Title

Snake Handlers of the Church of God with Signs Following

Keywords

Snakes, Snake Handlers, Appalachia, Cult, Church, God, Signs, Followers, George Hensley

I. Abstract

            The Church of God with Signs Following developed from a literal interpretation of several verses from the Books of Mark and Luke in The Bible.  The faithful believe that they can handle venomous snakes without fear of death, speak in tongues and heal the sick.  The strict understanding of Biblical passages is made up for in the informality in which the basic structure of the church – the clergy and service order, for example – finds itself.  Founded in the early 20th century by George Hensley in the rural mountains of Tennessee, the faith has seen its only success in the American South.  Appalachia and Tobacco Road (North Carolina) have been particular strongholds.  Today, the religion is facing increasing legal and public image problems.  These issues have forced the followers to practice in secret.

II. Scope and Purpose of the System

            The snake handlers of Appalachia prove their faith by “pick[ing] up snakes with their hands” (Mk. 16:18, NIV).  They fall under the broad Church of God with Signs Following.  Followers of this movement believe that the truest test of their faith will come through handling the snakes and avoiding a bite or healing from one.  The goal of the faith is to feel the presence of the Holy Spirit.  According to Shannon Bell, “this is the difference between mainstream Protestantism and Mountain Religions – the experience of the Spirit is what offers power to religious Appalachians” (Bell 2000, 12).

            Snake handlers can be found in an area ranging from Ohio to Florida.  The largest concentration, however, is in Appalachia.  The heart of Appalachia is in West Virginia, and that state is home to a large number of snake handlers.  The number of individuals practicing the faith is nearly impossible to surmise, but some estimates place figures between 1,000 and 2,000 members[i].  As of 1997, there were an estimated twenty-five to forty-five snake-handling churches in the American South (Glazier 1997, 25).

III. Authority Structure

A. Sources and Criteria of Valid Knowledge

            Snake handlers look to several passages in the Bible for their guidance.  Two of the most important can be found in the Books of Mark and Luke.  Mark contains the five signs, which believers follow.

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. (Mk. 16:17-18)

Luke holds another verse that is used to defend the snake handling aspect of the faith.

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. (Lk. 10:19).

Ecclesiastes 10:11, 1 and Corinthians 10:9 both direct humans not to take up serpents (La Barre 1962, 11).  If the same literal interpretation of Mark 16 and Luke 10 were applied to those verses, snake handlers might not pick up serpents.  It is important to note that Signs Followers read only the King James Version of the Bible (Bell 2000, 14).

            Some Signs Followers claim an ability to drink venom.  This belief is derived from the fifth sign mentioned in Mark 16. This is not performed often, but a vial of the toxin is always kept in the church.  Members of the group also claim the ability to heal those who are ill.  By placing their hands on a sick church member, they feel that it is possible to cure their ailments.

            The faith is not limited to snakes and their venom.  Because no scripture can be found that condones neckties, men wear open-neck shirts.  Women are not permitted to cut their hair, must wear plain clothes and may not curl their hair or wear make-up.  Theater-going is also not allowed.  Because taking medicine would show a lack of faith in God’s healing powers, it is not permitted, either.  Along those lines, a member of the church was once seen drinking Coca-Cola during a hot day.  The member was asked to find a passage in the Bible condoning such consumption.  Because he was unable to find proof of God’s acceptance of the consumption of Coke, Signs Followers do not drink that beverage (1962, 17).

B. Methods of Inquiry

            Perhaps the most impressive example of acquiring knowledge within the Church of God with Signs Following comes from Tom Harden, a 1940’s leader of the movement.  After having gone to school for only a year, he never learned to read or write.  Later in life, Harden “got the Holy Ghost” and was suddenly able to pick up a Bible and read it.  His faith was validated again when he was bitten and recovered at one meeting (1962, 14).  This anecdote clearly exemplifies just how personal this church is.  The individual experience of God and The Holy Spirit are vital to its success.  George Hensley’s decision to take up serpents was also a very personal choice.  No one but him had him do it.

The Church instills excitement and fervor in its membership.  In one account of a Signs Followers service, members are described as being very raucous.  Members clap and cry out phrases like “Praise the Lord!,” “Thank God for Jesus!” or “Hallelujah to Glory!” (Goodenough 1964, 315).  The level of energy at a Signs Following meeting is intense.  No one simply sits quietly and watches, every member takes ownership of the service. 

