Churches who practice this ritual (and there aren’t that many, thank goodness!) believe the ritual is an “absolute command of God”, according to USA Today. While some biblical scholars debate the literal interpretation, those who practice snake handling as part of their worship do take Mark 16:18 literally: “They will pick up serpents with their hands; and if they drink any deadly poison, it will not hurt them.”
With the National Geographic Channel giving one snake-handling church its own one-season reality series, some observe that perhaps a practice once considered “fringe” is making a resurgence of sorts. Unfortunately, the star of the Snake Salvation series, Jamie Coots, lost his life in February of 2014 following a snake bite.
The phenomenon, if you want to call it that, appears to be confined to one specific region of the United States – Appalachia. Christianity Today reported earlier this year that as many as twenty-five hundred people practice snake handling, although it has been outlawed for years in many states.
These churches also believe in greeting each other with a “holy kiss”. Jewelry, including wedding rings, and the cutting of a woman’s hair are forbidden. Just because snake-handling is against the law doesn’t seem to deter those who are hard-core believers though. Jamie Coots was arrested multiple times for transporting snakes illegally.
So, how did such a potentially deadly ritual get its start anyway? The practice started in rural Appalachian churches is most often attributed to George Went Hensley, an illiterate itinerant preacher who experienced a religious conversion in the early 1900’s. He had been raised in a very religious Baptist family, but had strayed. After that conversion, Hensley turned his back on tobacco, alcohol and worldly friends, and came to believe that the handling of snakes was commanded by scripture.
Even though he was illiterate, Hensley became a licensed minister with the Church of God (Cleveland, Tennessee) in 1915. For several years he traveled throughout Tennessee representing the Church of God, but resigned in 1922, citing “trouble at home” (see next paragraph). For some time he had been wondering whether he was living a truly righteous life. After the resignation he began establishing his own churches, Church of God With Signs Following, throughout Tennessee and Kentucky.
Now, not to judge anyone’s character or anything like that, but Hensley was married four times (three divorces) and fathered thirteen children. During Prohibition he was arrested in Tennessee on moonshine charges. He and his constantly-changing family never seemed to stay long in one place, and perhaps that’s why three wives left him. Even though he held services constantly, Hensley made little money.
During the years he traveled throughout the Appalachian region, several people died from snake bites. In those days, someone who was bitten was shunned because it was assumed the person must have sinned or didn’t have enough faith. Today, adherents hold that even devout believers are bitten once in a while.
Hensley claimed to have been bitten several times by snakes, perhaps as many as four hundred, without any ill effects. However, on July 24, 1955, George Hensley’s faith/luck ran out when he was bitten on the wrist while placing the snake he had been walking around with back in its container. He died the following day and a judge in Calhoun County, Florida where he had been holding services ruled his death a suicide.
As the Christian History web site points out, the practice represents only a teeny-tiny segment of Pentecostalism, .005 percent. It’s certainly not for everybody, but agree or disagree, it’s a piece of history!
While researching the article, I came across a Ray Stevens YouTube video here – which led me to another Ray Stevens video here. Click on the links and have a good giggle or two – I don’t think the Lord will mind.
Have a GREAT day . . . someday it will be HISTORY!
© Sharon Hall (Digging History), 2014.