Snake Handling Church in Georgia

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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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Okefenokee Swamp Camping

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Written by Craig Dominey

“You want to go camping where?” I asked my friend John over dinner one night. He handed me a map of the Okefenokee Swamp, 700 square miles of marshes, mosquitos and dangerous reptiles. To me, swamps were fine to visit on day trips. Never had I imagined sleeping in one.

Reading up on the Okefenokee, I became fascinated with its eerie beauty and rich history. Both Native Americans and white settlers lived within its shadowy depths before the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service took over. Tourist pamphlets showed a wide river cutting through the swamp, seemingly at a comfortable distance from any predatory creatures.

My interest piqued, I followed John into the sprawling swamp, prepared for whatever nature had to throw at me.

We put our canoes in at Kingfisher Landing on the eastern side. Our plan was to travel 31 miles west to Stephen Foster State Park, stopping at two campsites along the way. Since there was little dry land, camping was only allowed on small wooden platforms.

Okefenokee Swamp

The first thing I noticed was the blackness of the water. I had read that Okefenokee water was not only safe to drink, but was rumored by early settlers to have curative powers.

The shuttle driver who drove us to the landing urged caution, however. Seems a park ranger had recently dipped his hand into the river, only to have his fingertips bitten off by an alligator.

Under greying skies, we paddled 12 miles down the water lily-choked river toward the first campsite, Maul Hammock. Skeletal cypress trees draped in Spanish moss stood amid soggy “prairies,” so-named because of their likeness to western U.S. grasslands. Bitterly cold winds kept away most of the wildlife. Only the occasional blue heron disturbed the stillness.

A small flock of vultures hovered over something in the distance. We joked that it was probably our campsite. “Guess somebody got mauled in their hammock,” I quipped.

We reached the 12-mile marker. A tiny, covered platform extended into the water. Over a hundred vultures sat in the surrounding trees, waiting patiently.

It was our campsite.

That evening, I hastily rinsed our dishes in the black water, thinking about that poor, fingertip-less park ranger. The spooky strains of hooting owls filled the moonlit night. The vultures had fallen asleep, but it wasn’t long before we heard tiny paws splashing toward us. We shined our flashlights into the marsh. Hungry raccoon eyes twinkled back. We hastily tied up our supplies, knowing that the next few hours would be a war.

Later, I was awakened a sniffing sound. One by one, the raccoons crept onto our platform. They became bolder as the hours dragged on, rampaging through our canoes and trash. One even crawled under the platform, scratching beneath my sleeping bag. Exhausted and angry, we nevertheless stayed zipped in our tents, fearful that the scavengers might be rabid.

As dawn broke, we were relieved to find that the raccoons had left minimal damage, save a trail of muddy paw prints. Warm sunlight filled the swamp, setting the golden prairie grasses aglow. We eagerly set out for our next campsite.

But we weren’t the only ones attracted to the sun. Alligators emerged onto the warm bogs for afternoon siestas. We paddled closer to take pictures, at times within ten feet of their frightening maws. But the gators appeared uninterested, sliding back into the murky water.

Okefenokee Swamp

The river suddenly narrowed into a tiny canal, twisting through a dense labyrinth of foliage. Cypress trees gave way to towering hardwoods and water oaks. The river was so still that we appeared to be floating on glass. One could almost imagine spotting the ghosts of early settlers wandering the shadowy banks, lost in this impenetrable wilderness.

After a blessedly uneventful second night, we paddled the remaining 10 miles toward Stephen Foster, stopping at Billy’s Island along the way. One of the few dry spots in the swamp, Billy’s Island was the site of a bustling logging town in the early 1900s.

At first, I saw no sign of civilization. Only the young slash pines attested to the heavy lumbering that once took place. We climbed up onto the branches of massive oak trees, gazing out over the terrain. It was then that I spotted what was left of the town.

In the center of the island lay a graveyard of rusty ironmongery – stoves, washtubs, truck frames, even boilers from railroad steam engines. Strangely enough, Native American burial mounds sat nearby. Tall grasses shot
up everywhere, as if reclaiming the land from years of destruction.

And I couldn’t help but think that, in the end, we were all tourists here, in one of the few remaining natural strongholds on Earth.

