Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Snake Handling and Mark 16:18

   And these signs shall follow them that believe; “In my name shall the cast out devils; they shall speak with new tongues. They shall take up serpentsand if they drink any deadly thing, it shall not hurt them; they shall lay hand on the sick, and they shall recover.”

   So then, after the Lord had spoken unto them, he was received up into heaven, and sat on the right hand of God. And they went forth, and preached every where, the Lord working with them, and confirming the word with signs following. Amen. (Mark 16:17-20 KJV)

When did the church begin to practice snaking handling? Was it originally an American church ritual, tracing its roots back only to the early twentieth century, or did Jesus sanction its practice in his Great Commission (Mark 16:17-20)?

The scholarly consensus today is that the Gospel of Mark ends with 16:8. However, the longer ending (vv. 9-20) has been the dominant reading for most Christians since the second century,[1] and has been viewed by them as authoritative for doctrine and practice. Members of the “True Tabernacle of Jesus Christ” (Middleboro, Kentucky), are a case in point. Along with hundreds of other Oneness Pentecostals associated with the “Jesus’ Name” tradition, they participate in the religious handling of serpents, citing Mark 16:18 as their basis for doing so.

This paper will examine the snake-handling phenomenon from an historical, biblical and theological perspective, and show it to be indigenous to America with no counterpart in the early church.

Ritualistic snake handling is usually done during a church worship service, and not in private. When snakes are in hibernation during winter months, some churches switch gears and turn to handling fire or drinking poison. They base the latter on Mark 16:18, “And if they drink any deadly thing, it shall not hurt them.” M. Daugherty mentions seeing people drink a “salvation cocktail, a mixture of strychnine or lye and water. . . .”[2] Churches in West Virginian are said to drink deadly things more often than churches in other states.[3]

Snake handlers are a diverse group. They include the unlearned as well as school teachers, teenagers and retirees, mountainfolk and big city dwellers, the unemployed and shop owners; yet, they all have one thing in common—they believe Mark 16:18 to be God’s word and seek to obey it.  Snake handlers embrace what they believe to be the authentic gospel, which is confirmed by the Lord “with signs following” (Mark 16:20).

There is no minimum age to take up serpents, but as a rule the practice is limited to older teens and adults. Children are usually taken to the back of the auditorium when “the anointing” begins to flow.  Some children bring small rubber snakes into the service and wiggle them as they watch their parents handling the real thing.
A typical snake-handling meeting, if such a thing is possible, usually begins with members of the same sex greeting each other with a holy kiss,[4] followed by spontaneous prayers for God to move in the worship service and give victory over the serpents. Oftentimes the people wail and cry and shout and laugh as they call out to Jesus. The music begins to blare and before long everyone is singing and swaying and praising the Lord. Some jump up and down as if on a pogo stick. Others dance in the Spirit. Some fall to the floor, face down with their arms outstretched, or stand tall with hands raised toward heaven, depending on how they are moved by the music and the power of God. A spiritual hootenanny is in progress. The musicians set the tone of the service by the music they choose, usually based on personal preference, be it country western, blue grass, rock and roll, and even old time hymns.[5] They strum their bass guitars and beat the drums as they lead the congregation in a marathon of singing, which can last 45 minutes or more.[6]

One investigator, who called music the “umbilical cord”[7] of a snake-handling service, could not determine if the music was driving the service or the Holy Spirit.[8] No one knows when the anointing will fall—during the vibrant music or after the extemporaneous sermon—but when it does, the place rocks. Spiritual exclamations pierce the air: “Thank you Jesus!” “Hallelujah!” “Glory to God!” Speaking in tongues gush forth like a torrent of water pouring over a causeway during a thunderstorm. Electricity fills the air. The activities taking place in the clapboard church building resemble a combination carnival sideshow, revival meeting, and hospital delivery room. The curious and the enthusiasts each play their respective parts in this drama of life and death. People moan and shout. Hands are placed on the sick and prayers offered. The bodies of the faithful start jerking or twirling uncontrollably. A few even find themselves convulsing on the floor.

An area near the pulpit, often beyond the altar, is designated for handling serpents. The faithful demonstrate their authority over the Enemy by picking up snakes. Many carry a wire cage or wooden box containing rattlers, copperheads or cottonmouths into the meeting.  As the service progresses, and the presence of God gets stronger, those receiving unction lift the lids and pull out deadly the reptiles.  Some of the bravest saints hold several snakes at a time, allowing them to slither and wrap around their arms or necks.  A woman, hair pulled back into a bun, wearing a simple cotton dress, lays a serpent on the floor and steps along the length of its body (Luke 10:19). Most of the handlers appear to be entranced with eyes rolled back and unaware of their surroundings.

