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Snake handling

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thumb|300px|rightSnake handling or serpent handling is a religious ritual in a small number of Pentecostal churches in the U.S., usually characterized as rural and Holiness. The practice began in the early 20th century in Appalachia, spreading to mostly coal mining towns. The practice plays only a small part of the church service of churches that practice snake handling. Practitioners believe serpent handling dates to antiquity and quote the Book of Mark and the Book of Luke to support the practice:

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)

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. (Luke 10:19)


thumb|300px|right George Went Hensley (1880-1955), a preacher who left the Church of God (Cleveland, Tennessee) when the Church noticed him taking part in snake handling and set specific rules that made certain that that denomination would have nothing to do with those types of practices, is credited with creating the first holiness movement church dedicated to snake handling in the 1920s. Sister-churches later sprang up throughout the Appalachian region, including at the Mt. Verd Holiness Church in McMinn County - Athens, Tennessee. [1]

Many of the later followers were brought into the belief through traveling preachers in the late 19th century, attracted by charismatic preachers who boasted great miracles and demonstrated wonders. James Miller, without hearing of Hensley's ministry, claimed he received a Revelation from God to handle serpents and baptize in the Jesus Only formula of Acts 2: 38 in the King James Bible. By the beginning of the 20th Century, snake handling had spread to Canadian soil, where a handful of Canadians embraced the Mark 16 revelation.

Snake handlers today and practices

thumb|300px|right As in the early days, worshipers are still encouraged to lay hands on the sick (cf. Faith healing), speak in tongues (cf. Glossolalia), provide testimony of miracles, and occasionally consume poisons such as strychnine. Gathering mainly in homes and converted buildings, they generally adhere to strict dress codes such as uncut hair, no cosmetics and ankle-length dresses for women, and short hair and long-sleeved shirts for men. Most snake handlers preach against any use of all types of tobacco and alcohol.

Most religious snake handlers are still found in the Appalachian Mountains and other parts of the southeastern United States, especially in such states as Alabama, Georgia, Kentucky, Tennessee, West Virginia, and Ohio. However, they are gaining steady recognition from news broadcasts, movies and books about the non-denominational movement.

In 2001 there were about 40 small churches that practiced snake handling, most considered to be holiness-Pentecostals or charismatics. In 2004 the practice moved across the border and there were four snake handling congregations in the provinces of Alberta and British Columbia, Canada. Most, if not all, use the King James Version of the Bible and consider other versions to be demonic or false. Like their predecessors, they believe in a strict and literal interpretation of the Bible. Most Church of God with Signs Following churches are non-denominational, believing that denominations are 'man made' and carry the Mark of the Beast. Worshippers often attend services several nights a week. Services, if the Holy Spirit "intervenes", can last up to five hours, and the minimum time is usually ninety minutes.


Several of the leaders in these churches have been bitten numerous times, as indicated by their distorted extremities. For example, the founder of modern snake handling in the Appalachian Mountains died from snakebite in 1955.[1] In 1998, snake-handling evangelist John Wayne "Punkin" Brown died after being bitten by a timber rattler at the Rock House Holiness Church in rural northeastern Alabama.[2] Members of his family contend that his death was likely due to a heart attack. His wife had died three years earlier after a snake bite while in Kentucky. Another follower died in 2006 at a church in Kentucky.[3]


The states of Alabama, Kentucky and Tennessee have passed laws against the use of venomous snakes and/or other reptiles in a place that endangers the lives of others, or without a permit. The Kentucky law specifically mentions religious services; in Kentucky snake handling is a misdemeanor and punishable by a $50 to $250 fine.[4] Most snake handling practices, therefore, take place in the homes of worshippers, which avoids the process of attempting to obtain a government permit for the church. Law enforcement officers usually ignore these religious practices unless and until they are specifically called in. This is not usually done unless a death has resulted from the practice.

In July 2008, 10 people were arrested and 125 venomous snakes were confiscated as part of an undercover sting operation titled "Twice Shy." Pastor Gregory James Coots of the Full Gospel Tabernacle in Jesus Name was arrested and 74 snakes were seized from his home as part of the sting. A Tennessee woman died in 1995 due to a rattlesnake bite received during a service at the Tabernacle church.[5][6]

The practice is legal in the state of West Virginia.

Snake handling was made a felony punishable by death under Georgia law in 1941, following the death of a seven-year-old girl from a rattlesnake bite in a snake handling incident. However, the severity of the punishment was such that juries would never convict, and the law was repealed in 1968.[7]

Snake handling churches


  • Rock House Holiness Church on Sand Mountain in the rural northeast[8]

South Carolina

  • Holiness Church of God in Jesus Name, Greenville[9]

West Virginia

  • Church of the Lord Jesus, Jolo[10]

See also


  1. Appalachian Essays.
  2. CNN 1999 Feb. 12
  3. USA Today, 2006 Nov. 8
  4. Woman Fatally Bitten by Snake in Church, AP Nov. 8, 2006, at
  5. Brammer, Jack (2008-07-12). "Sting nets scores of venomous snakes". Lexington Herald-Leader. pp. A1, A8. Retrieved 2008-07-12. 
  6. Alford, Roger (2008-07-12). "Pastor among suspects in illegal snake bust". Associated Press. Retrieved 2008-07-12. 
  7. Ruthven, Malise (1989). The Divine Supermarket. London: Chatto & Windus. pp. 291. ISBN 0 7011 3151 9. 
  8. Mike Ford, "Should Christians Handle Snakes?." Forerunner, August of 2003. Retrieved: 31 January 2008.
  9. Handling Serpents. Mercer University Press. 2005. pp. 8. ISBN 086554848X. 
  10. Serpent Handling at Jolo, West Virginia and the Legitimacy of the Marcan Appendix. Appalachian State University. Retrieved on 2008-10-29.

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