Snake Handlers Hang On in Appalachian Churches

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Churches that practice serpent handling tend to be wary of publicity. This desire for privacy stems, in large part, from negative media attention that inevitably follows the practice after injuries or deaths due to snakebite occur.

"There are over 100 documented deaths from serpent bites," said Hood. "In every tradition, people are bitten and maimed by them. They risk their lives all the time by handling them. If you go to any serpent-handling church, you'll see people with atrophied hands, and missing fingers. All the serpent-handling families have suffered such things."

"It's a misconception that these people believe they won't get hurt," Hood explains. "The Bible says to take up serpents, not that they won't be bitten. If they're bit, that's up to God. The issue is obedience to God. There's no magic power type of stuff. They know the reality of it because so many families have had people hurt and killed."

Junior McCormick has seen many serpent-handling bites, and experienced them himself. None of those experiences have deterred him from answering his calling. "Some people were bit, and I believe God was ready for them and their time had come," he said. "I was bit 14 times, by rattlesnakes, copperheads, water moccasins, and I never used anti venom—all I had was just Jesus. I've been bitten badly, but I'll go back the next week and take them out [serpents] again."

Higher Calling

What is it that inspires these worshipers to handle poisonous snakes? Like other Christian fundamentalists, serpent handlers' beliefs are rooted in a literal interpretation of the scriptures.

These activities don't dominate services, but play a limited role within more traditional worship. "In almost all serpent-handling churches, they don't handle them all the time. They usually don't even handle them every Sunday," Burton explained.

Tom Burton, a professor emeritus at East Tennessee State University, has attended many snake-handling services and studied the practice for over 30 years. He's the author of Serpent Handling Believers, an authoritative study of the belief. Burton says that much of what goes on at such churches would be familiar to other Christians. "If you were there when they were not taking up serpents, or even during other parts of a service where they did, it would be like many other Pentecostal groups," he explained. "There is singing, preaching, laying on of hands, praying, testifying, and that sort of thing. It's kind of an expressive church service where people freely share emotions, a very participatory service like most Pentecostal services."

But those anointed by the Holy Spirit answer the calling by taking up the deadly reptiles or by drinking poisons. Burton said: "Only certain individuals commonly handle serpents, and it goes without saying that they warn people: 'If you're not directed by the Holy Ghost to do this, you'd better not.'"

While few outsiders are drawn to the dangerous and controversial practice, Ralph Hood predicts that it's future is assured. "Since the beginning people have been predicting that it will disappear, but as long as there is Appalachia there will be handlers," he explained. "It's an integral part of Appalachian tradition and it's not going to fade away."

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