You Know the Story of the Viper: A Brief History of the Appalachian Snake Handlers
A galactic fuckton of crazy shit has happened in the history of humanity based on someone’s interpretation of ancient texts. From crusades, to witch hunts, to an incalculable number of churches, sects, cults and beyond, we humans seem to love using our ancestors’ cryptic writings as a spring board for deep, dark journeys into some strange, ethically questionable (if not outright loathsome) places. Literal interpretations of the fanatical occult musings of Bronze Age sheep herders tend to harvest some of the more extreme displays of devotion. Around the turn of the 20th Century, a particular verse from the Gospel of Mark became the foundation of a loosely-knit congregation of true believers spread throughout the Appalachian Mountains that exists to this day; the Church of God with Signs Following. Better known to most folks as snake handlers.
The ritual practice of snake handling (serpent, for those that prefer the more biblical/metal-sounding term) has its roots in the southern Pentecostal churches of Tennessee in the early 1900’s. It stems directly from 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 one single individual cannot be identified as the originating the practice, most historians credit its spread to an illiterate, alcoholic Pentecostal preacher named George Went Hensley.
Despite a criminal record and inability to read a bible, Hensley was licensed as a minister in the Church of God in 1915. After a spiritual revelation that left him fixated on the aforementioned bible verse, Hensley hit the road preaching the word of the serpent. The seeds of the Church of God with Sings Following (alternately, the Church of Lord Jesus with Signs Following, and other slight variations) were sewn thru Indiana, Ohio, North and South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, and West Virginia, with the highest concentration, then and now, being in Kentucky and Tennessee. There have even been congregations documented in Alberta and British Columbia, Canada.
While speaking in tongues and laying of hands has always been a common practice in the Pentecostal Holiness tradition, Hensley’s use of venomous serpents and drinking of various poisons in worship established a wholly unique, and harshly criticized, brand of Christianity. Establishing yet another tradition among his fellow preachers, Hensley died in 1955 after being bitten while giving a sermon in Florida.
For obvious reasons, snake handlers have historically been very private about their rituals. The number of existing churches and bite-related deaths remains a rough estimate at best. The churches rarely allow cameras inside their doors, but one of the best and earliest documents of the culture is The Holy Ghost People by Peter Adair. The film captures a church service in Scrabble Creek, West Virginia, complete with speaking in tongues, laying of hands, and of course, loads of venomous snakes. It is pretty unreal to see a group of Christians not acting stodgy and uptight while claiming to worship their god, but truly be in the throes of spiritual ecstasy. The service bears a closer resemblance to a voodoo ceremony than a Christian church. The music is alive, mountain primal, and beautiful; hymns erupt rather than being lead. The faithful have no room for doubt or casual observation; the purpose of the service is full-blown rapture. There is no shortage of crazy here, but there is something strangely admirable about the breadth and depth of such devotion.
It must be noted that the animals are not handled with much regard or respect in this, nor in any other footage on the subject. The snakes are often locked in small, crowded boxes or buckets before being shaken and thrown about during the ritual. As a result, many of the snakes suffer broken bones and exponentially decreased lifespans. On a brighter note, one of the sound engineers on the film was none other than a young Steve Reich! Hallelujah!