The proof of one’s faith comes from dangerous interaction with snakes.  Many snake-scholars can vouch for the fact that repeated handling of these reptiles will tame them.  Their quickness to strike will diminish with continued human contact; this is especially true if the snakes are captured early in their lives (La Barre 14).  That being said, there still remains a high degree of danger inherent in contact with venomous snakes.  Followers do risk death.

C. Institutions and Professional Structure

            The church is based on personal experience, not professional expertise.  What little formality there is gets drawn from within the congregation.  No formal education is required for ascending to a position within the church.  In many cases, the leaders are individuals who simply have an especially powerful experience with the Holy Spirit.  One leader in Florida, called Beauregard Barefoot by La Barre is quoted as saying that, “Being healed can be an experience which shows that you have the spirit of God.”  Barefoot said “The spiritual awakening [is like] a physical awakening” (1962, 120).  Getting the Spirit is akin to being born.  It allows an individual, according to Barefoot, to experience reality in a new way. 

            At the same time, “getting the Spirit” is not limited to the leaders.  Barefoot, himself, said “that every one of his most loyal members have had an experience, such as a healing experience, a prediction miracle or other comforting or revelation experiences from the religion” (1962, 122).  This personal connection to God is important to the success of such a dangerous religion.  If, for example, a religious leader were to simply offer his congregation some snakes to handle, there would be no reason to do so.  The trust and faith that a personal bond with the Holy Spirit creates enables such dangerous activity to take place.

IV. History

            George Went Hensley first picked up snakes around 1908 in the rural mountains of Tennessee.  His decision to handle serpents came after reading the verses of Mark and Luke referenced above.  He decided that following the five signs outlined in Mark would be the truest test of his faith in God.  Hensley was born around 1880 and died, from a snake bite, in July of 1955.  For many years the only leaders of the group were those directly trained by Hensley.

            The Church of God with Signs Following is akin to the Pentecostal movement.  Pentecostalists trace their origins to Charles Parham and William Seymour of Kansas.  Believers understand that the Holy Spirit expressed itself through these two men and view their lives as pivotal.  It was through them that all of the Holy Spirit’s powers came.  Snake handling grew out of this faith.   

            The 1920’s brought a decline in the number of believers in the snake handling tradition.  The faithful remained few until an expansion in the 1940’s.  After several deaths, snake handling was banned in 1947 in Tennessee other states soon followed suit.  During the 1970’s there were several more deaths as a result of handling serpents.  More legal challenges have ensued.  1973 saw the issue taken before the Tennessee Supreme Court on the grounds that the banning of snake handling violated their fundamental right to freely practice their religion.  The Court upheld the ban on snake handling and the practice remains illegal even today.

            The faithful must also fight against a rather overwhelming negative public image.  The images the public holds of Signs Followers become evident by simply looking at headlines from major publications.  Examples such as “The Jaws of Death,” “The Gospel of Death” or “Ecstasy with a Deadly Cobra” all appear when one looks through a collection of literature on the topic (Glazier 1997, 20).  When considering Appalachia, many non-Appalachians first think of snake handlers and the negative images which they associate with these believers.  Because of the legal and image tests, Signs Followers must practice under cover.

V. Representative Examples of Argumentation

            Signs followers read only the King James Version of The Bible.  The translation in that text for Mark 16:17-18 calls for the faithful to “speak with new tongues…take up serpents… [and] drink any deadly thing.”  This passage – like most of the Bible – is interpreted in the most literal way possible.  During the course of a Signs Follower service, the faithful literally pick up snakes and actually, although more rarely, drink poison.  The story, related earlier, of the Coca-Cola consumption is a fine example of literal interpretation.  The literal understanding of The Bible is just one interpretation.  The Signs Followers believe that their faith may be proven by the freedom with which they handle serpents.  The truly faithful, according to followers of this faith, can prove the degree to which they believe by following the signs.

            Speaking in tongues is an element of the faith that is not given as much attention as the other, more sensational, aspects of the faith.  The ability to do this is a sign that the Holy Spirit has entered one’s body. 

            Signs Followers are also able to heal the sick.  This ability is one that is exercised by all members of the church, not just the leaders.  Such action may take place at some point during the service.  The ill saint (the name for any member of the church) will be brought to the front of the church and members may come to him and place a hand on his body.  This action will serve to heal whatever ails the individual (La Barre 1962, 19).

