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Them That Believe: The Power and Meaning of the Christian Serpent-Handling Tradition / Edition 1

Them That Believe: The Power and Meaning of the Christian Serpent-Handling Tradition / Edition 1

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Although outlawed in many states, serpent handling remains an active religious practice—and one that is far more stereotyped than understood. Ralph W. Hood, Jr. and W. Paul Williamson have spent fifteen years touring serpent-handling churches in Alabama, Georgia, Tennessee, Kentucky, North Carolina, and West Virginia, conducting scores of interviews with serpent handlers, and witnessing hundreds of serpent-handling services.
In this illuminating book they present the most in-depth, comprehensive study of serpent handling to date. Them That Believe not only explores facets of this religious practice—including handling, preaching, and the near-death experiences of individuals who were bitten but survived—but also provides a rich analysis of this phenomenon from historical, social, religious, and psychological perspectives.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780520255876
Publisher: University of California Press
Publication date: 09/02/2008
Edition description: First Edition
Pages: 322
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.80(d)

About the Author

Ralph W. Hood, Jr. is Professor of Psychology at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. W. Paul Williamson is Associate Professor of Psychology at Henderson State University. Hood and Williamson are coauthors, with Peter C. Hill, of The Psychology of Religious Fundamentalism.

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Them That Believe

The Power and Meaning of the Christian Serpent-Handling Tradition

By Ralph W. Hood Jr., W. Paul Williamson


Copyright © 2008 The Regents of the University of California
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-520-94271-4


"They Shall Take up Serpents"

The contemporary serpent-handling churches of Appalachia remain fiercely independent. They have been referred to as the renegade churches of God. The phrase is apt, for these churches identify with the great Pentecostal movement at the turn of the twentieth century and two of the major denominations that emerged from it, the Church of God and the Church of God of Prophecy.1 However, in what is widely recognized as the official history of the Church of God, Charles Conn (1996) only reluctantly admits to the role of serpent handling, for this Pentecostal denomination no longer endorses that practice or the practice of drinking deadly poisons. In the first edition of his history, published in 1955, Conn relegated serpent handling to a single footnote. In the third and "definitive" edition, published in 1996, Conn reluctantly devotes a bit more space to the role of serpent handling in the church but still minimizes its influence and effect. We discuss the initial endorsement and progressive abandonment of serpent handling by the Church of God in chapter 2 (see Hood, 1998; Hood, Hill, & Williamson, 2005, chap. 5; Williamson & Hood, 2004b). For now we want to note that the renegade churches scattered throughout Appalachia continue to believe and practice what many in the Church of God and the Church of God of Prophecy once perceived as normative.

In the beginning, both denominations endorsed the plain meaning of Mark 16:17–18. The plain meaning was not simply preached; it was believed and put into practice (Hood, 1998, 2003a). This passage, which has become a foundational text for serpent-handling churches, has been associated with many Pentecostals who never endorsed serpent handling, at least since the historic 1906 Azusa Street revival, as we discuss in chapter 2 (Hollenweger, 1972; Church of God, 1910). In the King James Bible it reads as follows:

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)

Adherents of contemporary serpent-handling churches accept these words of the resurrected Jesus as imperatives for true believers and view the practice of four of these signs as unconditional mandates; the practice of drinking deadly substances is considered conditional because of the prefaced word if. Serpent-handling churches that practice all five signs do so simply to obey what they believe is the command of Christ. In this sense serpent-handling churches are similar to the Catholic Church and mainstream Protestant denominations that take communion in response to Christ's imperative to do so. Believing Appalachian serpent handlers can no more conceive of Pentecostalism without this practice than Catholic believers could conceive of Catholicism without the Eucharist. The irony is that many of the early Pentecostals focused on Mark 16, and contemporary Pentecostals still do, while ignoring the more dangerous practices of serpent handling and drinking poison. For instance, Poloma (2006, p. 61) has documented the revival of healing rooms, a throwback to John Dowie's "healing homes," which used prayer, rather than medicine, to cure the sick. While no longer practiced in opposition to medicine, the use of pray-ers is officially justified by a selective use of Mark 16:17–18. Poloma (2006, pp. 65–66) notes that the official website for the International Association for Healing Rooms states, "Our commission is based on Mark 16:17–18: 'And these signs shall follow those that believe[;] ... they shall lay hands on the sick, and they shall recover.'" Serpent handlers are quick to note this selective use and refuse to omit what others—for obvious reasons—find difficult to practice.

Technically, serpent-handling churches are sects; that is, they stand in tension with the larger culture (Spilka, Hood, Hunsberger, & Gorsuch, 2003, chap. 12). With the exception of West Virginia, at one time or another the Appalachian states, where serpent handling has been practiced, passed laws against this ritual. The courts have ruled that states may regulate religious behaviors, as opposed to beliefs, if they have an overriding interest. Protecting believers from being bitten, maimed, or killed seems a sufficient overriding interest for many states. However, laws against serpent handling have seldom been effective. For instance, Kimbrough and Hood (1995) have documented the persistence of serpent handling in Carson Springs, Tennessee, despite the outlawing of the practice by the state. Even though the Tennessee State Supreme Court upheld the law on appeal, serpent handling continues in the Carson Springs area today, with active churches in Morristown and Del Rio.

