Written by Craig Dominey
Snakes have been part of religious ceremonies for centuries. Ancient cultures regarded them as everything from reincarnated spirits to treacherous beasts responsible for mankind’s sinful ways.
But, to a small group of Southern churches, venomous snakes represent the ultimate test of faith, as congregation members put the words of Mark 16:18 into action: “And these signs shall follow them that believe; In my name . . .they shall take up serpents.”
Dennis Covington’s book Salvation on Sand Mountain, has rekindled interest in “snake churches.” Assigned by The New York Times to cover the 1991 murder trial of a snake-handling preacher, Covington was so mesmerized by the church services that he handled venomous snakes himself. The media pounced on his bizarre story, questioning his sanity.
But I could relate to his experiences. Several years ago, I attended a snake-handling service near Kingston. It was one of the most riveting experiences of my life.
A vicious thunderstorm lashed against my windshield as I approached Kingston that night. After a lengthy search, I spotted a wooden, one-room building at the top of a hillside. Two tombstones stood ominously beside its makeshift driveway. A rusty, hand-painted sign read, “Church of the Lord Jesus Christ”
A group of casually dressed elders studied me as I timidly approached the door. After convincing them that I only meant to observe, not to interfere, they became quite friendly. We complained about the weather and Atlanta sports teams like old friends on a porch swing
Then the conversation turned to other matters, namely Satan. One elder matter-of-factly spoke about seeing a demon creep through the dense forest surrounding the church. “I saw his red eyes glowin’,” he said.
The Rev. Carl Porter, a pleasant, round-faced man, finally ushered me inside. Lightning had knocked out the church’s power, and gas lanterns swung from the ceiling beams. A four-piece country band softly tuned their instruments behind the pulpit. I was struck at how normal the scene was. These people were not toothless hillbilly caricatures, but everyday blue-collar families brought together by a common interpretation of the Scriptures.
Then the wooden boxes were brought in. Paintings of Jesus and the Virgin Mary adorned their sides.
Under the eerie glow of hissing lanterns, the preacher began. One by one, the members stood, gave testimony and asked for special prayers. At first, it seemed more like a community meeting than a church service, a pep rally for the “believers” against a persecutive outside world
Porter asked if I wished to give testimony. “Pray for me,” I muttered The congregation nodded, thinking I was talking about my soul.
I was thinking about what was inside those boxes.
The service was unstructured and unpredictable. Fiery sermons followed calm moments of reflection, intense prayers followed gentle hymns. The “believers” scoff at the idea of handing out programs before a church service. Their services are guided strictly by the ebbing and flowing of emotions. No snakes are handled until the Holy Ghost “anoints” the church.
As the hours passed, a hidden energy swept through the room. The hymns became pounding, rockabilly-style numbers. People stomped their feet, shouted and danced, some banging tambourines and cymbals. Others spoke in tongues, writhing on the Boor. An elder buried his fingers in a teenage boy’s forehead, screaming at a demon inside.
As the music reached a fever pitch, the elders formed a semicircle around the pulpit, keeping the women and children at a safe distance. Porter opened the wooden boxes, pouring clumps of twisting rattlesnakes and copperheads onto the open Bible. They passed the snakes around, draping them around their necks, thrusting them triumphantly into the air. They became bolder as the music pumped faster and faster, tossing the snakes back and forth, stuffing them down their shirts, walking on them with bare feet. Porter grabbed handfuls at a time, the serpents twisting in his fists like Medusa’s hair.
But the snakes didn’t strike. They only stared at their captors, seemingly hypnotized by the pulsating music.
The “anointing” passed as quickly as it started After a brief benediction, the congregation parted into the stormy night. Several members embraced, telling me to come back whenever I wanted.
I drove home in a daze. The intensity of the service had been overwhelming. But the snakes’ lethargy bothered me. I began to wonder whether what I saw was real.
I returned to the church several weeks later for a reunion picnic. Snake handlers from across the country filled the tiny room, some from churches declared illegal in their respective states. During the services, a rattlesnake bit a visiting preacher.
Afterwards the preacher received medical help. “It’s the Lord’s will,” he said, icing his venom-swollen hand.
- THE END –
Check out one of the first documentaries on snake handling, “Holy Ghost People.” The services are very similar today:
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