nowhere in the New Testament (or in these passages) is there an imperative for the Christian to pick up serpents or drink poison as a matter of practice.
- If this were to be a church doctrine and practice, we would find examples in the New Testament worship where they practiced it.
- To codify snake handling as accepted practice, such as water baptism or communion, would be to add to Biblical imperative and lay an undue burden on the Christian Body. I remind you that Paul preached a similar teaching as regards to converts having to be circumcised as many Jewish Christians taught.
- When Jesus was tempted in the wilderness, the Devil quoted Messianic Scripture to persuade Jesus to jump off a cliff. Jesus could have done this but refused, and said that we should not do things to “tempt” God to protect us!
So, I take the words of Mark to mean that supernatural signs (these and others) have continually followed believers from the beginning. The believers are not to follow after, nor seek any signs. The believers are but to believe, the disciples are but to learn, to follow and to carry their daily cross. This is ample burden for any man to bear. Any miracles or signs are in the LORD’s hands, not ours. God often winks at our ignorance and indulges our hardened hearts, but it is not His will for us to make a spectacle of our grace.
As to handling snakes or poison being a sign of special favor, I would rather live my life in balance with a good, consistent, disciplined testimony. It is better for my life to be like a consistent star than cannon blast in the night. One may get more attention, but the star gives lasting light and guidance to those who need direction. I pray that my life will be such that when my time comes, I will need no eulogy of my greatness in faith and power. Instead, my friends will say, “He is a Christian!”
Here are the reading resources I found helpful in writing this hub!
- National Geographic: Snake Handlers Hang On in Appalachian Churches
For a small number of churches, found mostly in Appalachia in the Southeastern United States, handling venemous serpents during religious services is an often dangerous, sometimes deadly, century-old calling.
- Holiness Snake Handlers Official Website - Home
Official website which the beliefs of Bible snake handlers.
- Snake handling: Information from Answers.com
Snakes played a prominent part in pagan mythologies and religious ceremonies long before the Judeo-Christian story of the Garden of Eden. The snake has often been regarded as a fertility symbol. ...
- Snake Handling (ART Blurbs)
- Snake handling - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
- Church of God with Signs Following - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Most Churches Have Reputiated This Practice
I am an ordained Bishop in the Church of God, a denomination with headquarters in Cleveland, Tennessee. Our churches repudiated snake handling in the 1920’s. We needed to publicly state that we do not accept such practices. Many, if not most, of the churches that practice this teaching use some form of the name “Church of God.” This has been a blemish we have endured for years. The name may have been taken from the Church of God because of a minister, George Went Hensley, of Grasshopper Valley in southeastern Tennessee, taught the practice and left the Church of God denomination to form his own group.
Serpent handling in north Alabama and north Georgia began with James Miller in Sand Mountain, Alabama. This movement originated at about the same time. It seems that Miller formed his belief independently of any acquaintance with Hensley's ministry. Snake handling in due course crossed the borders into Canada into the provinces of Alberta and British Columbia. Worship services are mostly typical for fundamentalist, Pentecostal believing churches. They all include singing, praying and preaching. If the worship seems right, some believers may approach the front and take snakes (mostly venomous snakes native to Appalachia) in hand, lift them in the air as if to show their power over them. Believers see these creatures as incarnations of demons. It is important to note that members are not required to handle snakes. People die of snakebites in some of these religious services. National Geographic reports that there have been over 100 cases documented in the United States. Snake bites during worship are viewed as caused by a lack of faith, or the believer not fully following the leadership of the Holy Ghost. Ironically, George Hensley died in Florida in 1955 from a poisonous snakebite.
I believe that there be may be nothing supernatural about handling snakes and surviving. I am told that with study and practice a person can learn to keep one step ahead of the snake and not be bitten. Holding the snake near its head limits its ability to strike, and not all venomous snakes are equally likely to bite. Keeping snakes well fed, cool and calm prevents bites. Also, snakes that are hand treated from hatching may grow used to being handled. As to the bites, folks have survived them before. Different snakes, different bites, different amounts and potency of fang injected venom, differing health of the victims all make death far from certain. It should also be noted that many of these survivors have been bitten many times and are scarred with distorted extremities.
At any rate, God is in charge, not I. If He wills to protect misguided believers from harm, or if He wills to see them through a snake bite, I do not debate this. I do strongly disagree with this extremist practice, and I believe it does more harm to the Christian church than it does good.
Finally, let me say that, although I am very much offended by this practice, I do believe that these churches have many sincere, God loving, born again Christians. I remember talking to a pastor friend of mine years ago. My best description of his demeanor is that he was wrung with anger. I ask him, “What is wrong, Brother?” He burst out, “I get so upset with Christians who, when they feel close to God, think it is their calling to condemn everyone else!” He had some fragile believers he was trying to nurture, and some self-made judges were undermining his work. I know there is a thin line between correction and edification, but we must all be careful in our words.
Few outsiders are drawn to this practice of serpent handling, but it is part of the Appalachian tradition. Tom Burton, a professor emeritus at East Tennessee State University, says that as long as there is an Appalachia, there will be snake handlers. (see National Geographic link)