-THE END-

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Okefenokee Swamp

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Okefenokee Swamp 31.063997, -82.271273 Stories: Swamp CampingThe Okefenokee Swamp (Native American name for \"Land of the Trembling Earth\") is the largest, intact, freshwater and black water wilderness swamp in North America.Link: http://www.fws.gov/okefenokee/

 

To learn more about the Okefenokee Swamp, visit:

Stephen C. Foster State Park
Okefenokee Swamp National Wildlife Refuge
Okefenokee Joe– the swamp’s most famous resident/advocate.



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Federal Writer’s Project (FWP)

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Federal Writers’ Project (FWP) was a Great Depression-era federal project to fund and support writers as part of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal.

Many beloved Southern folktales like this one could have faded into obscurity were it not for an ambitious U.S. government program of the 1930s called the Federal Writers’ Project (FWP). The FWP was a part of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal — a sweeping set of reforms created to help America recover from the Great Depression.

WPA Writers

The Works Progress Administration (WPA) was one of the programs under the New Deal that helped give government jobs to thousands of unemployed Americans during this time. The FWP was part of this program and, at its height, hired over 6,000 unemployed writers, both novices and experienced, at a modest salary of $20 per week. Many famous writers were employed by this program, including Saul Bellow, John Cheever and Zora Neale Hurston.

The FWP writers were originally hired to produce a series of state guidebooks, which would later become classics of Americana. The Folklore Unit of the FWP was specifically instructed to collect “life histories” from a wide variety of Americans from all walks of like. The everyday stories of stone cutters, department store clerks, painters, textile workers, farmers and many others were recorded for future publication. The government hoped that this project would provide the nation with a symbol of multi-cultural strength.

 In 1938, the Folklore Unit was placed under the direction of Benjamin Botkin. Concerned with the rise of fascism in Europe, Botkin felt that the folklore project was very important in that it could help foster tolerance between Americans of different backgrounds. He instructed his writers to conduct one-on-one interviews with their subjects, and to do everything they could to make their subjects feel important and, consequently, speak freely.

Benjamin Botkin

Although many of these writers were amateurs when it came to collecting folklore, they soon learned their skills on the job. Without the benefit of latter-day tape recorders, the writers reconstructed the life histories they collected from notes and memory. Botkin encouraged them to listen for characteristic speech patterns and vernacular language. From 1938-1942, the writers documented traditional statements, expressions, songs, essays and stories from across the country.

The American South was seen as particularly fertile ground for folklore. The South was still a largely rural and agricultural region back then, and had not had its “old ways” buried under large cities and so-called “artificial civilization.” Botkin found that the South’s black population, mountaineers and poor whites were the main sources of folklore, and was impressed with the amount of good storytelling and singing he heard during his travels. He particularly credited the friendliness and camaraderie between natives and visitors for the wealth of storytelling material.

The FWP was not without it’s critics, however. Academic folklorists considered the FWP folklore collection to be undependable, since it was collected by amateurs. Detractors of the Roosevelt administration considered the WPA program as a whole to be wasteful, slow and excessive (they joked that WPA stood for “We Piddle Around”). Some congressional leaders even believed that the folklore collections were Communist propaganda.

When World War II broke out, the FWP came to an abrupt halt, and most of the folklore collection was left unpublished. The vast piles of records lay virtually unnoticed in the Library of Congress until recently. The Internet, in particular, has made many of these life history manuscripts more accessible to the public.

For more information on the Federal Writers’ Project and the New Deal, check out these sites:

American Life Histories
Part of the Library of Congress’s American Memory series, this excellent site features life history manuscripts from the FWP, as well as historical information on the program itself.

New Deal Network
A project of the Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt Institute (FERI), this site is a research and teaching resource devoted to the public works and arts projects of the New Deal.


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Coastal Georgia Slavery and Gullah Culture

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History of slavery on Georgia Sea Island plantations around the Civil War. Slave descendants would later become the Gullah people.

It’s hard to believe that, in this coastal area of posh beach resorts, shopping centers and freeways, there were once thousands of enslaved Africans toiling in the fierce coastal heat. The foundation of an old plantation house or a crumbling slave cabin here and there are virtually the only structural reminders of this shameful period of history – General William T. Sherman saw to that.

Sapelo Island Ruin

Until General Sherman’s devastating march through Georgia, the Sea Island plantations, like most of the South, were heavily dependant on slave labor. Wealthy cotton and rice plantation owners valued the expertise of slaves who once farmed similar crops in the grasslands and marshes back in Africa. If it wasn’t for the slaves, the vast plantations that once lined the Georgia/South Carolina coast wouldn’t have thrived as they did.

