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A Matter of Faith: Holiness Serpent Handling
1945: Lewis Ford is shown as he draped a rattlesnake about the neck of a member of a Tennessee congregation. Ford would die that same year from a snake bite he received.
1945: Lewis Ford is shown as he draped a rattlesnake about the neck of a member of a Tennessee congregation. Ford would die that same year from a snake bite he received.
© Bettmann/Corbis

By most accounts, holiness serpent handling dates to the early 1900s in Tennessee and a preacher named George Hensley. He was, legend has it, in the midst of a crisis of faith and one day was grappling with a line from the Gospel of Mark — "They shall take up serpents; and if they drink any deadly thing, it shall not hurt them" (Mark 16:18) — when he turned and saw a venomous snake. He was compelled to pick it up. And when he walked away unscathed, his faith was intact [sources: Phillips, Mariani].

The command, it seemed, was literal, and Hensley spread the word from his pulpit: To fully obey God and therefore be saved, one has to "take up serpents" [source: Loller]. (Followers of the movement also drink strychnine, a "deadly thing" [source: Mariani].)

By the 1930s, serpent handling was fairly widespread in Appalachia. By the 1940s, with practitioner deaths adding up, it was outlawed, but the practice continued [source: Scott].

Serpent handlers — they prefer "serpent" to "snake" — belong to one of several evangelical churches in the Pentecostal tradition, most prominently the Church of God with Signs Following [source: Lewis]. They use no tools to handle snakes [sources: Handwerk]. They seemingly employ no safety measures at all aside from faith.

Videos show practitioners holding rattlesnakes and copperheads, breeds commonly kept by churches, well within strike range, making no attempt to immobilize the head. Coots was known to get face to face with his snakes [source: Mariani]. Techniques include lifting snakes into the air, slinging them over shoulders and handling three or four at a time, all while bouncing up and down in trance-like elation [sources: CNN].

The experience has been described as one of peace and extreme joy and as a more powerful high than any drug can create [sources: Loller, Burnett].

Several thousand people subscribe to serpent handling today, though not all of them handle the snakes [sources: Lewis, Wilking and Effron,]. Taking up serpents is about obeying God's command, not about proving one's faith, so someone who hasn't felt commanded by God to handle a snake is expected to abstain [source: Scott]. (Snake handling is just one part of what's otherwise a pretty typical Pentecostal service [source: Handwerk].)

Many do take up serpents, though, and they know they might get hurt [source: Handwerk]. It's obvious.


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