What is a Serpent Handler?
There is no uniform or widely agreed upon description of what a serpent handler is, or should be, even among those who practice what appears to be a bizarre and aberrant rite of Christian faith. Although serpent handlers have much in common with one another, there is nuance to each church's particular interpretation of Biblical scripture and differences between how they worship and live their lives. But the practice is real, and serpent handlers are not only real people, they are sane people.
To arrive at a manageable description of serpent handlers one must understand how the practice itself evolved from other fundamentalist Christian movements, and the role of biblical interpretation as the impetus for the ritual.
Generally, a serpent handler is a person who uses poisonous snakes to demonstrate a belief in the physical manifestation of the Holy Spirit as described in the Biblical Book of Acts (Acts 1.5,8) and, more specifically, the words of Jesus to his apostles in the Book of Mark; which are:
"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
For many Christians the bible is the direct word of God. They believe each passage is literal truth. For such believers, there's no room for interpretation and there's no ambiguity. Jonah was swallowed by a whale. Moses parted the Red Sea. Jesus Christ walked on water and raised the dead. These are not metaphors for such believers, but in some cases, controversy over the interpretation of a single word (such as the word shall, in "They shall take up serpents.") has fractured churches, leading to new movements and new ways of thinking among fundamentalist Christian congregations. Such is the case with serpent handlers who sprang from the Pentecostal Church in the early part of the 20th century.
The belief in biblical inerrancy, or the complete accuracy of the bible, forms the very basis of Christian Fundamentalism, of which the Pentecostal Church is the largest and fastest growing branch, and from which arose the practice of serpent handling. But the handling of serpents is only one aspect of a rich and complex faith that stems from a focus on the powers and gifts promised by Jesus to the most faithful believers, via what is perhaps the most enigmatic figure in the bible - the Holy Spirit. We cannot understand those who handle serpents without first attempting to understand that concept, because serpent handlers believe it is the Holy Spirit who bestows the gift of protection to those who handle snakes and drink poison. But who, or what, is the Holy Spirit, and what does dancing, singing and praying while holding a live, wild rattlesnake have to do with faith in God?
The Old Testament introduces us to a Holy Spirit, also called the Spirit of God, who bestows physical power, raptures or the gift of prophecy upon individuals who, in some cases, promise the bestowal of God's spirit to all. The New Testament tells us that such prophecy is fulfilled through Jesus who is the bearer and giver of the Holy Spirit.
From that perspective the Holy Spirit can be seen as a sort of proxy of God, and can be viewed as His physical manifestation on Earth. According to the beliefs of most serpent handlers, the Holy Spirit acts upon man, he touches us, literally, and he can bestow upon mortals special gifts (1Cor12:8-10) or powers, including the gift of prophecy and healing. The bible tells us that it was the Holy Spirit who made possible the virgin birth of Jesus and who came to him at his baptism. And it was the Holy Spirit who appeared to Mary and the apostles on the day of Pentecost to affirm the resurrection and the faith. This last Biblical event is important to the rationale and motivation of serpent handlers. The Christian Day of Pentecost occurs 50 days after Easter, and in the Book of Acts, that first Pentecost marks the beginning of the Christian church and faith. On that first Day of Pentecost (in the New Testament), the Holy Spirit revealed itself as an omnipresent "helper" and "spirit of truth".
For many, the Holy Spirit is not the amorphous, paranormal force that his name implies. He is a being, a personage, whom most Pentecostals believe is present within all who accept Christ as savior, but who exists in a more powerful form in those who live the most holy of lives. To those people the Holy Spirit may bestow gifts, including the ability to speak (spontaneously and unpredictably) in a language previously unknown to that person and/or previously unknown to any person. This gift of tongues, or speaking in tongues, is viewed as the ultimate blessing and a clear sign that an individual has attained a state of grace and recognition in the eyes of God.
Jesus explicitly mentions this sign in Mark 16, and the fervent belief in its literal truth gave rise to the practice of handling poisonous snakes as an additional demonstration of devotion, purity and faith. Since many, if not most, Pentecostals take the Gospels at their word, it was not much of a leap from speaking in tongues and healing the sick to handling snakes, and though the ending of Mark itself has been called into question (there are those who believe that part of it, including Mark 16, is a late edition forgery, and those who argue over the translation of the Greek word for shall) serpent handling Christians adhere to its efficacy and validity.