A typical service can last between two and a half to three hours, and on occasion may conclude with a segregated foot washing ceremony[9] (men washing each other’s feet and women doing the same) and the Lord’s Supper.


Although critics have charged fraud, claiming that handlers use defanged snakes or ones that have been milked of their venom prior to the worship service, Duke University anthropologist Weston La Barre in his investigation found no proof to substantiate the accusations.[10]

Nearly all practitioners believe snake handling is accomplished by faith. When they obey the Word, God honors their faith and protects. Others, like Rev. C. D. Morris of LaFollette, Tennessee, believe the secret to handling snakes is the anointing. Without unction from God, picking up a snake can be deadly. At his church Morris instituted a policy, known as the “Morris Plan,” which forbade anyone to touch a snake until s/he was anointed.[11] While not officially adopted by other churches, most people follow the plan in principle.

The anointing occurs when the Holy Ghost comes upon and possesses a person in a powerful way.  Although no one can precisely define the experience, it can variously be described as “God moving on me,” “a feeling of empowerment,” “being taken over by God for some divine purpose,” feeling high, being overwhelmed by a sense of joy, peace, and love, or having an experience of “not being there.”[12] Bea Eslinger says the anointing starts as numbness in her hands or in her feet, if she is to tread on serpents. Her lips also become numb if she is to speak tongues or utter a prophecy.[13] Eunice Ball of Newport, Tennessee, who has handled up to six serpents at a time, describes getting “warm all over, like a warm cover.”[14] She too mentions numbness and a tingling sensation: “It feels like a jolt of electricity might feel in your fingers and hands.”[15] Margie McCall of Greenville, South Carolina, says a mild electric shock runs up and down her body from head to toe. Only then does she reach toward the serpent box.[16] Valerie Ward of Kentucky describes the anointing as a “deep churning feeling in the stomach that moves to the mouth; it’s a heavy numbness in the hands, a tingly sensation in the hands; sometimes it goes as far as the elbows; the numbness feels good; you’re at peace.”[17] She also speaks of seeing a blinding light and experiencing a sense of calm.[18]

Dennis Covington, a New York Times reporter, began a year-long investigation into the snake-handling culture at a time when he was struggling with his own spirituality. He tells his captivating story in Salvation on Sand Mountain, a finalist for the prestigious National Book Award. As he lived among the people, personally getting to know and understand them, he came to realize that most were not stupid and gullible, as he first had believed, but merely folks with a simple faith in God. The book reaches a climax when Covington, convicted of his own anemic spiritual condition, suddenly comes “under the anointing of the Spirit” and takes up a serpent for himself. Here is his account:

            "They were making room for me in front of the deacons’ bench. . . . So I got up there in the     middle of the handlers. . . . I’d be possessing the sacred. Nothing was required except obedience. Nothing had to be given up except my own will. This was the moment. I didn’t stop to think about it. I just gave in. I stepped forward   and took the snake with both hands. . . . I turned to face the congregation and lifted the snake up toward the light. It was moving like it wanted to get even           higher, to climb out of that church and into the air. And it was exactly as the handlers had told me. I felt no fear. The snake seemed to be an extension of myself. And suddenly there seemed to be nothing in the room but me and the snake. Everything else disappeared. Carl, the congregation, Jim—all gone, all faded to white. And I could not hear the earsplitting music. The air was silent and   still and filled with that strong, even light. And I realized that I, too, was fading into the white. I was losing myself by degrees, like the incredible shrinking man. The snake would be the last to go, and all I could see was the way its scales shimmered one last time in the light, and the way its head moved from side to side, searching for a way out. I knew then why the handlers took up serpents. There is power in the act of disappearing; there is victory in the loss of self. It must be close to our conception of paradise, what it’s like before you’re born or after you die.

            "I came back in stages, first with the recognition that the shouting I had begun to hear was coming from my own mouth. Then I realized I was holding a rattlesnake, and the church rushed back with all its clamor, heat, and smell. I remembered Carl and turned toward where I thought he might be. I lowered the  snake to waist level. It was an enormous animal, heavy and firm. The scales on its side were as rough as calluses. I could feel its muscles rippling beneath the skin. I was aware it was not part of me now and that I couldn’t predict what it might do. I extended it toward Carl. He took it from me, stepped to the side, and gave it to J.L.

            “'Jesus,' J.L. said. 'Oh, Jesus.' His knees bent, his head went back. I knew it was happening to him too." [19]

What is the anointing? While no one can define it, all believe it to be indispensable in taking up serpents. (See the Appendix for a physiological and psychological explanation of the anointing. Especially note the brainwave and chemical changes that take place in the body during the anointing, which may allow people to handle serpents without fear or harm).


