Holiness Snake-handling: A Context for Pentecostal Epistemology
Located in the back hills of the Southern Appalachians, including West Virginia, Kentucky, Georgia and Tennessee, live coal miners, mill workers, factory laborers and small-scale farmers of Scottish, Irish and English descent who practice a unique ritual in independent Holiness-Pentecostal churches known as serpent-handling (Kane 1974:293). An American born tradition, Pentecostalism seeks a life-changing encounter known as a baptism in the Holy Spirit (Wacker 1984:354). Holiness serpent-handlers are devout sign followers who seek indisputable proof that they have received true salvation by their baptism in the Holy Spirit and honour this practice as their primary source of spiritual epistemology for the Holiness Pentecostal tradition.
The faithful gather around 8:00 p.m. in numbers ranging from 15 to 100 or more on a Saturday and/or Sunday evening. Their church, usually a modest wood frame or construction block rectangular building is, in most cases, built by the congregation (Kane 1974:294). The room is sparsely furnished, including two rows of wooden benches, a coal stove, and at the front of the room, a low platform with a lectern and crucifix. The walls may be decorated with images from the life of Jesus, including Bible quotations and slogans such as, "Jesus Never Fails" and "Jesus Saves", and sometimes includes photographs of the faithful handling serpents (Kane 1974:294).
Men and women usually arrive an hour or so before the service to discuss family and church matters, read scripture and give blessings. Women typically wear modest to brightly coloured print dresses. The men are usually clean-shaven and dress in long sleeve shirts with open collars, wearing pants or blue denim overalls. Some of the men carry shallow wooden boxes with screen tops that contain deadly indigenous venomous snakes such as copperheads, cottonmouths and rattlesnakes, which are placed on the platform at the front of the room (Kane 1974:295).
The service, which can last in excess of three hours, begins spontaneously and informally with several rousing hymns accompanied by four or five electric and acoustic guitars, clanging cymbals and jingling tambourines. Participants join in by dancing with a great deal of hand-clapping and foot-stomping. The pastor welcomes the congregation and asks all to, "have a good time in the Lord" and to be moved and "do what the spirit would have you do." (Kane 1974:295). Occasionally, the faithful will take the lectern, offer a prayer or preach a passage. After the pastor's greetings, the congregation kneels in general prayer, this is followed by an unprompted and chaotic chorus of thanks to God for past "blessings" and requests for God's help in healing the sick. The guitars and tambourines commence with another hymn followed by both men and women rejoicing in song. The music and singing increases in tempo and intensity matched by the devotees frenetic dancing, jumping, twirling, prancing, strutting and falling to the ground violently shaking and speaking in nonsensical tongues (Kane 1974:295).
Without warning, someone, usually a male, will approach one of the boxes, open it and reach inside taking, one, two, even three or more serpents from the box. Holding the serpents above his head or draping them around his neck, the faithful exclaims, "Yes, Lord! Thank you, Jesus!" (Kane 1974:295). Other participants join in, more boxes are opened, more venomous serpents are removed. The music continues with a frenzied tempo, witnesses cry out with, "Bless him, Jesus!" and "Praise the Lord!" (Kane 1974:295). Others taking up serpents will hold them inches away from their faces, but when the rattling stops and the serpent's mouth closes, the faithful will cry out, "Glory to God! Behold his mighty power!" Participants will exchange serpents with one another and some will even remove their shoes and expose their bare feet to a rattlesnake placed on the floor. The agitated serpent coils and rattles its tail as a warning but in many cases does not strike. The serpent-handling ritual continues for 25 or more minutes. Then the music stops and the serpents are returned quickly to their boxes. The service concludes with the pastor or devotees preaching more sermons and giving testimonies of faith, more singing, praying for the sick and taking up collections for needy individuals (Kane 1974:296).
The Pentecostal tradition emphasizes the necessity of a direct personal experience of God such as on the Day of Pentecost as described in the Book of Acts: "And they were all filled with the Holy Ghost, and began to speak with other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance." Holiness-Pentecostal serpent-handlers are fundamentalists who interpret literally the King James version of the Gospel of 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." Also cited by serpent-handlers, the Gospel of Luke 10:19: "Behold, I give unto you power to tread on serpents and scorpions, and over all the power of the enemy: and nothing shall by any means hurt you." These sacred texts clearly describe five Pentecostal signs: 1) exorcisms; 2) speaking in tongues; 3) taking up serpents; 4) drinking deadly poison; and 5) laying hands on the sick and healing (Williamson 1999:208). These signs are commonly preached by the Holiness Snake-Handlers as scriptural justification for their ritual practice and as convincing testimony that they are true believers and practioners of Jesus (Williamson 2004:153).
