Salvation on Sand Mountain: Snake Handling and Redemption in Southern Appalachia

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It is Scottsboro, Alabama, in the fall of 1991. A snake-handling preacher by the name of Glendel Buford Summerford has just tried to murder his wife, Darlene, by snakebite. At gunpoint, he forces her to stick her arm in a box of rattlesnakes. She is bitten twice and nearly dies. The trial, which becomes a sensation throughout southern Appalachia, echoes familiar themes from a troubled secular world - marital infidelity, spouse abuse, and alcoholism - but it also raises questions about faith, forgiveness, ...
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Salvation on Sand Mountain: Snake Handling and Redemption in Southern Appalachia

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Overview

It is Scottsboro, Alabama, in the fall of 1991. A snake-handling preacher by the name of Glendel Buford Summerford has just tried to murder his wife, Darlene, by snakebite. At gunpoint, he forces her to stick her arm in a box of rattlesnakes. She is bitten twice and nearly dies. The trial, which becomes a sensation throughout southern Appalachia, echoes familiar themes from a troubled secular world - marital infidelity, spouse abuse, and alcoholism - but it also raises questions about faith, forgiveness, redemption, and, of course, snakes. Glenn Summerford is convicted of attempted murder and sentenced to ninety-nine years in prison. When Dennis Covington covered the trial of Glenn Summerford for The New York Times, a world far beyond the trial opened up to him. Salvation on Sand Mountain begins with a crime and a trial and then becomes an extraordinary exploration of a place, a people, and an author's descent into himself. The place is southern Appalachia - a country deep and unsettled, where the past and its culture collide with the economic and social realities of the present, leaving a residue of rootlessness, anxiety, and lawlessness. All-night video stores and tanning salons stand next to collapsed chicken farms and fundamentalist churches. The people are poor southern whites. Peculiar and insular, they are hill people of Scotch-Irish descent: religious mystics who cast out demons, speak in tongues, drink strychnine, run blowtorches up their arms, and drape themselves with rattlesnakes. There is Charles McGlocklin, the End-Time Evangelist; Cecil Esslinder, the red headed guitar player with the perpetual grin; Aunt Daisy, the prophetess; Brother Carl Porter; Elvis Presley Saylor; Gracie McAllister; Dewey Chafin; and the legendary Punkin Brown, all of whose faith illuminates these pages. And then there is Dennis Covington, himself Scotch-Irish, whose own family came down off of Sand Mountain two generations ago to work in the steel mills of Birmingham, and

The people of Southern Appalachia are hill people of Scottish-Irish descent--religious mystics who cast out demons, drink strychnine, and handle rattlesnakes. When the author, himself Scottish-Irish, uncovers records of snake-handling Covingtons, he decides to take up serpents himself. The result is Flannery O'Connor, Carson McCullers and Garrison Keillor all rolled into one quirky, unforgettable read.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
After Covington, a writing instructor at the University of Alabama, novelist (Lizard) and freelance journalist, covered the trial of a preacher convicted of attempting to murder his wife with rattlesnakes, he was invited to attend a snake-handling service in Scottsville, Ala. He found the service exhilarating and unsettling; he felt a kinship with the people, for he was only two generations removed from the hill country of Appalachia. Of Scottish-Irish descent, the handlers are religious mystics who believe in demons, drink strychnine and drape rattlesnakes around their bodies. Covington attended other services with Brother Carl Porter; he eventually handled a huge rattlesnake, and recalls that at the time, he felt absolutely no fear. This is a captivating glimpse of an exotic religious sect. (Jan.)
Library Journal
Fascinated by the religious practice of snake handling, the author, a novelist and writing instuctor at the University of Alabama, relates his association with the Church of Jesus with Signs Following in Scottsboro, Alabama. Working for the New York Times, Covington covered the trial of the church's preacher, who was convicted of attempting to murder his wife with rattlesnakes. Upon discovering this remnant of distinctive Southern culture, the author continues his journalist's involvement with the church, which develops into a personal spiritual journey. Awed by the faith and daring of the followers, he becomes a participant in their peculiar rituals. Although the author's observations and insights are interesting, this book is only marginally informative. For a more complete study, see Thomas Burton's Serpent-Handling Believers (LJ 3/15/93).-Eloise R. Hitchcock, Tennessee Technological Univ. Lib., Cookeville
Denise Perry Donavin
This fascinating work catches the essence of a place, southern Appalachia, its people, and the author's personal journey into his past. Covington is descended from the poor southern, Scotch-Irish people in this region. His ancestors came down from Stone Mountain to work the steel mills of Birmingham, Alabama. They were members of the still existent snake handlers, religious mystics who "cast out demons, drink strychnine, run blowtorches up their arms and drape themselves with rattlesnakes." Covington's journey began, more or less, when he covered the trial of Glenn Summerford, a southern preacher accused of attempting to murder his wife with rattlesnakes. In delving deeper and deeper into the pair's family and religious life, Covington became mesmerized. He attended several services at Summerford's former church--the Church of Jesus with Signs Following. "It's not true that you become used to the noise and confusion of a snake handling Holiness service. On the contrary, you become enmeshed in it. It is theater at its most intricate--improvisational, spiritual jazz." Watching his own daughter's gusto at one New Year's Eve service, the author started a genealogical search for his family's link to this evolving religion. His story is a sensitive look at the people and practices, even though he finally distances himself from their beliefs.
Booknews
Covington's coverage of a sensational trial leads him into an exploration of Appalachian Holiness religion and his own roots on Sand Mountain. When he discovers that his ancestors were snake handlers, Covington takes up serpents himself and comes to terms with his spiritual beliefs and the conflicts between traditional restrictive roles for women and modern attitudes. He profiles the faithful as they cast out demons and speak in tongues, and describes a social and geographic landscape where cultures collide. Contains b&w photos. Annotation c. Book News, Inc., Portland, OR (booknews.com)
From the Publisher

Option, 8/15/11
“Heartfelt yet sensational…Covington’s memoir is genuinely life-changing.”