Why do people handle snakes?  According to their testimony, they want to obey the Lord. Second, in doing so, they express their unqualified faith in God. Third, they believe that each success is a sign that the kingdom has arrived and is in their midst in power. Fourth, the act bears witness to the veracity of the gospel:[20] “They went forth, and preached every where, the Lord working with them, and confirming the word with signs following (Mark 16:20).

Daugherty believes that among those in the “Jesus’ Name” tradition, snake handling should be viewed as a sacrament,[21] since it is the central ritual of their faith. It “is their way of celebrating life, death, and resurrection. Time and again they prove to themselves that Jesus has the power to deliver them from death here and now.”[22]


Does any evidence exists, which shows that the post-apostolic church took Mark 16:18 seriously and, as a result, handled snakes?

Papias, bishop of Hierapolis (c. 150) is often cited by supporters of the Majority Text as an early witness to the long ending of Mark.[23] While none of his five books is now extant, Eusebius, nearly two centuries after Papias’s death, mentions the following story from one of his lost writings:

            "It has been shown, indeed, by what has gone before that Philip the apostle lived in            Hierapolis together with his daughters; but now it must be pointed out that Papias, their contemporary, mentions that he had a wondrous account that he received from the daughters of Philip. For he recounts a resurrection of a dead body took place in his time; and, on the other hand, tells of another miraculous happening concerned with Justus who was surnamed Barsabbas: that he drank a deadly poison and yet, through the grace of the Lord, suffered no harm." [24]

This narrative, while possibly an accurate telling of Papias’s story, does not directly mention Mark 16:18.[25] The word translated “deadly thing” (pharmakon) in the account differs from the word found in Mark 16:18 (thanaimon). If indeed, God miraculously spared a man’s life, this does not prove the early church practiced the drinking of poison as part of its ritual. Nor does it help with our investigation of snake handling in the early church.

While other possible references to portions of the longer ending of Mark are found among early church writers (Irenaeus, AD 202 in Against Heresies, 3.10.5), none ever mentions or even alludes to snake handling (verse 18d). Since we have no historical record in the post-apostolic church of anyone actually taking up serpents, we must assume that they either interpreted Mark 16:18 as a hypothetical (“should such a thing happen, you will be protected” as with Paul on Malta, Acts 28:3-5) or as a symbol of evil (as with Luke 10:17, 19, “Even the demons are subject to us in your name,” and Jesus’ response, “Behold, I give you authority to trample on serpents . . . and nothing by any means shall hurt you”).  Notice the similarity between Luke 10:17, 19 (above) and Mark 16:18, especially the italicized words. If the Luke passage was interpreted symbolically, this may give us a clue into how the early church interpreted Mark 16:18.

Since we cannot find a single mention of the Mark 16:18d or any historical example of snake handling among the Patristics, we must look elsewhere for the origination of the practice. That leads us to America, near the turn of the twentieth century.


Snake handling can be traced to a Sunday morning in 1910, when George Went Hensley (1880-1955), aka “Little George,” carried a strange-looking box into the pulpit of his church in Grasshopper Valley, Tennessee, near Chattanooga.[26]  After reading Mark 16:18 (“They shall take up serpents . . . and it shall not hurt them”), the bootlegger turned preacher, plunged his bare hand deep into the box and pulled out a deadly six-foot diamondback rattlesnake.  Holding the venomous creature in one hand and his large black Bible in the other, “Little George” preached the true gospel “with signs following” (v. 20) and exhorted his parishioners to exhibit their faith in a similar fashion. Although he had no immediate “takers,” they all admired their leader’s courage. As news about Hensley’s daring feat spread throughout the hills of southeastern Tennessee, others claiming the anointing of the Spirit began taking up serpents for themselves.

A controversy developed in 1919 when one of the faithful at the Grasshopper Valley church was bitten and nearly died. The shockwaves rippled throughout the community and snake handling ceased in the valley for the next 23 years.[27] Hensley was forced out of town, and headed for Pine Mountain, Kentucky, just south of Harlan where he met and was ordained by Ambrose J. Tomlinson (1865-1943), a traveling Bible salesman and founder of a new Pentecostal sect called the Church of God. For several years “Little George,” traveled under the Church of God banner, planting several congregations throughout Tennessee and Kentucky, and with Tomlinson’s blessing, introduced snake handling to the new members.[28]

Upon returning from one such church planting expedition, Hensley discovered that his wife and a neighbor had been having an affair.  After attacking the culprit with a knife, he fled to the hills to avoid arrest.  Turning his back on the faith, Hensley built a whiskey still and went back to bootlegging.  This career was short-lived, however, when “Little George” was captured and sent to work on a chain gang.  Disdaining prison life, Hensley executed a brilliant escape and moved to Cleveland, Ohio, where he remarried and resumed preaching. Before long, he was again picking up serpents and on his way back to Kentucky. Hensley’s fame spread far and wide.  He married and divorced four times.