            The recent controversies surrounding snake handling has come as a direct result of deaths from snake bites.  Local authorities and family members of the faithful frown on the dangerous practice.  Saints put all of their faith in the few lines of Scripture that proclaim their ability to withstand any potential danger from picking up snakes.  In short, God will protect the faithful.  This is not enough proof for everyone. 

VI. Position in Comparative Scales

            The scale used here is from 1-10.  The smaller the number, the closer to the statement located on the left The Church of God with Signs Followers is in relation to other faiths.

A.    Relative emphasis on traditional authority ----- or the testimony of experience (8)

The entire faith is based on literal interpretations of The Scripture.  However, the only way one can prove his or her faith is through personal experience.  Handling a snake, speaking in tongues or drinking strychnine are certainly some of the most intensely personal experiences an individual may have.

B.     Relative centralization of authority -------------- or decentralization                   (8)

There is very little central authority in the church.  Anyone may stand up and begin praying or healing another member.  Most of the control spiritual leaders within the faith exercise is in beginning the service.  Until he arrives, the members simply mill around the tabernacle having conversations.  The service begins when he gets to the building.

C.     Relative emphasis on invisible realities ---------- or material, earthly ones          (5)

The faithful believe that The Holy Spirit will heal any snake bite or other illness they experience.  There is complete and total faith in God.  He controls their fate.  At the same time, the church also relies on material realities.  The test they have for the power of The Spirit comes when using earthly serpents.

D.    Mainly spiritual or moral objectives -------------- or pragmatic aims                    (3)

The fundamental objective or goal of snake handlers is to prove their faith in God.  This is done by, obviously, handling dangerous and poisonous snakes.  The objectively real snake bite is merely a tool to attain the acutely spiritual measure of complete and total faith in God and his ability to protect and heal.

E.     Most power reserved for a divine being -------- or realizable in individuals        (4)

The power to heal people was given to the Signs Followers in Mark 16:18.  According to that verse, “they will place their hands on sick people, and they will get well.”  The power of an individual to heal another person is an extreme example of personal power.  The healing of individuals is a gift of God.  It is only realizable if one believes in Him.  In order to perform a particular sign, “a saint should have the ‘anointing’ of the Holy Ghost.  Anointing is tangible and real.  It is experienced in a variety of physical ways” (Glazier 1997, 25).   The physical experience comes through numbness of hands or tongue, a sudden and involuntary movement or total collapse, among others.  The central power given in the church is God through individual members.

References

I. Primary Sources

The King James Version of the Bible:

This text is the only translation that Signs Followers will use.  It is, to them, the only accurate one.

 

II. Secondary Sources

Bell, Shannon.  (2000).  Religion as an Empowerer of the Oppressed: A Study of Liberation Theology, Engaged Buddhism and Pentacostal Serpent Handlers.  Senior Thesis, Washington & Lee University: Timothy Lubin.

Bell’s thesis is extremely informative.  This piece works to show how a religion can work to “perpetuate social, economic, and political oppression, while still empowering the believers” (Bell 2000, 1).  The conditions of the regions where the faith exists are extremely poor.  The thesis argues that the religion contributes to and works against the environment. 

 

Glazier, Stephen.  (1997). Anthropology of Religion: A Handbook.  Westport Connecticut: Greenwood Press.

The most useful part of this book for this study is, of course, the article on “Snake Handling.”  The focus on the five “signs” is especially interesting.  The extensive bibliography would be especially important for further study of the topic.  The recent publication date of this text makes it even more important.

 

Goodenough, Ward H. (1964).  Explorations in Cultural Anthropology.  New York: McGraw-Hill Book Company.

This text is significant for the way in which it deals with issues surrounding the history and legal challenges facing snake handlers.  Most of the focus is on the followers in North Carolina.

 

La Barre, Weston. (1974). They Shall Take Up Serpents: Psychology of the Southern Snake-Handling Cult.  New York:  Schocken Books.

This book is by far one of the most useful analyses of Snake Handlers.   As the title implies, its focus is on the impact of this faith on the individual.  This leaves broad stretches of the text irrelevant to a broad and general exploration of the faith.  However, the anecdotes and stories of the church are not only useful for an understanding of the faith, but are also interesting to read.  



[i] (http://religiousmovements.lib.virginia.edu/nrms/Snakes.html