Snake handling was an outgrowth of the Azusa Street revival. In 1910, after reading in Mark 16:18 "they shall take up serpents… and it shall not hurt them," former bootlegger George Went Hensley, aka "Little George," took a rattlesnake box into the pulpit. He reached in and lifted out the venomous viper, showing his faith to take God at his Word. He then challenged his congregation to do the same. News spread throughout the hills of Grasshopper Valley in southeastern Tennessee. Before long, others joined in the handling of rattlers. The practice continued for ten years until one of the faithful died of a snakebite. Hensley moved to Harlan, Kentucky.
Ambrose J. Thomlinson, a travelling Bible salesman and founder of a Church of God of
Prophecy (a new Pentecostal denomination), ordained Hensley into the gospel ministry. For the next ten years Hensley preached and demonstrated snake handling. While on a preaching tour, he discovered his wife and a neighbor were having an affair. Hensley attacked his friend with a knife. Fleeing to the hills and turning his back on the faith, he rebuilt his whiskey still. A short time later, the law apprehended "Little George" and sent him to work on a chain gang. But Hensley executed a brilliant escape to Cleveland, Ohio, where he remarried and resumed preaching the Oneness Pentecostal message. Before long, he was again picking up serpents and heading back to Kentucky. Hensley’s fame spread far and wide. He married and divorced four times.
In 1928, the Church of God in Prophecy revoked Hensley’s license to preach and forbade all its members from further handling of snakes.
Snake handling did not return to Grasshopper Valley until 1943 when Raymond Hayes, one of Hensley’s converts, conducted a revival there. The outcome was the founding of Dolly Pond Church of God with Signs Following. Located on the spot of the first snake handling service, Dolly Pond Church is considered a hallowed site.
There were approximately 2,500 snake-handlers in America in the early 1940s. When deaths from snakebites became prevalent, state legislatures passed laws, which forbade the taking up of snakes in religious services. Despite the new statutes, snake handling persisted. Between 1936-1973, 35 persons died from poisonous bites, including Hensley who died on June 24, 1955 at the age of 74.
WHAT SNAKE HANDLING ENTAILS
A typical snake-handling meeting usually consists of songs of worship and preaching. The front of the church, beyond the altar, is the designated area for handling snakes. Many participants bring their own boxes containing rattlers, copperheads or cobras. The snakes are symbolic of Satan (Genesis 3:15; Luke 10:19). One demonstrates his power and authority over the enemy by picking up snakes. As the service progresses and the anointing flows, those receiving the unction open the box lids and lift the snakes high into the air. Some practitioners hold several snakes at a time, allowing them to slither and wrap themselves around their bodies. Usually the snake-handling members slip into altered states of consciousness during such episodes. Their eyes roll back and they twirl or dance in the Spirit and speak in tongues. However, not all are expected to handle snakes; only the anointed.
Besides the handling of serpents, many congregations encourage the drinking of poison during the worship service. They base their beliefs on Mark 16:18 - "And if they drink any deadly thing, it shall not hurt them." The most common substance used is strychnine.
WHAT BEING BITTEN REVEALS ABOUT THE HANDLER
When a person is bitten in a religious ceremony, it can signify one of five things:
That the person has sin in his/her life. If discovered to be the case, the faithful members shun the sinners. That the person handled the snake without being under "the anointing" of the Holy Ghost. Since God promises no protection to the unanointed, snakes are prone to bite them. That the person lacks the faith to handle the serpent. Handling snakes without faith is presumption. That God is testing the handlers to see if they will deny the faith when they are bitten. That God is a healer. One of the ways to know this is for him to heal the victim of a venomous snakebite (see Acts 28:1-5).In each case, the embedded poisonous fangs reveal something about the handler or God.
THE CONTEMPORARY SCENE
Snake-handling churches in America probably number in the low hundreds. They are mainly located in Kentucky and Tennessee, but also have congregations in Florida, Georgia, Alabama, the Carolinas, Virginia, West Virginia, Ohio and Texas. Each church is autonomous, but many people travel between churches in a fifty to sixty mile radius to share in multiple snake-handling experiences. Approximately 5,000 people actively practice ceremonial snake handling. Periodically, the masses gather for a conference, called a homecoming, to take up serpents in each service.
OTHER DOCTRINAL BELIEFS
Snake-handling churches embrace the Oneness Pentecostal doctrines, including baptism in the name of Jesus, baptism for remission of sins, the giving of the Holy Ghost subsequent to baptism, and speaking in tongues as the evidence of salvation. Additionally they call upon their members to practice holiness in dress and demeanor Women cannot wear slacks or cut their hair. Members greet each other of the same sex with a "holy kiss." They rarely go to doctors or take medicine.
Taking up serpents is not a sign of spirituality. Indian snake charmers have been around for hundreds of years. They are masters of handling poisonous snakes. The ability is intuitive or a skill, and has nothing to do with "the anointing."
Snake-handling churches constitute a narrow branch of Oneness Pentecostalism. The movement is predominantly a rural one. The potential for the movement to grow beyond a few hundred churches is small. Remove snake handling from these churches and the only thing left is a lower middle class version of the United Pentecostal Church.