His unsavory behavior led the Church of God to revoke Hensley’s credentials in 1923, and to order that the handling of snakes cease throughout the denomination. A. J.  Tomlinson was dismissed as overseer.[29] Since that time, all traditional Pentecostal denominations and most Oneness sects have distanced themselves from the practice of taking up serpents.[30]

By the 1930s and early 1940s, as word trickled back to government officials that people were actually dying from snakebites, state legislatures enacted laws which forbade the practice.  Bartow, Florida was the first to pass an ordinance against snake handling in 1936, after the death of Alfred Weaver.[31] Other jurisdictions followed suit.[32] Despite the threat of criminal indictment, few abandoned snake handling. Alfred Ball, one of the leaders in the snake-handling movement in Tennessee, is typical when he says, “I will take them up every time God anoints me to. If they keep me in jail six months, the first thing I’ll do when I get out is hunt me a serpent. And I’ll ask God to give me victory over it.”[33]  The ACLU has successfully defended in the courts the right to religiously handle serpents, using the Establishment clause as a defense.[34]

Since official records are not kept, no one knows for sure how many people over the years have died from bites while ritually handling serpents, but the estimate is between 80 and 120.[35] When a person dies from a venomous snake bite, s/he is considered a martyr.[36] Hensley, who claimed to have survived 447 bites since picking up his first serpent, died of bite 448 on June 24, 1955 in Atha, Florida.[37] He was 74 years old.

There are approximately 150 snake-handling churches in America, located mainly in Virginia, West Virginia, Kentucky and Tennessee, although congregations can also be found in North and South Carolina, Georgia, Florida, Alabama, Ohio and Indiana. While churches are autonomous, many belong to an association of likeminded congregations,[38] which periodically sponsors area-wide conferences called “Homecomings,” where the faithful gather for fellowship and to “take up serpents.”  An estimated 2,500 to 5,000 people throughout the United States are actively engaged in the religious handling of snakes.


Snake bites usually cause excruciating pain and severe swelling. The visible and more permanent marks left as a result of forcibly having to pull fangs from one’s arm or face are considered victory scars, which the combatants proudly wear into the next battle. When George Hensley died in 1955, over 300 attended his funeral and vowed to continue handling serpents.[39] Most lifelong handlers have been bitten many times.

John Wayne “Punkin” Brown, Jr. of Newport, Tennessee, considered by his fellow handlers to be a prophet, because of his judgmental sermons in which he railed against make-up, jewelry, the movie theater and consigned sinners to a fiery hell, was known far and wide for his legendary serpentine exploits. He had survived 22 snake bites. Sometimes he would use “a rattlesnake to wipe the sweat off his brow.”[40] But Punkin changed after Melinda, his 28 year-old wife and mother of five, was bitten beneath the left elbow while handling at a Homecoming in Middleboro, Kentucky in 1995.[41]
Frantically, he tried to get her to a hospital, but she refused to go, choosing rather to trust in the mercy of God. She died three days later.[42]

After temporarily losing custody of his children, Punkin fell into a deep depression. Due to fear and a weak faith, he did not pick up a snake for nearly two years. When he finally made a spiritual comeback, his preaching was less severe and he was not so daring when handling serpents. On two occasions he survived near fatal bites; then, on October 3, 1998, while Brown was preaching a revival at Rock Holiness Church on Sand Mountain, Tennessee, a three-foot yellow timber rattler attached itself to his finger, causing venom to surge throughout his body. He died one hour later.[43] He was 34 years old.  His children now split their year between two sets of grandparents, one of which regularly handles snakes.[44]  

Jamie Coots, the star of "Snake Salvation,” a National Geographic reality show about snake handlers, became the latest statistic. On the evening of February 15, 2014, a rattlesnake sunk its fangs into the back of Coots’ hand. Coots, pastor of the Full Gospel Tabernacle in Jesus Name Church in Middlesboro, KY, died two hours later at his home after refusing medical help. He was 42 years old.

When a person is bitten in a religious ceremony, it can signify one of five things:

1.      The person has sin in his/her life.  If this is discovered to be the case and the victim survives, the faithful shun the errant member.
2.      The person handled the snake without being under the anointing of the Holy Ghost.  Without the anointing, snakes are prone to bite.
3.      The person lacked the faith to handle the serpent.  Handling a snake without faith is presumptuous and tempts God.
4.      God is testing the handler to see if s/he will depart from the true gospel after they are bitten.
5.      God can be trusted to heal the victim (Acts 28:1-5). The mortality rate from ritual snake bites is minimal.


