This is a page that focuses on religious and theological issues, as well as providing comprehensive teaching from a classic Catholic perspective. As you read the articles, it is my hope they will educate and bless you.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Taking Up the Serpent

And He said unto them, "Go into all the world and preach the Gospel to every creature.  He who believes and is baptized will be saved; but he who does not believe will be condemned.  And these signs shall follow those who believe:  in My name they will cast out devils, they will speak with new tongues, they will take up serpents, and if they drink anything deadly, it will by no means hurt them; they shall lay hands on the sick, and they will recover."
Mark 16:15-18 (NKJV)
This verse provides the primary basis for a series of practices called "the Five Bible Signs" that are kept by a number of small, devout Pentecostal churches scattered across the country, primarily in Appalachia where I grew up as well.  The one that garners the most attention when these groups merit discussion is the "sign" of taking up serpents, which these people take seriously because they also believe that the Bible is a true book (which of course it is).  I have for some years been following this group, being I am both a religious scholar and a native Appalachian-American myself, and there have been some of my friends who have wanted me to address this.  Therefore, that is what this article is going to do.

Recently, interest in the serpent-handlers has been piqued by a series of programs on some educational channels, such as Snake Man of Appalachia on Animal Planet, Hillbilly Venom on the National Geographic channel, and now Snake Salvation on Discovery.   Additionally, the publication of Dennis Covington's Salvation on Sand Mountain in 1995 also generated some renewed interest. For the most part, these programs do show the people in a sympathetic light (thanks in part to consultations with capable and fair scholars like Dr. Ralph Hood) but I fear that maybe the American public's penchant for sensationalism may taint their view of these individuals as real human beings, as well as being fellow Christians who for the most part (aside from their distinctive belief in "following the signs") are pretty much in agreement with most of the rest of American Pentecostalism.  Therefore, I want to accomplish two things in this article.  First, I am going to give a brief historical overview of the movement as a whole - brief because many good reference works are available which will be more comprehensive - and then I want to give my own perspective, which will be lengthier as there is much to say.  I mainly want to encourage you as the reader to have an open mind to these people, for they are real people, and being I have gotten to know many of them personally myself over the years, I can attest that they are just good, decent human beings who maybe worship a little different than most of us are comfortable with, but they are still very much Christians. 

A Brief History of Those Who "Follow the Signs"

Serpent-handling did not appear out of a void, and indeed it shares a sort of affinity with other expressions of distinct piety in the Christian tradition.  Although the current serpent-handling church movement is just over 100 years old now, there are evidences that the practice in some form or another pre-dates the current movement by centuries.  I came across something very interesting, for instance, in C.A. Wallis Budge's translation of the Egyptian monastic writings that documents an Abbe Paule in Thebes who would take up poisonous snakes and scorpions and actually kill them with his bare hands.  His disciples, upon questioning in marvel how they could receive this gift, were told by the great sage the following: "Forgive me, O my fathers, if ye possess purity of heart, every living thing will be subject unto you as it was unto Adam before he transgressed the commandment of God." (C.A. Wallace Budge, The Sayings and Stories of the Christian Fathers of Egypt, Vol. 2 {London:  Kegan Paul LTD, 2002} p. 142-143).  There are two things of note in that example.   First, notice that Abbe Paule killed the venomous creatures, which meant that possibly the area where his hermitage was had an abundance of such things - in the Nile Valley, there are asps, Egyptian cobras, and horned vipers, so this is highly possible.  This relates back to Mark 16 as well, because it notes that Jesus said "in My name" one could do these things, denoting an authority bestowed on the believer by Christ Himself.  The modern-day serpent handlers in Appalachia do it because they believe that Christ mandated it in Scripture, and to them doing these things denotes a sign to the unbeliever that the Bible is true in what it says.  Abbe Paule, on the other hand, noted that the authority was given as part of the salvation covenant Jesus initiated at His Passion, and therefore it is restorative in that sense because humanity, through Christ, is restored to what it should be.  One aspect of that restoration is having authority over all creatures of the earth.  Authority though is the key concept in all instances, and it is an authority bestowed on those whom Christ has redeemed.   Second, note that Abbe Paule actually killed the creatures, which would indicate that he was endowed with a supernatural gift that gave him protection as well from the venomous bites of such creatures.  That is significantly different from the manner modern Appalachian serpent-handlers deal with snakes they encounter - indeed, a healthy respect is seen among the latter regarding serpents, and many of them even have convictions that the snakes need to be treated humanely and protected - Verlin Short in Kentucky is a good example of this, as he often rescues snakes - both venomous and non-venomous - from areas damaged by strip-mining.  This is the conviction of stewardship over God's creation that humanity is entrusted with, and echoes in many ways St. Francis of Assisi and others.  
Serpent-handling is one of many ascetic practices that pre-date the Appalachian handlers, as it relates as well to other such practices carried out by saints and monastics, including pillar-sitting (as in the case of the Studite monks) as well as the yurodivi ("Holy Fools") in the Eastern Christian tradition.  A more marked contemporary similarity could also be noted between the serpent handlers and the Los Hermanos Penitentes in the American Southwest, a traditionalist Catholic community which practices a rigid asceticism that even includes self-flagellation in order to grow closer to the Lord by sharing in His sufferings.  