Snakes played a prominent part in pagan mythologies and religious ceremonies long before the Judeo-Christian story of the Garden of Eden. The snake has often been regarded as a fertility symbol. In the Mayan scripture Popul Vuh, the plumed serpent assists in the creation of life, as it does in the beliefs of the Aztec and the Pueblo Indians. The deity Dambollah, an African deity most frequently pictured as a serpent, is central to Haitian voudou. Various American Indian tribes have dances in which live snakes are carried, while the Yokut shamans of central California handled rattlesnakes at public ceremonies.
In the early twentieth century, among members of the Church of God (Cleveland, Tennessee), one of the early Pentecostal churches to emerge in the Appalachian Mountains of the American Southeast, the handling of poisonous snakes took on a new life and importance. These practices arose from a quite literal application of the "signs" of Jesus' disciples mentioned in the biblical gospel of Mark (16:17-18): "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."
While Pentecostals had practiced speaking in tongues and healing—both also mentioned as gifts of the Holy Spirit in the writings of the apostle Paul—no one had paid attention to the signs in the passage in Mark until 1909. That year George W. Hensley of Tennessee captured a rattlesnake and brought it to a church service for snake handling as a test of religious faith. In 1914, Hensley was invited to an annual meeting of the Church of God, whose leader Ambrose Tomlinson gave the practice tacit approval. In 1928, the leadership of the church realized their mistake and distanced themselves from the practice, but by that time it had spread among church members throughout the Appalachian Mountains and as far south as central Florida.
Hensley, Raymond Hays, and Thomas Harden eventually founded the Dolley Pond Church of God with Signs Following, in Pine Mountain, Tennessee; it became the mother church of Southern snake handling. Pushed out of the Church of God, the "signs" people founded similar churches in a loose fellowship that became in effect a new denomination. Snake handling became clandestine after World War II, when Tennessee led other states in passing laws to forbid the practice, following the publicity given to the death of a member of the Dolly Pond church. Less known is the associated practice of drinking poison, usually a solution of strychnine, at church services, also forbidden by law.
The astonishing fact is that scores of sincere devotees of snake handling have survived the bites of deadly snakes and the effects of drinking poisons at church ceremonies. Less than 75 deaths have been recorded as of the mid-1990s. The deaths that occurred were ascribed to lack of faith. Interestingly enough, Hensley, after surviving numerous snake bites, died after being bitten during a church service in Florida in 1965. Snake handling adds a dramatic element to religious faith, and has much in common with the earlier practice of the fire ordeal in non-Christian religions.
Present-day members of the Holiness Church of God in Jesus' Name in the Southeast are more concerned about the dangers of persecution through punitive laws against snake handling than from the practice itself. They regard such laws as a breach of their freedom to exercise their religious convictions sincerely in accordance with Holy Scripture.
Estimates place the number of snake-handling church members at about 3000, living chiefly in Ohio, Indiana, and Appalachia.
And these signs shall follow them that believe; in my name they shall 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. . . . Mark 16: 17-18.
Among many Southern hill sects this Biblical injunction has caused violent dissension. Conservatives hold that a believer who accidentally tromps on a snake will be protected by the Lord. More radical brethren consider it "phenomenal doctrine." They catch and baptize snakes drape them over their necks and arms with only the paralyzing power of prayer for protection.
Occasionally the prayers are not sufficiently paralyzing, and there are mortalities. Last week two believers died.
In Wise County, Va., a snake leaned out and bit the wife of the Rev. Harve Kirk, a reverend of the Faith Holiness cult. Though Mrs. Kirk was pregnant, she refused medical aid. Harve prayed as never before and every available Faith Holiness member hurried up to pray, too. But Mrs. Kirk's hand swelled up and turned black. Her baby was born prematurely and died in 20 minutes. Mrs. Kirk kept shouting "Precious God" and "Glory to His Name." Six hours later she died too.
The other casualty was Lewis Francis Ford, a truck driver and lay preacher of the Dolly Pond Church of God in the hamlet of Grasshopper, Tenn. Brother Ford was a new man with snakes; he had handled them only since last July 22. He was bitten before he really started praying. His father explained afterward:
"He took three snakes out of the box and laid them over his arm. Then a fourth, a rattler, bit him on the finger. He brought his arm up and the snake was hanging by his fangs in Lewis' finger. He went on preaching for ten minutes and he got a good victory over the serpent. The snake was laying over the pulpit like he was dead when Lewis stepped down."
As soon as he had died, his wife requested snake handling at the funeral. Almost 3,000 people came to watch. The brethren played guitars, cymbals and tambourines and when they got to shouting good, the snake handling began. The Rev. Raymond Hayes of Grasshopper put the serpent that had bitten Brother Ford into the coffin. It coiled up quietly on Brother Ford's chest. In the excitement Brother Hayes was bitten by a rattler, but he paid it no heed and felt all right afterward.
In Tennessee, some 150 members of the Dolly Pond Church gleefully sang, chanted, passed rattlers and copperheads around in defiance of a six-month-old state law against handling snakes at public gatherings. When deputy sheriffs hauled nine of the snake-handlers off to jail, some of the others followed, tried, like Joshua, to shake the jail walls down (with hymns and prayer), declared they would not stop their rituals because "We take our law from God."