Believing they are following the Lord’s injunction in Mark 16:18 and trusting him to protect them from harm, snake handlers put their lives on the line every time they gather to worship. However, their expression of faith is based on an unreliable text and can be traced no farther back than to the early twentieth century. Their Oneness Pentecostal beliefs are heretical and their actions, although brave, are not grounded in biblical truth.


In an effort to understand the nature of the anointing, researchers have formulated and tested several hypotheses.  Smithsonian investigator Scott Schwartz, believed that the state of numbness described by so many handlers was caused by the effect of the music on the listeners. He noted that music can affect heart rate, respiration, reduce psychological stress, muscle tension, and can serve as an analgesic in some surgical procedures by reducing the perception of pain.[45] We know soft melodious music can place a person in a state relaxation. Loud music characterized by syncopation can also produce an altered state of consciousness. Think of what happens at a rock concert where people are jumping wildly and elbows are flying widely. The next morning many rockers awake to discover they have bruises, scrapes and black eyes from the night before, but not remembering how it happened.  If music has an anesthetic effect on snake handlers, this may explain why some feel little or no pain when placing their hands into a fire or when bitten by a serpent. An altered state may cause fear to flee, which is likely a necessary component if one is to successfully pick up a venomous snake. It is believed that some animals can sense fear in humans. Could this be true of snakes also?

To discover if the anointing produces any physiological changes in the human body, researcher Tom Burton invited Dr. Michael Woodruff to administer an EEG to Pastor Liston Pack, while the latter was under the power of the Spirit. They discovered that as Pack was drifting into the anointing there was a sudden change from beta to alpha brainwaves, suggesting that the anointing “is a very active state from the point of view of the cerebral neocortex.”[46] This state of neurological arousal further indicated that being under the anointing was similar to being in a trance.[47] In such states people can do amazing things, from piecing their flesh with a skewer to walking on hot coals without feeling pain. Is it possible those entranced during worship can handle snakes for the same reason?

When attempting to determine how people could be poisoned or burned without suffering negative consequences, Scott Schwartz consulted with three researchers from East Tennessee State University. They hypothesized that both the euphoria experienced during the anointing and the altered perceptions of pain were due to “specific types of neurological chemicals that are produced by the pituitary and adrenal glands.”[48]

           " For example, beta endorphin is released in response to physical activity and/or emotional stress. Its predominant effects include supraspinal analgesia (the blocking a pain signal so that it is not interpreted by the brain) and feelings of euphoria. The 'intoxicating high' that the serpent and fire handlers associate with the anointment experience may be attributed to a combination of beta-endorphin and adrenaline." [49]

To test the hypothesis, they decided to take a collection of blood samples from a snake handler before, during, and after his anointing. The first would be taken approximately two hours prior to a church service. The next would be drawn soon after the handler released the snake and was coming out of his anointing. The third to be collected about two hours after the anointing wore off. The blood samples would then be tested for beta-endorphin, adrenaline and cortisol.[50]

The subject was Sherman Ward, a forty-two year old white male from Middleboro, Kentucky. The first blood was drawn at 4:30 p.m. on August 22, 1993. At 7:54 p.m. Ward came under the anointing and handled a rattler for several minutes. He also passed his other hand over a fire for approximately six seconds (apparently without any pain or tissue damage). Throughout the entire ordeal, he spoke in tongues. At 8:09 p.m. the second sample of blood was drawn and labeled. The final sample was taken at 10:15 p.m.[51]

The results showed that Sherman Ward had a 61% increase in adrenaline while he handled the serpent and touched the flame. The first and second epinephrine levels were 72 pg/ml and 42 pg/ml, respectively, and 200 pg/ml during the anointing, a three to five-fold increase! The norepinephrine levels were 260 pg/ml and 795 pg/ml for the first and third samples, respectively, and a whopping 1905 pg/ml level for the anointing sample. Dopamine levels were a consistent 1 pg/ml for the first and last samples, but 38 pg/ml for the significant second sample. The beta-endorphin levels increased 28% (31 pg/ml and 40 pg/ml compared to 50 pg/ml during the anointing) and the cortisol level increased an amazing 525% (4.0 mcg/dl for the first and last samples compared to 21.0 mcg/dl for the second).[52]

When interpreting the results, the scientists concluded:

            "Ward’s energetic pacing and singing, his ‘speaking in tongues,’ and his distracted appearance during the second blood draw would be consistent with an adrenaline- induced “high.” Sherman’s lack of anxiety as he handled serpents and fire may be attributed to the euphoric effects of beta-endorphin. The 28 percent increase in beta-endorphin may have had an effect on his perception of pain."[53]

They also noted:

            "The feelings of euphoria attributed to beta-endorphin combined with the subject’s             expectations for the safe handling of fire may have decreased his level of anxiety and as a result increased his tolerance for pain during the fire-handling experience.