Contemporary serpent-handling, however, is often traced back to Tennessee in 1910 when a Church of God preacher named George Went Hensley became the first to "preach the signs" and introduced them to many congregations.  Hensley was believed to have been a native of West Virginia, and although in early life a notorious bootlegger, he later found Christ.  George was a controversial character, as he was often without work and ended up marrying twice and having several children by both women.  As Thomas Burton records as well, there seems to be times when Hensley's faith lapsed, but he always seemed to find his way back (Thomas Burton, Serpent Handling Believers {Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1993} pp. 40-44).  He continued to "preach the signs" for the remainder of his life until a rattler took him down finally at a revival in Florida in 1955.   Hensley is generally considered to be the originator of this movement, although other authorities have different conclusions, which we will now talk about as well.

The Church of God with Signs Following at Dolly Pond in TN, one of the first serpent-handling congregations. (today it houses a congregation of the Church of God of Prophecy)
George Went Hensley (1880-1955), the accepted "father" of the serpent-handling movement

Although Hensley's role is generally accepted by most scholars, it is only logical to understand that serpent-handling didn't appear out of a vacuum either, and there almost certainly had to be some antecedents to the movement.  Jimmy Morrow, a pastor in Edwina, TN, who authored his own book on the movement called Handling Serpents (Macon, GA:  Mercer University Press, 2005) notes that years before Hensley appeared on the scene a lady by the name of Nancy Kleinick in Virginia was taking up the serpent in the late 1800's, and contemporary to that, a Oneness preacher (not Pentecostal as of this time though) by the name of Oscar Hutton was taking up serpents in the 1890's (Morrow, p. 4-5).  I personally would trust Morrow's observations on this, for although an unlettered man, he displays an excellent talent for research and documentation, as testified by Dr. Hood who assisted him in writing the book.  Therefore, like any religious movement, no one individual can be said to have "founded" it, and serpent-handling churches are no different in that regard.
It also must be understood that there are two separate serpent-handling traditions.  The one, which is often traced back to Hensley's ministry, is Trinitarian in doctrine and generally evolved out of the Church of God tradition in Tennessee and Kentucky.   A second serpent-handling tradition, however, embraced Oneness Pentecostal doctrine, and for the most part it is generally accepted that the genesis of these churches can be traced to a Rev. James Miller who in 1912 began to engage in taking up serpents in Alabama (Hood and Williamson, Them That Believe {Berkeley: University of California Press, 2008} p. 40).   In North Carolina, an evangelist named Albert Teester also began taking up serpents independent of Hensley's influence as early as the 1920's.  Ralph Hood correctly notes, however, that although Hensley may not be the sole progenitor of the movement, most scholars do concur that he was indirectly responsible for its propagation throughout the Appalachian South (Hood, p. 40). 
Although over the decades serpent-handling has had its peaks and valleys as a movement, the current program on Discovery, Snake Salvation, documents at least a hundred congregations still engage in the practice and they are found not only in Appalachia, but also in the major industrial centers of the upper Midwest - congregations exist, for instance, in Detroit, Fort Wayne, and Columbus and Cleveland.  Now, I understand that there may be four Canadian congregations of snake-handlers as well.  
That essentially is a brief historical overview of the movement to give some background, and if you want to read more on it, there are an abundance of excellent resources out there available.  Some of the best are Thomas Burton's Serpent Handling Believers, David Kimbrough's Taking Up Serpents, and Ralph Hood's and Paul Williamson's Them That Believe.  Another good reference is Fred Brown's book The Serpent Handlers - Their Families and Their Faith, which focuses specifically on three prominent families in this movement; the Browns in Tennessee, the Coots in Kentucky, and the Elkins in West Virginia.  And, for a first-hand perspective written by one of their own pastors, Jimmy Morrow's Handling Serpents is a valuable resource.  There are others, however, that I would not recommend due to the fact they misrepresent the people and cannot be trusted except for minimal reference purposes.  One book that is actually a shameful piece of scholarship is Weston LaBarre's 1973 text, They Shall Take Up Serpents.  LaBarre was an anthropologist who often presented his subjects in a condescending manner, and therefore he has no credibility for me.  Also, I would read Dennis Covington's Salvation on Sand Mountain with extreme caution - the book has some value as a reference, but Covington comes across as being a little flaky and he also created some issues among the serpent-handlers which hurt his credibility with them.  These references, as well as the 1982 Foxfire 7 volume which also gives a good documentation on a serpent-handling church in Kentucky, will aid in research.  
The Apostolic House of Prayer in WV
The Edwina Church of God in Jesus Christ's name, Del Rio, TN - pastored by Jimmy Morrow
The Full Gospel Jesus Church in Columbus, OH - formerly pastored by Richard Williams
The Church of the Lord Jesus in Jolo, WV, perhaps the most famous serpent-handling church in existence.
The Pentecostal Church of God in Lejunior, KY, an early serpent-handling congregation
The Full Gospel Tabernacle in Middlesboro, KY, pastored by Jamie Coots
The Rock House Holiness Church, Sand Mountain, AL
the Tabernacle Church of God in Jesus Name in Lafollette, TN, pastored by Andrew Hamblin
Now that I have given you a historical overview of this fascinating movement, I want to now give you my perspective as to where I stand with it.  To begin, I am speaking as a Christian, and also as an Appalachian-American, and on that this subject bears considerable merit.  Also, I want to say that I know many of the people in these churches as friends, and they are decent people who have given me a lot of insight and appreciation for the movement.
