Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Snake Handlers

I am thoroughly fascinated by all things 'religion' -- the history, unfolding and overlapping of it all!  So when I get ambitious I take on the challenge of theology-related open courseware available [for free!] via elite schools such as Notre Dame and Yale.  Ever try them out?  They're wonderful!  Entire semesters of courses in a variety of topics provided to the general public free of charge -- all for the noble purpose of extending knowledge to the masses.

My latest endeavor is a course provided by MIT titled "Magic, Witchcraft and The Spirit World".  Right up my alley, right?!  And yet who might've thought that with such a title we would be diving head-first into the curious world of Pentacostal Snake Handlers?!

My initial reaction: What does a sect of Christian outliers have to do with magic, Witchcraft or the Spirit World?

In the name of knowledge however, I quieted my objections and was rewarded with a frightening journey into the overzealous minds of "The Holy Ghost People".  I provide my written assignment on the subject below.

Pentacostal Snake Handlers
Photo by Melissa Singer
Magic, Witchcraft & The Spirit World
Professor James Howe

April 18 2012

The Book of Mark [16:17] preaches
“these signs will accompany those who have believed: in My name they will cast out demons, they will speak with new tongues; they will pick up serpents, and if they drink any deadly poison, it will not hurt them; they will lay hands on the sick, and they will recover.”

Is this small portion of the Holy Bible, translated by a small church in Scrabble Creek West Virginia as the literal word of God, sole inspiration for the mumbling, twitching, hollering, dancing, convulsing, poison consumption and dangerous snake-handling undertaken by its members? 

One outsider, journalist Dennis Covington, began as neutral observer and soon found a permeating power in the depth and atypical display of the group’s belief.

Each member of the rural congregation claims with grand passion to have received the Holy Ghost, finding proof of this in the signs offered to them by the aforementioned verse in the book of Mark.

Their excitement for this extraordinary connection to the Divine is expressed with an almost orgasmic melodrama -- flailing themselves about in such jerking spasms and reckless imbalance that, if encountered in society outside of this religious sect, would incite a reaction of urgent alarm and an immediate call for emergency services.

As one leading member of the informal church service mentions, the Bible preaches “against idols, I-D-O-L-S, and it preaches against idles, I-D-L-E-S”.  It is because of this latter testimonial that the members of this church strive to express their faith with such an overactive participation. 

They welcome the Holy Ghost as it enters them and takes control of their bodies.  Through this assumed union of soul and God they work as faith healers to any who claim an ailment and dance in chaotic, uncoordinated groups all while carrying poisonous snakes, such as Copperheads and Rattlers -- even tossing the serpents to one another across a crowded room filled with babies and children. 

It is unclear through the mumbling of their ‘new tongue’ or the few bits of Gospel shared in the stumbling voices of clearly uneducated adults what purpose these snakes serve and why the risk of a bite is worth their continued use in church services.  

In the Hebrew Bible, the Book of Genesis refers to a serpent that was responsible for the fall of man [2Cr 11:3].  Do the members of this and similar congregations view their snake-handling as a sort of conquering of temptation and of evil by the pure goodness of their received Holy Ghost? 

If this is so, their reactions upon seeing a fellow member bitten by one of the potentially deadly snakes portrayed a very tangible doubt in their divine invincibility.  In spite of any fear that may have provided them a moment of clarity and humility, the group refrained from seeking medical attention for their stricken brethren and instead turned back inward to the Holy Ghost that they believed waited within to ensure a miraculous healing. 

And should they fail; should he die, would they come to realize the irrationality of their practices?  Not likely.  The congregation had seen the loss of members due to snake bites in the past.  Most felt that a failed faith healing resulted when those among them did not fully believe.

These impassioned church-goers may or may not truly experience being taken over by “Holy Ghost” but they believe in the signs listed by the Book of Mark and accept these as proof of their ethereal enlightenment.  And this belief has power.

When journalist Dennis Covington describes the first time he takes up a serpent, this once objective bystander claims to lose himself in light, stating “There is a power in the act of disappearing; there is a victory in the loss of self.”

There is no doubt as to the dangers faced by members of this Scrabble Creek church but perhaps an outsider will never fully understand what it means to be guided by something larger than one’s self when you take up a serpent in the name of the Lord.


  1. I could probably come up with some more info about snake handlers for you - I live close to where the majority are located. When I was at WVU, I took an Anthropology of Religion class and and we watched a documentary about the Snake Handlers of Jolo, WV. I live one county over from there.

  2. Thank you Sapphire. What little I was exposed to via this MIT course was both frightening and fascinating! What are your thoughts on such extreme and risky practices in the name of Faith?

  3. I think the man was insane. My religion is snakes and this involves treating them with appopriate care and respect. Surely the priest could have avoided snakes altogeather or perhaps done a few snake handler courses so he knew what to do after the bite.

  4. NO NO what is done at our church is not taboo or witchcraft it is the power of God. People look at us like we are a circus but we take no credit it is all done by the annointing of the great lord JESUS that we serve.