            "It is equally plausible that the net effect of these neurological chemicals and other related emotional and physical stimuli could have been so strong that the message (i.e., perception of discomfort) failed to be transmitted to higher brain centers and thus failed to block 'natural reflexes'." [54]

The effects of an altered state of consciousness, produced by a self-induced trance or the music, combined with the chemical changes and the reduction of anxiety, may explain how the handlers can pick up serpents, drink deadly things and experience no pain when placing their hands or face into fire.


Burton, Thomas. Serpent-Handling Believers. Knoxville: The University of Tennessee Press, 1993. Gives an excellent history of snake handling in the United States and offers vivid accounts of what it is like to attend a worship service “with signs following.”

________. The Serpent and the Spirit: Glenn Summerford’s Story. Knoxville: The University of Tennessee Press, 2004. Burton, a tells the tragic story of Pastor Summerford, who was convicted of attempted homicide of his wife via use of a poisonous snake, and sentenced to a long term in the state penitentiary. As Burton shows, sometimes it is hard to discern between the Serpent and the Spirit, metaphorically speaking.

Christian History, Issue 58, Vol. XVII, No. 2.  Carol Stream, IL: Christianity Today, n. d.  The entire issues deals with the origins of Pentecostalism in America.  Includes an excellent article on the development of the Oneness doctrine.

Covington, Dennis. Salvation on Sand Mountain: Snake Handling and Redemption in Southern Appalachia. New York: Penguin, 1995. Covington, a newspaper reporter from Alabama, became interested in snake handling after covering the trial of Glenn Summerford, (the snake-handling pastor of the Church of Jesus Christ with Signs Following) who was being prosecuted for the attempted murder of his wife. Working for the New York Times, Covington began a long investigation into the snake-handling phenomena at a time when he was evaluating his own spirituality. The story reaches a climax when Covington, “under the anointing of the Spirit” takes up a serpent for himself. This book was a National Book Award finalist.   

Daugherty, Mary Lee. “Serpent-Handling as Sacrament” in Theology Today 33:3 (October 1976) 232-243. To research for this article, Daugherty, a native of West Virginia, attended snake-handling services in various locations throughout the state for a period of six years. Her article explores the life, death and resurrection imagery of snake handling, and contains perceptive insights into the lives of the practitioners.

Hood, Jr., Ralph W, Ronald J. Morris and W. Paul Williamson. “Evaluation of the Legitimacy of Conversion Experience as a Function of the Five Signs of Mark 16” in Review of Religious Research (Vol. 41, 1999) 95-108.

Kane, Steven Michael. Snake Handlers of Southern Appalachia. Ph.D. Dissertation, Princeton University, 1979.

Kimbrough, David L. Taking Up Serpents: Snake Handling Believers of Eastern Kentucky. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1995. Written by a historian, this is a classic treatment of snake handling.  One of the first books one should read on the subject. Provides a good history of and insight into snake handling through the eyes of the Saylor family of eastern, Kentucky.  Kimbrough not only investigated the phenomenon, but became a participant in it.

La Barre, Weston. They Take Up Serpents. New York: Schocken, 1969. Written by an anthropologist, this was one of the earliest books on snake handling, which opened the way for others to study the phenomena. LeBarre looks at the symbolic meaning and psychological motivation behind snake handling, although not without prejudice.

Melton, J. Gordon, Ed.  “Church of God with Signs Following” in The Encyclopedia of American Religions, Fifth Edition. District of Columbia: Gale, 1996.  Section 7 of this book deals exclusively with the Pentecostal family of churches, including snake-handling congregations.

Morrow, Jimmy with Ralph W. Hood, Jr. Handling Serpents. Macon, GA: Mercer University Press, 2005. Morrow, a pastor in the “Jesus Name Tradition,” gives a oral history of snake handling in Appalachia to Sociology of Religion scholar Ralph Hood, Jr. Morrow traces snake handling back to the West Virginia “Coal Revivals” of the 1890s, showing that George Hensley was not the founder, but the popularizer of snake handling.

Pelton, Robert W. and Karen W. Carden.  Snake Handlers: God Fearers or Fanatics?  Nashville:  Thomas Nelson, 1974.  This book is a religious pictorial documentary of snake handling, which contains over 100 graphic photographs of snake handlers practicing their rituals.  It is filled with interviews and eye-witness accounts. 

Reed, David.  “Oneness Pentecostalism” in Dictionary of Pentecostal and Charismatic Movements, Eds.  Stanley M. Burgess and Gary B. McGee.  Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1988.  This dictionary entry provides a valuable history of the movement and a cohesive explanation of the beliefs of Oneness Pentecostalism.