As a Christian, I am an Anglo-Catholic traditionalist, which means I do not personally practice serpent-handling.  I tend to follow a traditional understanding of the Mark 16 passage, meaning two things.  First, the "serpents" it talks about I believe are spiritual forces we all encounter, and that by the authority of Christ within us through His Holy Spirit, we do have the authority to "take them up" so to speak and have victory over those situations.  Second, although I do believe it from a more traditional allegorical approach, I would also acknowledge that if a Christian were in a situation where an actual poisonous snake or other wild beast posed a danger, I believe God is by all means capable of allowing someone in a situation like that to actually physically engage the snake and remove the danger - that is really what I believe the context of Abbe Paule, the Egyptian Coptic Church Father, entailed that we talked about earlier.  To this I would add a third understanding I have been considering for some time, especially in lieu of actually getting to know many serpent-handling Christians personally.  I would not rule out the possibility at all that perhaps some individuals are gifted in this way to handle serpents, and being that is the case, I think some of these people may have an actual spiritual gift for doing it.  I am not dogmatic on that, but I am just saying the witness of the Spirit does bear out with many of these individuals, and it challenges me.   Much of my position on this still needs some development, but I can confidently say that I believe these people are genuine Christians, and that they are not crazy, nor are they just a bunch of "dumb hillbillies" either - on the contrary, Thomas Burton records that some of these serpent-handlers actually appear more mentally stable than some "normal" people they tested (Burton, p.129-130)!  It is truly a case where God indeed uses the foolish things of the world to confound the wise (I Corinthians 1:25-27).  And, if one studies the Eastern Christian "Fools for Christ," one will find that many eccentric practices of saints were considered holy attributes as a result, so why should serpent-handlers be any different?  
Although I have been highly critical of Dennis Covington's book in this article, I must admit that he did say something that has merit in this discussion when he noted in his closing chapters this: " Feeling after God is a dangerous business.  And Christianity without passion, danger, and mystery may not really be Christianity at all." (Dennis Covington, Salvation on Sand Mountain {New York: Penguin Books, 1995} p. 177).  I would actually agree with Covington on that.  Over the years, Christianity has gotten more complacent, more accomodating to the culture, and many of its pastors have entered "confort zones" in which they don't want to "rock the boat."  Sin and salvation are not preached as much, and "Christian humanitarianism" (also called by Barton Gingerich "Moralistic Therapeutic Relativism") has made much of the message of contemporary Christianity about what makes me feel good instead of what will save my neighbor.  Sacrifice and self-depreciation are not only ignored, but apostates such as Joel Osteen even say it is "dangerous" to think like that because in their eyes we (and by that, they) are to be "healthy, wealthy, and wise" with a daily dose of "I love me."   Serpent handlers fly in the face of that mentality, for to them Christianity is about obedience to God's Word rather than self-gratification, and sometimes obedience means a subjection of our own will and desires.  I respect the serpent-handlers for that, because unlike so many wishy-washy pastors and seminary professors, they actually believe and take seriously what the Bible says, even to the point of great personal risk - I recall Jesus did that too when He was crucified for our sins, right?   I may not practice what they practice, and personally may differ with their interpretation, but I know where they are coming from.  As an Appalachian-American, I also know what it is like to grow up poor, and to be honest it makes taking a risk a little more realistic - these serpent-handlers are the same type of people I am, and when I see their struggles I can see me, because in many cases I am them.  Joel Osteen, as well as many professors in theological graduate-school programs, don't relate to that and therefore are quick to be skeptical and dismissive of these things.  This, despite many of them spouting rhetoric about "identifying with the poor."  If they truly believed what they are saying, then perhaps some of them need to attend a service where people "follow the signs," and maybe they would be challenged to come out of those comfort zones.  Many old-time Pentecostals - whether they handle snakes or not - know what I am saying, because they live it.  Many "mainline" Pentecostals and others don't have a clue - just saying....
That leads me to one further thought about the various programs on cable television that have been popping up lately.  I do watch a lot of these programs, and many of them are good, but I have an issue with them as a danger exists.  The American public these days is infatuated with the sensational and bizarre, and slick TV producers often will make things that are not bizarre enough to them look bizarre.  That is why some of this trend in so-called "reality TV" is suspect, in particular the recent interest in "rural reality," which in part has led to these programs about serpent-handlers.  Some of these programs are actually good - for instance, I think Duck Dynasty and Swamp People are two of the best shows on TV these days because what they depict are real people in real situations, and in many cases they also communicate solid values.  However, there are other shows, in particular those targeting religious groups, that are so sensationalized that unless you know better you would believe them as fact.  One such show, totally unrelated to serpent handlers, is this Amish Mafia.   Many capable scholars such as Dr. Donald Kraybill, as well as even former Amish people such as my good friend Mose Gingrich, have stated that Amish Mafia is more fiction than fact.  And, the show has depicted the Amish community in an unnecessarily negative light - secular TV loves picking on Christians, yet I find it fascinating that while they are degrading Amish and other Christian groups, they make sinful lifestyles like homosexuality look so good.  If that is not an agenda, I don't know what you would call it then.  It is my hope and prayer that these secular networks don't treat the serpent-handlers as nasty as they have the Amish, which is why they need to be monitored.  Fortunately, so far the serpent-handlers have been treated objectively, thanks again in part to good scholars like Dr. Ralph Hood who are often consulted for these projects.  Let's hope that continues.  Also, it would be in Discovery's best interest to maybe consult actual Anabaptist scholars like Dr. Kraybill in dealing with Amish subjects as well.  In the case of the serpent-handlers though, many pastors of their congregations take good precautions against thrill-seeking journalists who want to exploit their apparent eccentricity, and the Amish likewise have a prohibition against having film and photographs, and for good reason - the press in this country is biased, has an agenda, and will do almost anything to discredit people of faith.  It is our duty as Christians to enforce responsible journalism when it comes to any publicity - we are exercising wise stewardship and preserving the integrity of our witness when we do so.