Near the start of the nineteenth century, many slaves were being kidnaped from the interior of Nigeria and shipped down the rivers to coastal ports. The majority were members of the Ibo tribe, whose traditional homeland was in southeast Nigeria between the Niger and Cross Rivers. Their captors were mainly rival tribesmen who traded with white slave traders for currency, goods and firearms.

In the late 1700s, after a horrific voyage across the Atlantic known as the Middle Passage, the Ibos would typically be brought into ports on the Southern U.S. mainland or in the Caribbean. They were placed into pens, given plenty of food and drink and encouraged to exercise, solely to make them more attractive on the auction block. Then, after a humiliating viewing period where they were stripped, pinched and prodded, the Ibos were sold to speculators who, in turn, transported them to areas of demand.

Of course, not everyone agreed with the practice of slavery. The abolitionist movement of the late 18th and early 19th centuries succeeded in banning slavery throughout the Northern states. As early as 1749, even Georgia discouraged overt slaveholding within state lines. In 1798, it was made illegal in Georgia to import slaves from Africa.

But these so-called laws were too late in coming for an area so dependent on slave labor. Most plantation owners saw slavery as a necessary evil, and resorted to secretive tactics to keep their workforce growing. At high tide under the cover of darkness, slave holders would sneak their ships through the tidal creeks directly to the island plantations.

By all accounts, life on the Sea Island plantations was brutal for the slaves. They were given the backbreaking task of converting heavily wooded islands into cotton and rice fields. This involved draining the salt marshes, cutting down huge trees and clearing stumps. Some Ibos had accomplished a similar task in their African homeland, but never under slavery conditions.

Few slaves tried to escape the plantations. Capture was almost certain, and even if they did escape to an uninhabited island, poisonous snakes or a lack of food and fresh water usually brought them back. Escape or suicide also meant the abandonment of loved ones.

Life on the coastal plantations came to an abrupt end when the Civil War erupted over the region. As Union ships blockaded the ports of Charleston and Savannah, plantation owners took their healthiest slaves and fled the islands, leaving the sick and elderly slaves behind.

But as the Confederacy collapsed, many of these healthy slaves ran straight into General Sherman’s troops during their destructive march through Georgia. Sherman ordered the slaves to return to the islands and, after the war, issued Special Field Order #15, which ceded most of the Georgia and South Carolina Sea Islands to former slaves and forbade white settlers other than military personnel to live there.

Whipped Slave

Many slaves didn’t make it back, becoming refugees along the war-torn Southern roads. Others migrated to surrounding cities. But several did return to reunite with the older slaves left behind. In a perverse twist, many former slaves had become attached to the land they were enslaved upon, and returned to farming the old plantation grounds. Despite widespread poverty, the former slaves formed working communities that would become the nucleus of the African-American island communities found today.

In 1865, President Andrew Johnson expanded the terms of the Confederate pardon to include the return of property abandoned during the war. This meant that the white plantation owners could return to the islands and reclaim what General Sherman had promised the former slaves barely a year before. These plantation owners naturally assumed that their impoverished former slaves would be happy to come back to work for them as sharecroppers.

But this time, the former slaves resisted. They chose to live in their own communities, living on whatever they could catch from the sea or grow in tiny backyard plots. Some even formed land companies to consolidate black-owned farmlands. Individual businesses and schools also sprung up. Without a stable work force, the plantation families lost money, causing many to give up their lands for good.

GULLAH

Cultural ties with Africa are scattered throughtout the Sea Islands,especially on Sapelo Island, where several descendants of West African slaves live in the tiny community of Hog Hammock. Some speak a unique Creole language known as “Gullah,” which developed from the slaves communicating secretly across the islands. Because of their relative isolation from the mainland, the Gullah people have preserved West African customs, craft techniques and storytelling for future generations.

Despite their predicament, the slaves were able to preserve and expand upon many of their African traditions. Besides the Gullah language mentioned above, the more notable traditions involved death and the afterlife. The slaves would often speak about spirits from Africa, which they called “h’ants” or “fixuhs,” coming to visit their homes. To protect themselves from the bad “h’ants,” they would often paint a blue ring around their doorways. Some slaves could detect these spirits better than others, especially babies who were born with a special “caul,” or membrane, over their eyes that enabled them to see ghosts. Naturally, most of the plantation owners dismissed the slaves’ beliefs.