Riss, Richard.  A Survey of 20th Century Revival Movements in North America.  Peabody, MA:  Hendrickson, 1988.   Includes a brief history of the Oneness Pentecostal movement.

Schwartz, Scott. Faith, Serpents, and Fire: Images of Kentucky Holiness Believers. Jackson, MI: University Press of Mississippi, 1999. A short but excellent treatment of snake handling, written with compassion and understanding, and puts a human face on the phenomenon. Schwartz, an archivist at the National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution, gives an insightful analysis of the culture, music, and miracles that he encounters at three small churches in rural eastern Kentucky. In cooperation with a team of scientists from the University of Tennessee, Schwartz is able to unravel some of the mystery behind snake handling.  The author’s conversation with “Punkin” Brown, whose wife died from a snake bite, shows the spiritual doubts that even the most faithful experience when tragedy strikes.

Sims, Patsy.  “The Snake-Handlers: With Signs Following”— Can Somebody Shout Amen!  Lexington, KY: The University Press of Kentucky, 1996.  In chapter 4, Sims writes of her first-hand investigation into snake-handling churches.  She recounts her forays into several snake-handling meetings.  The chapter contains snippets of interesting interviews with snake-handlers.  The reader experiences vicariously what it is like to attend a snake-handling service in the backwoods of Tennessee and Kentucky.

Williamson, W. Paul, Howard R. Pollo, and Ralph W. Hood, Jr. “A Phenomenological Analysis of the Anointing among Religious Serpent Handlers” in The International Journal For The Psychology of Religion, 10(4) 221-240.

[1] A current discussion on the ending of Mark can be found in Patrick D. Miller, and Beverly Roberts Gaventa, eds., The Endings of Mark and the Ends of God: Essays in Memory of Donald Harrisville Juel. (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2005). Also, see William Farmer, The Last Twelve Verses of Mark. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1974).
[2] Mary Lee Daugherty, “Serpent-Handling as Sacrament” in Theology Today 33:3 (October 1976) 20.
[3] Robert W. Pelton and Karen W. Carden, Snake Handlers: God Fearers or Fanatics?  (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1974) 110.
[4] David L. Kimbrough, Taking Up Serpents: Snake Handling Believers of Eastern Kentucky (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1995) 33. Also, see Jimmy Morrow with Ralph W. Hood, Jr., Handling Serpents ( Macon, GA: Mercer University Press, 2005) 32.
[5] Scott Schwartz, Faith, Serpents, and Fire: Images of Kentucky Holiness Believers (Jackson, MS: University Press of Mississippi, 1999) 8.
[6] Daugherty, “Serpent-Handling as Sacrament,” 240.
[7] Ibid., 37.
[8] Ibid., 39.
[9]  Schwartz, Faith, 23.  
[10] Weston La Barre, They Take Up Serpents (New York: Schocken, 1969) 10-11.
[11] Morrow with Hood, Handling Serpents, 41.
[12] W. Paul Williamson, Howard R. Pollio and Ralph W. Hood, Jr., “A Phenomenological Analysis of the Anointing among Religious Serpent Handlers,” The International Journal for the Psychology of Religion 10 (2000) 221-240.
[13] Pelton and Carden, Snake Handlers, 41-42.
[14] Ibid., 44.
[15] Ibid.
[16] Ibid., 45.
[17] Schwartz, Faith, 54.
[18] Ibid.
[19] Dennis Covington, Salvation on Sand Mountain: Snake Handling and Redemption in South Appalachia (New York: Penguin, 1995)168-170.
[20] Pelton and Carden, Snake Handlers, 33.
[21] Daugherty, “Serpent-Handling as Sacrament,” 224.
[22] Ibid.
[23] John W. Burgon. The Last Twelve Verses of the Gospel According to Saint Mark (Ann Arbor: Sovereign Grace, 1959) 101.
[24] Eusebius Hist. eccl. 3.39.9.
[25] Mark H. Heuer, “An Evaluation of John W. Burgon’s Use of Patristic Evidence,” JETS 38 (December 1995) 525.
[26] Tom Burton places this event at 1908 in his Serpent-Handling Believers (Knoxville: The University of Tennessee Press, 1993) 7. He bases his information on Charles W. Conn’s Our First 100 Years: 1886-1986 (Cleveland, TN: Church of God Publishing House, 1955). Both Kane and Kimbrough point to 1910 as a more reliable date.  See Steven Michael Kane, “Snake Handlers of Southern Appalachia” (Ph.D. diss., Princeton University, 1979) and David L. Kimbrough, Taking Up Serpents: Snake Handling Believers of Eastern Kentucky (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1995). Jimmy Morrow, pastor of the Church of Jesus Christ with Signs Following (Del-Rio, TN), gives 1909 as the date. See Morrow with Hood, Handling Serpents, 19. However, Morrow believes Hensley was a latecomer to the “Signs following” movement, and traces the practice in America back to the Holiness movement of the late nineteenth century and to the 1890s Virginia and West Virginia “Coal Mine Revivals,” in particular. Based on oral tradition, the Younger and the Klienieck families were the first to embrace snake handling in Jesus’ Name.
            According to Morrow, Hensley and his parents moved to Stone Creek, VA in the 1890s where they witnessed serpent handling, but they never participated in the rite. Two decades later as Hensley prayed atop White Oak Mountain, near Cleveland, TN, and read Mark 16:18, his memory was stirred and he decided to put his faith to the test. He found a black rattler under a rock, picked it up, and brought it to church.  While Morrow maintains that Hensley was not the first person to take up serpents, he believes Hensley was the first Trinitarian to do so, and was responsible for spreading snake handling to other parts of Tennessee and Virginia, and introducing it to Kentucky, the Carolinas, Georgia, Ohio, and Indiana. See Morrow with Hood, Handling Serpents, 2-15.

