I’ve been on a recent kick of reading a lot about mythology and religion, perhaps because I am in some new classes such as Ancient Egyptian Religion and Biblical Studies (perks of being a second-semester senior: all the random classes I’ve ever wanted to take are accessible to me at last).
I have always been fascinated by religion, and with that goes an interest in mythology, which are religious and cultural stories conveying values and traditions. This is partly because I love learning about how people find meaning in life and how they assign value to their beliefs. Understanding the motives of a religion or the symbolism of a myth can convey a lot about the person who identifies with them, such as their view and value of the world and how they see their own place in it.
Snake-handling is an example of a religious practice – admittedly an obscure one – that I have always been interested in. But I have never known anything about it, having only heard it negatively referenced in random television shows:
Snake-handling has also been in the news lately because a snake-handling pastor from West Virginia died after refusing medical treatment for a rattlesnake bite. His father had died the exact same way 33 years prior. There was a lot of controversy over his needless death and rejection of medical care, however the conclusion was that he was a consenting adult who died for his beliefs.
I find it sad that what most of society knows about this religious group is the oddity of their practice, the extremes of their lifestyles, and the dangers of what they do. The scandal and outrageousness is reported, but rarely is an explanation of the beliefs of the group. One should not make judgments of another culture or religion, no matter how strange they seem because at that point it becomes difficult to draw the line on what is “too” different from your own beliefs.
You should seek to learn and understand, but abstain from judgment – judging the beliefs of someone else does not benefit your own lifestyle and rarely does the practice of something you disagree with affect your own personal life.
So here is my understanding of the church – it is not mockery, nor is it endorsement of the practices involved, rather a study of the culture.
Snake-handling is usually associated with pentecostal, non-denominational churches in the holiness movement. It was founded around 1910 by George Hensley. He began the holiness movement that required snake-handling, as well as other other acts, as part of salvation. He died from a worship-related snakebite in 1955.
This movement is most commonly practiced in the Appalachian region of the United States – coal mining towns were, and still are, centers for the practice. An interesting account of why the practice is more common among coal miners deals with the dangerous lifestyles they have experienced for decades: at one point people felt so out of control with their own lives that the practice of snake-handling appealed to their desire to be in control of their own mortality. However, there are not many first-hand accounts of the practice, mainly because followers tend to be suspicious of outsiders witnessing their practices due to the legal disputes and mockery they have suffered over the years.
Snake-handling is based on a direct and literal translation from the Bible, particularly the passage:
“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
Followers believe that this is a command that they should take up snakes and drink poisons to test their faith to God, and be assured that He will protect them. Another related and often cited quote is:
“Behold I give unto you the power to tread on serpents and scorpions, and over all the power of the enemy, and nothing shall by any means hurt you.”
~Luke 10: 19
Followers of the movement practice a varying combination of faith healing, speaking in tongues, miracle testimony, snake-handling, fire-handling, and the consumption of poisons such as strychnine. These practices are the ultimate demonstration of faith, a true belief that God will protect the follower from harm. What is important to remember is that usually these practices are not required during worship, and only those that feel comfortable doing so actually handle snakes.
Snakes and fire are not a part of every worship or gathering and some individuals may never actually handle a snake (men tend to do so a lot more than women). And extreme care is taken to protect those who do not participate in the handling, such as children.
However, those that do feel the spirit during the worship can take up a snake and touch them, hold them, wrap them around their bodies, dance with them, or pass them off to other worshipers.
The strict translation of the Bible also demands conservative dress codes, abstaining from alcohol and tobacco, and usually a separation of the sexes during religious events. More conservative followers may also abstain from television, newspapers, radios, and even voting in an attempt to stay out of the corrupting influences of the modern world.
Snake-handling as part of the holiness movement is just one of the hundreds of different sects that exist among Christianity in the United States and though definitely one of the more interesting and exciting ones, in many ways is no different that other religions in the United States, in that they deserve the same respect and religious-freedom as any other religious group demands.