While practicing a religious ritual that has been ruled illegal is sufficient to identify a religious group as sectarian, we do not refer to serpent-handling sects except when discussing their struggles with the local and larger societies. Serpent handlers identify themselves as members of a church. Thus when we discuss serpent handling from the perspective of the believers' understanding, we refer to serpent-handling churches. Our aim is to understand serpent handling both from within and from without. As such we walk a difficult line. As with Wacker's (2003) treatment of the history of the first quarter century of Pentecostalism, we wish to respect the understanding serpent handlers have of their own tradition, as well as reflect on it from a variety of perspectives. We make no claim of objectivity but rather admit to an empathic understanding derived from our many years of participant observation. While neither of us handles serpents (less from fear than a refusal to mock the faith of those who believe), we have witnessed believers being bit and maimed, even dying. Our overall view is that serpent-handling believers have not been fairly treated by academics, scholars, or the media. While neither of us identifies with the religious beliefs of serpent handlers, we have a deep appreciation and understanding of their faith. We wish to avoid stereotyping these people, a trap even social scientists fall into, especially when they are confident of their own objectivity (Hood et al., 2005). Social scientists have not proven more reliable than the media when they study traditions far removed from their own (Birckhead, 1993, 1997; Hood, 1998, 2003a; Hood et al., 2005).

Some sense of what this book is about can be achieved by a description of a typical serpenthandling service. Unlike many mainstream Pentecostal denominations, serpent-handling church worship has not been "routinized" (Poloma, 1998, p. 101) or "regularized" (Wacker, 2003, p. 107). However, below we suggest a template for serpent-handling worship by which deviations can be easily recognized.


Serpent-handling churches typically meet at least once weekly (and often more) to worship God and experience manifestations of the spirit. As they gather for the service, members greet each other and any visitors present with warm handshakes and exchanges of conversation; in some churches bodily embraces are reserved for the faithful and those of the same sex. At the opening of worship it is standard practice for the pastor or another designated person to cordially welcome everyone and encourage all to obey God as he moves in the service.

From the front, the leader, usually the pastor, announces the presence of serpents that have been brought to church in specially crafted boxes placed beside the pulpit. These boxes typically bear engraved biblical references or a simple phrase of deep meaning to handlers, such as "Wait on God." Handlers take great pride in the boxes they have made. All contain latches with small padlocks for protection and safekeeping of the serpents until the service begins. It is usually men who bring the serpents to church. Only when they place their serpent boxes near the altar do they unlock them. In some churches a jar of a poisonous solution sits near the altar. In the past the poison was red lye or carbolic acid; in recent years, it is usually strychnine. In fewer churches there will be a blowtorch or a bottle with a kerosene wick. Fire may be handled but less frequently than serpents. The preacher acknowledges to visitors what all believers recognize as an ever present fact: "There is death in these boxes." He is referring to the rattlesnakes, water moccasins, and/or copperheads in the boxes. Also, he says that there is "death in this jar," referring to what is typically a mason jar clearly labeled "Poison." No church is without a small bottle of off-the-shelf olive oil used to anoint believers for prayer.

After an initial prayer spoken by all congregants in unison, someone begins a song, which is followed by the strumming of guitars, beating of drums, clashing of cymbals, and shaking of tambourines, as others clap their hands and join in with expressions of praise to God. With the onset of music, what seems at first to be a cacophonous exhibition soon gives rise to a synchrony of living worship in which believers move freely about and celebrate what is felt to be the presence of God. Suddenly, and without announcement, someone moves toward one of the special wooden boxes, unlatches the lid, and calmly extracts a venomous serpent. As others gather around the activity, participation in worship increases with a more compelling sense of God's presence and direction, and other serpents are taken out and passed among the obedient. Amid these manifestations, a believer passes by the others, almost unnoticed, to take the mason jar from the pulpit, remove its lid, and swallow a portion of its toxic contents. The jar is resecured and quietly returned to its place as the believer takes a moment to worship God in solitude and reverence. When the atmosphere of worship is sensed to have shifted, the serpents are returned to their boxes, at which time the sick, oppressed, and spiritually needy are offered ministry through prayer and the laying on of hands. At such times the focus becomes helping others receive what they need from God by personal surrender and obedience to the spirit. These activities are then followed by songs sung by individuals, personal testimonies of praise, and extemporaneous sermons that are meant to exhort the righteous, admonish the backsliders, and persuade the unbelieving. As the two- to three-hour service draws to a close, believers fellowship once more, then leave one by one.