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780201622928
  • Publisher: Perseus Publishing
  • Publication date: 12/28/1994
  • Pages: 240
  • Lexile: 980L (what's this?)
  • Product dimensions: 5.97 (w) x 8.61 (h) x 0.95 (d)

Meet the Author


Dennis Covington is the award-winning author of several books of fiction and nonfiction, including Lizard and Lasso the Moon. He teaches creative writing at Texas Tech University in Lubbock, Texas.
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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 4
( 7 )
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Sort by: Showing all of 7 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted February 27, 2001

    Excellent reading - strange subject

    This book was fascinating from page one. I would enjoy reading more by Mr. Covington. His technique of joining the worshipers in their unorthodox services while simultaneously revealing his own slightly ambiguous feelings toward this practice make for a great book. If at all interested in the topic, you should like this. Admittedly a strange cult-like Protestant sect, they obviously do have their reasons for engaging in the practice of snake-handling. Sensitive treatment of a controversial practice. Awesome!

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted November 22, 2013

    From the perspective of the cosmopolitan New York Times to the s

    From the perspective of the cosmopolitan New York Times to the small faith community in "hillbilly" country, Covington's journey transforms what counts as "knowledge" and belief.  Remarkable in its move beyond "superior" secular judgment to profound human/spiritual encounter.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted September 4, 2012

    A journey into the hearts and minds of a remote sect of people

    The book lends phenomenal insight into the lives of an extraordinary group of people. Mr. Covington has done a remarkable job of detailing his experiences without using them to speculate the thoughts/feelings of others; this allows the reader become fully absorbed while remaining impartial. Well done!

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  • Anonymous

    Posted November 21, 2003

    compelling human interest story, but little theology

    I read this book in a single sitting after my fiancé' purchased it and told me about it. During my childhood, my mother took me to several Holiness churches through southeastern Ohio. Although Holiness churches (at least the ones I attended) tend to be more conservative than the snake handlers described in the book, they are roots of the mainstream Pentecostal movement and many of fringe doctrines, such as snake-handling. As a result of my upbringing, I have a close personal knowledge of the beliefs and doctrines of these people, and must say that I think Dennis captured with uncanny accuracy the underlying principles that drive these religious movements. The book begins as Dennis reports on the trial of a snake-handling preacher accused of attempted murder, but only briefly covers the trial. Dennis begins an investigation into the lives and peculiar spirituality of those who handle snakes, and soon finds himself immersed in that culture, attending religious services. As he strives to discover what motivates the worship habits of these sects, he becomes caught up in the 'fever' and becomes a snake handler himself, albeit for a brief period. The turning point comes when Dennis openly challenges his church brethren about their subservient view of the roles and responsibilities of the female gender. The snake-handling Christians expel him from their midst, and Dennis returns to his Methodist church in Alabama. The book relays the viewpoint and experiences of a contemporary mainstream Christian as he tries to understand the fringe doctrine of snake handling. I must admit that, after finishing the book, I was disappointed that he failed to explain the doctrine, and offer any substantial justification for it. The book quickly transforms into a diary of his personal experiences in the church, and offers little in the way of a journalistic expose'. Perhaps that it is the point; Dennis may have been trying to convey that that emotionalism and peer pressure drives this doctrine, without much substantive basis for doctrine. While devout Holiness people may disagree, I tend to think, based upon my own personal observation, that very few individuals caught in these extreme doctrines truly understand the basis of their own beliefs. A portion of the book is devoted to the genealogy of the snake handling movement, and traces it back to early immigration patterns in which newcomers to early America were driven from the Eastern US cities into Appalachia. There, they spent generations secluded from the evolution of modern society, and developed conservative religious beliefs that have remained basically unchanged since the early 1800s. As the post-Industrial era began to saturate even the mountains of the eastern and southern United States in the early 1900s, small groups of believers 'rebelled' and evolved their already-conservative beliefs into near fanaticism. Some readers of the book have balked at this explanation, and felt that it unfairly characterizes these believers as backwoods radicals, suspicious of the secular world and purposefully shy of it. To an outsider, this type of viewpoint must seem improbable and unlikely, but it is accurate and typical of these doctrines. All in all, it is a compelling read that offers unique insight into the lives of a handful of snake handlers, whose attitudes and beliefs are typical. It shows us how singularly driven these individuals are, and offers a glimpse into the attitudes and motivations of these people. Unfortunately, it does little to answer the question of ¿why¿ or explore the theological basis of the doctrine.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 10, 2003

    Fasinating but overstated

    This is a good read, but as much or more about the author than the snake handlers. The snake handlers themselves do not think he treated them quite fairly, especially reguarding Punkin Brown. Finally, one gets the impression from the book and the publishers statements that all appalachians are snake handlers and that just is not so.

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 15, 2013

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    Posted May 14, 2010

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