[27] Morrow with Hood, Handling Serpents, 19. Snake handling did not return to Grasshopper Valley, TN until 1943 when Raymond Hayes of Kentucky, one of Hensley’s converts, traveled there to conduct a revival.  The outcome was the founding of Dolly Pond Church of God with Signs Following.  Located near the spot of the first snake handling service, Dolly Pond Church is considered by the faithful to be a hallowed site.
[28] J. Gordon Melton, Biographical Dictionary of American Cult and Sect Leaders (New York: Garland, 1986) 110.
[29] Tomlinson, at the age of 59, with a group of approximately 2,000 followers began the Church of God of Prophecy. See Stanley M. Burgess, ed., The New International Dictionary of Pentecostal and Charismatic Movements (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1999) 1145.
[30] Ralph W. Hood, Jr., Ronald J. Morris and J. Paul Williamson, “Evaluation of the Legitimacy of Conversion Experience as a Function of the Five Signs of Mark 16,” RRelRes (1999) 41: 98.
[31] Schwartz, Faith, 31-32.
[32] Between 1940 and 1950 six southern states enacted anti-snake handling laws: KY (1940), GA (1941), TN (1947), NC (1947), VA (1947), AL (1950).  In AL and GA, snake handling was declared to be a felonious crime, punishable by 1-5 years in prison. Later both states downgraded snake handling to a misdemeanor (See Burton, Serpent-Handling Believers, 81). WV was never able to pass a law (See Schwartz, Faith, 32).
[33] Pelton and Carden, Snake Handler, Appendix, 12.
[34] Most of the laws dealing with religious use of snakes have been repealed; only those endangering the health or welfare of another person are still on the books. 
[35] The most deadly snakes in America are coral snakes, which are reclusive by nature and rarely bite humans. Pit vipers, which include rattlesnakes, copperheads and cottonmouths, have infrared-heat-sensing organs (called pits) which lie between the nostrils and eyes. Pit vipers use these sensors to hunt their warm blooded prey by seeking out body heat and their long retractable fangs to strike their victims. The venom surges into the body destroying the cells and tissue. Most people bitten by pit vipers die because of internal bleeding, cardiovascular shock, and kidney and respiratory failure. The Eastern diamondback rattler is the most deadly of the pit vipers. For more details see Covington, Salvation, 144-145.
[36] Daugherty, “Serpent-Handling as Sacrament,” 236.
[37] Morrow with Hood, Handling Serpents, 76.
[38] One such association is the Holiness Church of God in Jesus’ Name, Big Stone Gap, VA, which publishes a newsletter and distributes the teachings of member pastors. See Morrow with Hood, Handling Serpents, 21.  
[39] Ibid., 77.
[40] Covington, Salvation, 46-47, 209.
[41] Morrow with Hood, Handling Serpents, 145.
[42] Ibid., 123.
[43] Ibid., 148.
[44] Ibid., 150.
[45] Schwartz, Faith, 45-47.
[46] Burton, Serpent-Handling Believers, 139-140. Also see Schwartz, Faith, 60.
[47] Schwartz, Faith, 60.
[48] Ibid.
[49] Ibid.
[50] Ibid.
[51] Ibid., 62.
[52] Ibid.
[53] Ibid.
[54] Ibid., 65.


Jeremy Myers said...

Wow. One of the most thorough and well-researched articles on this tragic death (which could have been avoided) that I have read. Thanks for alerting me to this post.

Already/Not Yet said...

Feel free to copy and distribute as needed. Blog about it so others might read and pass on.