Although this pattern may vary in order and duration, most services include these basic components that were common, except for serpents and poisonous solutions, in early Pentecostalism. It is Pentecostalism's rejection of serpent handling and poison drinking that needs an explanation as much as the renegade churches' continuation of these practices. If there is a parallel renegade tradition, it is the practice of polygamy in defiance of the law and the Church of Latter-day Saints (Williamson & Hood, 2004b). However, while the Mormon tradition allows for continual revelations, the Pentecostal tradition and serpent-handling churches accept only the revelations contained in their sacred text. Hence much of the debate in Pentecostalism is over the textual justification for serpent handling.


It is well established that the major Pentecostal denominations sought to justify textually a particular expression of emotionality, glossolalia or "tongues speaking" (Conn, 1955; Frodsham, 1946; Hollenweger, 1972; Synan, 1971). The justification came from concerns about the wide range of emotionally expressed behaviors emerging in Pentecostalism. A psychiatrist who visited a contemporary serpent-handling service describes what historians have documented as characteristic of Pentecostal services before the routinization or regularization of worship as Pentecostal groups advanced to mainstream denominational status: "Their exaltation superficially resembles mania. At these times, they shout, scream, cry, sing, jerk, jump, twitch, hoot, gesture, sway, swoon, tremble, strut, goose-step, stamp, and incoherently 'speak in new tongues'" (Schwarz, 1960, p. 408).

To Schwarz's list, historians of early Pentecostalism added such curious practices as crawling on hands and knees and barking like dogs to "tree the devil," as Synan (1971) reported occurred at the 1801 Cane-Ridge revival. What is at issue here is the apparently limitless expression of spontaneous emotion under perceived possession by the Holy Ghost. As Wacker (2003) rightly notes, if Pentecostals sought a sense of empowerment by the Holy Ghost they balanced this with a pragmatic concern with worldly success. Pressure emerged for Pentecostalism to have a more decorous style of worship.

Emotionally spontaneous behaviors have always been a concern to the Pentecostal movement, especially among leaders who sought worldly success. Pentecostals began to search their Bibles for criteria that would indicate legitimate possession by the Holy Ghost. Clearly one factor in seeking textual justification for possession was to limit as much as justify emotional expression in worship (Creech, 1996; Synan, 1971). This has been the case especially in those segments of the Pentecostal movement whose appeal has been to the white middle class and who tried to distance themselves from aspects of rural lower-class white and African American spirituality. Creech (1996) notes that Charles Parham, leader of the Apostolic Faith Movement (which eventually joined with others to form the Assemblies of God) made his African American student, William J. Seymour, of later Azusa Street fame, sit outside his classroom. Parham also demanded restraint in worship, excluding from the legitimate expression of the Holy Ghost "all the chattering and jabbering, windsucking, and holy-dancing-rollerism" (Creech, 1996, p. 412).

Yet where there is justification for speaking in tongues there can be justification for handling serpents. The texts used to justify tongues speaking are crucial to the theological rift that emerged within Pentecostalism itself, eventually serving to separate out serpent-handling churches as renegade churches, usually with reference to their origins in the Church of God as it gradually moved toward rejecting the practice of serpent handling (but not tongues speaking, despite the linkage of both practices in Mark 16:17–18).

As Pentecostalism moved from Azusa Street in Los Angeles to the South and to the mountains of Appalachia, it found soil too fertile to restrict the imaginations of those fated to split from what would become the more mainstream Pentecostal denominations. Tongues speaking came to be generally accepted as evidence of baptism of the Holy Ghost by most Pentecostal groups (as it is by serpent-handling churches today) in part because of its clear textual justification and also because it can be easily scripted and controlled in worship services. But it had already been practiced in the South as one of many unscripted and spontaneous indicators of Holy Ghost possession. Tongues speaking was not endorsed by all Pentecostal groups, and those groups that endorsed it did not demand that all believers experience it (see Wacker, 2003, chap. 2). However, members of Pentecostal groups that endorsed tongues speaking had significant social pressure to evidence their possession by the Holy Ghost in this way, even though as many as 50 percent of such Pentecostal churches did not then, and do not now, speak in tongues (see Poloma, 1989, 1998; Wacker, 2003, chap. 2). Similar social pressures exist in contemporary serpent-handling churches.


Excerpted from Them That Believe by Ralph W. Hood Jr., W. Paul Williamson. Copyright © 2008 The Regents of the University of California. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

List of Illustrations
List of Tables

1. "They Shall Take up Serpents"
2. The History of Pentecostalism Absent the Serpent
3. The Media and the Man: George Went Hensley
4. Serpent Handling Endorsed by the Church of God
5. The Serpent: Sign and Symbol
6. Trance States: Tongues Speaking and the Anointing
7. Extemporaneous Sermons in the Serpent-Handling Tradition
8. The Experience of Handling Serpents
9. The Experience of the Anointing
10. Near-Death Experience from Serpent Bites in Religious Settings
11. Music among Serpent-Handling Churches
12. Serpent Handling and the Law: History and Empirical Studies



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