Sapelo Island Cemetery

The slaves also had unique burial customs, some of which can still be seen on Sapelo Island. When a relative died, his or her body couldn’t be removed from the house until the preacher said a few words. After burial, the graves were kept mounded by members of the family. Favorite and symbolic objects of the deceased were placed on or around the headstone, which was kept clean and shiny to attract protective African gods. As a sign of daily recognition of their ancestors, the slaves would pour libations on the ground – a tradition that can be seen in one form or another throughout the African-American community today.

On the outside, it seems that little has changed for the African-American Sea Island communities since the early postwar days. Many families continue to live in low income housing, and opportunities are scarce. As a result, the steady migration toward the large cities has continued, leaving an aging population to subsist on the islands. Surrounding lands are slowly being gobbled up by largely white-owned beach resorts, educational facilities and preserves.

Sapelo Island Gullah Resident

But for the time being at least, the shared wealth of these island communities is in their memories and traditions. Because of their isolation, islands such as Sapelo serve as virtual time capsules from another era. Practically nowhere else in the country are everyday West African traditions more readily on display.

It is hoped that, by returning to these islands, African-Americans will, at least in spirit, keep their connection to the Motherland alive.


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Chickamauga Battlefield Ghosts

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Chickamauga Battlefield ghosts and hauntings, including Ol’ Green Eyes.

If Georgia has its own Loch Ness Monster, it may very well be “Ol’ Green Eyes,” a legendary creature that, according to numerous ghost hunters and tourists through the years, still haunts the massive national park at Chickamauga Battlefield. Green Eyes isn’t the only apparition roaming the grounds of Chickamauga, but he certainly is the most famous.

Chickamauga battlefield monument

Civil War battlefields are some of the most haunted places on earth. With so much death, destruction and sorrow in one area, it’s no surprise that restless spirits still wander the land. Chickamauga Battlefield, in northwestern Georgia close to the Tennessee state line, was the scene of one of the bloodiest battles of the war, second only to Gettysburg according to historians.

The Civil War was approaching its end in 1863 when Union troops captured Chattanooga, Tennessee with their eyes set on Atlanta to the South. General Willaim Rosencrans was the Union commander who led the charge into Georgia in September of that year. But he met violent opposition along Chickamauga Creek from Confederate troops led my General Braxton Bragg and General James Longstreet. The two day battle ended with the Confederate army pushing the Union army back to Tennessee. 37,000 soldiers on both sides were killed.

The Battle of Chickamauga was a much needed morale boost for the Confederate army. But of course, their victory would be short lived as General Sherman eventually took the reins of the Union army and drove south to Atlanta, ending the war.

Years later, numerous people encountered strange goings-on at the old battlefield grounds. Some would hear the sounds of gunshots at night, or of soldiers marching, moaning and crying. This would not be a surprise, as the battlefield is believed to be filled with makeshift graves containing Union soliders. After the battle, many Union corpses were left lying in the field for weeks, only to be buried in unmarked graves.

One famous ghost who is said to wander the battlefield is the “lady in white” who is searching for her husband. But Green Eyes is the best known apparition, and has appeared in two different forms. Some believe Green Eyes is a soldier whose head was blown off during the battle, and now wanders Chickamauga looking for his body.

Chickamauga battlefield cannon

The second version of the story – and the one we used here – is that Green Eyes is a strange, otherworldy creature, half-man and half-beast. He’s been spotted walking on two legs and has long, stringy hair down to his waist. But he also has glowing green eyes and huge jaws with two sharp fangs sticking out. It is believed that this version of Green Eyes comes from a Native American legend from long before the Civil War. There were some reports of the creature wandering among the dead at Snodgrass Hill shortly after the Battle of Chickamauga.

Should you wish to travel to Chickamauga to encounter the creature for yourself, read some of the stories we’ve linked to below. There’s also some historical information on the battle itself:

Prairie Ghosts – Haunted Tennessee
This excellent article goes into more detail about the battle and the hauntings that followed.

Haunted Battlefields

CHICKAMAUGA LINKS

North Georgia
Excellent historical overview of battle itself, including maps and numerous links.

Chickamauga National Military Park
Official site of the historic battlefield.


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