Handlers of the
Snakes, Snake Handlers,
II. Scope and Purpose of the System
snake handlers of
handlers can be found in an area ranging from
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
the most impressive example of acquiring knowledge within the
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
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
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.
Went Hensley first picked up snakes around 1908 in the rural mountains of
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
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
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.
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,
Glazier, Stephen. (1997). Anthropology of Religion: A
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.
Ward H. (1964). Explorations in
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
Weston. (1974). They Shall Take Up Serpents: Psychology of the Southern
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.