You would think that handling snakes is an activity limited to the snake-charmers of India. After all, the handling of such venomous creatures is naturally associated with the mystical cultures of the East. But you will be surprised to know that the practice exists in the U.S. as well, and has been present here for the past 100 years. ‘Snake handling’ or ‘Serpent handling’, as it is called, is a religious ritual followed in a small number of Pentecostal churches in the U.S., with origins in 20th century Appalachia. The belief behind the practice dates back to antiquity, and followers quote the Gospel of Mark and Gospel of Luke for support:
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)
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. (Luke 10:19)
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The non-denominational movement today is known as the ‘Church of God with Signs Following’. It has about 5,000 followers in four Appalachian states in the U.S. One such church involved in the practice is the Church of the Lord Jesus in Jolo, West Virginia, where serpent handling is legal. The followers of this bizarre practice were in the news a while back, following the death of Mark Wolford – one of its most well-known supporters. He was bitten by his own yellow timber rattlesnake during a serpent handling event near Bluefield, West Virginia. Surprisingly, he refused medical help at first, which caused him to suffer a long-drawn out death that lasted 11 hours. Wolford followed in his father’s footsteps, who died in 1983 from snake bite when Wolford was only 15 years old. The death of Wolford, however, is no deterrent to pastor Harvey Payne of the Church of the Lord Jesus, nor his brother David. “My life is on the line,” declares Pastor Payne, during service.
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The church is of the belief that a constant battle exists between good and evil. So by handling snakes, consuming snake venom, and speaking in tongues, they are actually fighting the devil through the ‘signs’. The followers of this church are quite aware of the dangers of what they are doing. In fact, many of them have been bitten several times, and expect this to happen. They view being bitten as a reminder of the danger that they have chosen to face. If they are true believers, they would not die from a snake bite. And death by a bite is only proof that their time is up. This isn’t a way to tempt the will of God, they say, but to confirm their own submission to the Bible as the Word of God.
The tradition of serpent handling is said to have originated in 1909, when the practice was introduced to the Church of God in Cleveland, Tennessee, by George Went Henseley. He is believed to have performed rapturous services in the dense hills of the Appalachian Mountains, believing the literal interpretation of the verse of Mark in the King James Bible. Henseley was bitten over 300 times himself.
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Snake handling is only one of the activities undertaken by the Church of God with Signs, but is the one that has received widespread media attention. In the year 2000, an entire episode of the T.V. series, The X-Files, was dedicated to snake-handling worshippers. In real life, they not only handle snakes during worship, but also consume the deadly poison strychnine. Wolford, who died at age 44, had ingested about 2 gallons of the substance in his short life. He said of his experience, “Once you drink it, there is no turning back. All your muscles contract at once. Your body starts stiffening out. Your lungs; it’s like you can’t breathe.” He also went on to state that if you seek medical help, it “means you’re already starting to lose faith.” Thankfully, some members of the church are spared from the religious serpent handling, including children.
The intensity of these practices leaves people dumbfounded, but there are those who understand what the tradition is all about. According to biblical scholar Bill Leonard, “Every time you come to church, it is a matter of life and death.” Thomas Burton, professor of English and author of the book ‘Serpent Handling Believers’, says, “These people are not just religious fanatics; they’re not strange people. They’re members of the Holiness Pentecostal faith, and they are religious fundamentalists who believe the Bible is the inspired word of God that should be taken literally.” Even the U.S. Supreme Court recognizes these religious practices as ‘sincerity of religious beliefs.’