In conclusion, here is my final thoughts on serpent-handlers.  Over the years, I have gotten to know many of them personally, and the ones I have gotten to know are decent, Godly people who just want to practice their faith in peace.  I have serpent-handlers who are my prayer partners as well, and I would trust their agreement in prayer on my behalf anyday.  That being said, again, I do not practice those things myself, and probably never will, but I have an openness and respect for them doing that.  I also want to emphasize that too many people focus on the snakes and not on the fact there is much more to these individuals than just the ability to heft a diamondback under the anointing.  Many are insightful people with their own individual God-given personalities, and a couple of them are gifted in many other ways too - Verlin Short, for instance, has a great respect for the environment of his home, and may actually be doing a service as far as protecting endangered rattlesnake species.  Jimmy Morrow, the unlettered pastor of the Edwina, TN, church, is also a gifted historian, and what he has done as far as personal research would put some Ivey-League scholars to shame.  Intelligence is not automatically bestowed with a college degree in other words, and Jimmy Morrow is actually quite an intelligent guy.  The same could be said as well of a non-serpent handling old-time Pentecostal pastor in Morristown, TN, by the name of Richard Crayne.  As far as I can tell, Pastor Crayne has never went to college, but he has one of the most comprehensive reference books on the independent Pentecostal movement I have seen, and I use it extensively in my research as well - it is called The Pentecostal Handbook, and although out-of-print now you might still be able to find a copy of it on Amazon or someplace.  Many of these people are also gifted songwriters, and yes, even among the serpent-handlers there are degreed people!  I said all that to close by saying that studies like this one are meant to show people there are more to the oft-presented "facts" than we see on the surface, and I want to be one of those who sees the whole picture.  And, I intend to do that with serpent-handlers as well as others - they deserve to be presented fairly and not sensationalized.  God bless until next time.