Snake Handlers Hang On in Appalachian Churches

Brian Handwerk
for National Geographic News
April 7, 2003

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. —Mark 16:17-18

For serpent-handling churches, these verses hold no symbolism—they are the literal words of the Lord that have inspired worshiping believers to handle poisonous snakes for a hundred years.

Serpent handling is always controversial and in many areas illegal, yet it shows no signs of disappearing from its traditional home in Appalachia, the mountainous regions of the Southeastern United States stretching from Georgia to Pennsylvania.

Junior G. McCormick is a serpent-handling pastor from Georgia. He explains that, for him, handling snakes is simply following the gospel to the letter. "Other folks don't do this because their churches don't believe, or it's just something they're scared of," he said. "They come to that scripture but want to jump over that part because it's a deadly thing."

(Practitioners, or self-described sign-followers, prefer the term serpent-handling to snake-handling noting that they incorporate poisonous reptiles not common snakes into religious worship.)

The practice began in the early 1900s. Its popularity has waxed and waned through the years. According to Ralph Hood, a professor of social psychology and the psychology of religion at the University of Tennessee, Chattanooga, serpent handling is currently at a fairly low ebb of popularity. Such fluctuations are characteristic of a faith that persists throughout Appalachia.

The perception that communities that practice serpent-handling church services are poor, isolated rural areas is simply no longer accurate, according to Hood.

"Historically that's where it emerged, but that's no longer the case," said Hood. "Some of these churches are near cities like Atlanta, Georgia, or Middlesboro, Kentucky—and the middle Appalachian region itself is less rural than it used to be. Serpent handling is no longer restricted to miners."

While a number of churches with small congregations around a dozen members survive throughout the heart of Appalachia, the faith is also practiced in adjacent states of Ohio and Alabama.

Family Faith

Churches survive and grow not by attracting new members, but because of enduring family traditions. "Serpent handling is maintained through powerful families whose children have carried on that tradition for up to four generations," Hood said. "There are a small number of converts, but they generally maintain themselves through these families, and by people marrying into the tradition."

While Junior McCormick's grandparents handled serpents, he said he came to the practice later, after a religious awakening that included baptism and scripture study. "I prayed for this, for God to give me the sign to do this because it was in the scriptures," he said. "I don't want to get out of it. I want to get further into it."

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