The direct experience of the spirit moving upon the faithful known as anointing is essential to the sign of serpent-handling.(Kane 1974:296). The spirit can be witnessed as moving about the congregation by its manifestations, such as fervent praying for the sick, chaotic dancing, passionate singing, zealous testimony, preaching and glossolalia. These signs confirm that the Holy Spirit has taken possession of the faithful. In this context, participants claim direct experience with the Holy Spirit and are compelled to "take up serpents". As one Kentucky serpent-handler explains her experience, "I'm afraid of snakes just like anybody else, but when that great power of the Lord comes up on me, I can hardly keep my hands out of them serpent boxesâ€¦.God anoints us to handle serpents, he won't let them open their mouths. It's the work of the Lord and it's real all right." (Kane 1974:297). Participants are cautioned that the snakes are deadly. If a snake-handler is bitten, survival is in God's hands, as one participant declared, "Through these serpent bites, he'll take care of usâ€¦Don't worry about me. Don't cry over me when I leave this world. Rejoice. I'm gonna be with Jesus." (Williamson 1999:210). Snake bites hold significant religious meaning, such as a lack of congregational prayer for the snake-handlers or reproach for not putting the serpent down when God commanded them to do so, or it can signify punishment for sin as referenced in the Book of Jeremiah 8:17: "For, behold, I will send serpents, cockatrices, among you, which will not be charmed, and they shall bite you, saith the LORD." The snake's bite is also powerful testimony to the non-believers that the danger of death is real (Williamson 1999:210). When a faithful survives the bite, it's considered confirmation of anointment and divine protection for obeying the Lord (Hood 1995:319). In true Pentecostal fashion, serpent-handlers claim increased enlightenment which has been revealed to them in a manner that would have otherwise been inaccessible. Through faith, acceptance and obedience in the enactment of the third sign, the faithful are anointed with God's grace, lifted up from humbleness and exalted to a power greater than themselves. The snake-handler transcends the threat of an earthly death to experience the vitality of everlasting spiritual salvation, reported by the snake-handlers as a "joy unspeakable" (Williamson 1999:214). Acknowledging prior worldly experiences with sex, drugs, alcohol and other peak experiences, serpent-handlers convey the ultimate joy found in practicing their tradition is unlike any other experience. Holiness snake-handlers claim a spiritual maturity, a unique kinship with God that is special only to them by virtue of handling serpents. Theirs is a deeper revelation of religious truth that can be found no other way (Williamson 1999:215).
A holiness serpent-handler's most important goal is the acquisition of these signs also known as "the fruits of the spirit" (Kane 1974:294). The manifestation of these gifts provide epistemological evidence that the baptism of the Holy Spirit has been conferred upon the practioner granting them spiritual salvation, a personal relationship with the Lord and life to live in a state of holiness (Kane 1974:295). Our analysis of the snake-handlers ritual uncovers three religious yardsticks that the acquisition of these spiritual gifts has taken place: 1) scriptural evidence, 2) a unique bodily and spiritual experience and 3) the physical enactment of taking up serpents. The first standard-biblical scripture, translated by King James, represents scriptural proof that the literal third sign of taking up serpents is justified and legitimate. The second gauge-a direct spiritual experience of anointment-reproducible and by no means subjective phenomenon (Hood 1995:317). There are recorded first-hand accounts of "shared in common" physical manifestations described as, "being electrical", "a bolt of lightening goes through me"; "my hands and sometimes my whole body gets numb"; "it's like sticking my finger in electicity" (Kane 1974:296). The third benchmark-the high-cost physical enactment of taking up serpents successfully, that is without incident, or if bitten, surviving the poisonous bite without medical attention. This carries profound proof that God is protecting the believer-evidence of credibility that these events are not fake or that there is some gimmick at play. These venomous snakes are deadly. Many have been bitten and died as a result of handling (Williamson 2004:163).
The signs of the Pentecost are powerful testimony that gives new meaning to the phrase, "seeing is believing". Scoffers have been known to bring in their own rattlesnakes to Pentecostal revival meetings only to be converted to the faith after witnessing a successful handling of the sign (Williamson 2004:155). Whether experienced directly or by observing a snake-handling ritual, one cannot escape the undeniable fact that something truly extraordinary has occurred.
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Kane, Steven M., Ritual Possession in a Southern Appalachian Religious Sect, The Journal of American Folklore, Vol. 87, No. 346. (Oct. - Dec., 1974), pp. 293-302.
Wacker, Grant, The Functions of Faith in Primitive Pentecostalism, The Harvard Theological Review, Vol. 77, No. 3/4. (Jul. - Oct., 1984), pp. 353-375.
Williamson Paul W., Hood Jr., Ralph W., Differential Maintenance and Growth of Religious Organizations Based upon High-Cost Behaviors: Serpent-handling with the Church of God, Review of Religious Research, Vol. 46, No. 2. (Dec., 2004), pp. 150-168
Williamson, Paul W., Pollio, Howard R., The Phenomenology of Religious Serpent-handling: A Rationale and Thematic Study of Extemporaneous Sermons, Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, Vol. 38, No. 2. (Jun., 1999), pp. 203-218.
Cameron Freeman, Student of Social-Cultural Anthropology and ReligionsCameron is currently enrolled at the University of Toronto where he studies Social-Cultural Anthropology and Religions.