Snake handling as a form of fundamentalist Christian dogma has a relatively short and controversial history. It is not now, and never has been, a widely practiced ritual. Serpent handlers are few in number and exist on the fringes of the Charismatic Pentecostals - Christians who believe in a very personal and visceral experience of God through the Holy Spirit. They experience God and His miracles literally and physically, and they believe that man can change his very nature toward sin through a spiritual and bodily connection to the Holy Ghost.
A man by the name of George Went Hensley is widely considered to be the father of serpent handling. Hensley was a Pentecostal who, while preaching at the Dolley Pond Church of God in Grasshopper Valley Tennessee, is reputed to be the first person to handle live rattlesnakes as a means of demonstrating the veracity of Mark 16. The accounts of the event itself vary, with some claiming 1909 and others 1910 as the date, and they seem to have also been embellished for dramatic effect, as several descriptions purported that a group of skeptics dumped a crate of live rattlesnakes at the foot of the pulpit during Hensley's sermon, and that he reached down into the pile without skipping a beat, bringing forth an armload of serpents, to demonstrate his belief that the signs mentioned by Jesus in Mark 16 would follow not just the apostles, but all believers within whom the Holy Spirit dwelled.
Though Hensley was most likely the first person to handle serpents in this manner and at this time, he was not the only one. A church in Sand Hill Alabama began using serpents in a similar manner in 1912, independent of Hensley's church, renamed the Dolley Pond Church of God, With Signs Following after the Pentecostal Church of God denounced the practice; which began to spread throughout Appalachia, where it has remained in limited practice to this day. The actual number of people who attend revivals and sermons where serpents are handled regularly is low, and the number of people who actually do the handling is lower still. Estimates range from between 2000 and 3000 people attend such churches, but the number is probably lower than that.
The descriptions of serpent handling and tent revivals found in Serpent Box are fairly accurate and are based on eye-witness accounts from both observers and participants. It would be superfluous to describe them in detail here. How they use snakes and run their prayer meetings varies from church to church, but this much is accurate and true: The snakes they use are wild and possess their venom, they are not manipulated or drugged, they have not been defanged. Many handlers have been bitten, maimed and killed. Some of these people also drink poison such as strychnine and lye. Some handle fire including blow-torches and hot coals without being harmed. These practices have been witnessed and documented.
These people believe that by living a clean, simple life free of sin, they can attain a state of ecstatic rapture through singing and praying. In this state, they claim that the Holy Spirit enters their bodies, thus providing them protection from poison consumption and snake venom. They call this union the Anointment of the Spirit; which they often describe as being marked by an overwhelming sensation of joy. Protection from deadly things can only occur when the participants are in this state, and not all participants in such services attain it. In fact most do not. Thus these practices are not attempted by all people, all the time.
The impetus for serpent handling, as referenced in the Book of Mark, comes from a passage which deals directly with the faith of the apostles - or apparent lack of it. When Jesus was taken from the cross after death he was placed in a tomb that was sealed with a large stone. The tomb was visited three days later by three women, Mary, mother of Jesus, Mary Magdalene and Salome, who found the stone had been rolled aside (a difficult endeavor requiring several men) and the body of Jesus missing. Jesus then appeared to them on two separate occasions and bade the women to inform his disciples of his imminent return. When they doubted the women, Jesus appeared to the eleven (disciples) and delivered the lines cited from Mark 16 quoted above.
Serpent handlers believe that speaking in new tongues, protection from deadly things, healing the sick and casting out demons are the signs that follow those who believe in Jesus and who live an exemplary life according to the rules laid out in the bible. Thus, it's more accurate to refer to them as sign followers than serpent handlers, for it is their emphasis on the signs of faith and their interpretation of the word shall which delineates them from their Pentecostal counterparts.
Serpent handling never spread much further than Appalachia and in most states where it has been historically practiced there are laws prohibiting it. Yet it continues. The number of sign followers is infinitesimal compared to the explosion of Pentecostalism worldwide (though both groups believe fervently in the manifestation of the Holy Spirit). However the main difference lies in whom they believe may be given the powers ascribed to believers in Mark. For sign followers, any man, woman or child has the potential to transcend his nature and receive the full blessings and powers of the Holy Sprit. And that idea alone fueled the notion that even a small, deformed ten-year old boy could do great and wondrous things.
Vincent Louis Carrella