Snake Handlers and the Holy Father

Who are the “snake handlers” and where do they come from? “Snake handlers” are a small group of Pentecostal Christians–started in Appalachia during the Holiness revival movements and still operating today. They get all worked up and get “the anointing” which means they enter a trance like state through hyper emotionalism then they pass around live rattlesnakes. If you get bit you’re a sinner and deserve to die. If you are not bitten or are bitten and survive you’re a true believer.

It comes from today’s gospel reading.

Jesus said to his disciples:
“Go into the whole world
and proclaim the gospel to every creature.
Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved;
whoever does not believe will be condemned.
These signs will accompany those who believe:
in my name they will drive out demons,
they will speak new languages.
They will pick up serpents with their hands,
and if they drink any deadly thing, it will not harm them.
They will lay hands on the sick, and they will recover.”

I’m not defender of the snake handlers, but what has always struck me as intriguing about them is that they are theologically orthodox–as much as any other Baptist group might be. Some of them practice baptism in the name of Jesus only, so that’s off beam, but they’re not as off beam theologically as say, Seventh Day Adventists, Christian Science, Mormons, Jehovah’s Witness or Moonies. All these groups have some kind of extra-Biblical scriptures and have departed from orthodox Christianity in their professed teachings. Compared to them the snake handlers are pretty much mainstream Bible believing Christians.

The existence of the snake handlers with their peculiar and dangerous practices raises some questions of an ecumenical nature which are interesting and amusing. Read more.

  • Curtis Bratcher

    When I was a Baptist, Catholic now, we were taught that some of the early manuscripts did not contain these verses. Any comment?

    • Fr. Dwight Longenecker

      I believe that is correct. But to my point: you needed “the church” to tell you this. Just you and the Bible might have had you handling them critters.

    • Linda Morris

      The belief also comes from scripture in Acts when a viper attached itself to Paul’s hand and he shook it off into the fire. Pentecostal grandparents. Thank God, I’m a Methodist!

  • Charles E. Mac Kay

    I am reminded how Paul was on Malta and he was bitten by a snake and how through this the people of Mlata received the good news. I am also reminded that in the medievil church you were tested by fire and brimstone. If you succumbed to fire and did not heal you were guilty and died anyway. In a way all this is sad because God is our loving father and does not want any harm to come to us. Pity the snake people and the snakes

  • flyingvic

    “The fact of the matter is without an external, objective, agreed, infallible authority . . .” It’s quite simple, really. The Roman Church says that the Pope is precisely this authority; and the Pope says that the Roman Church is right. No circularity in that at all, then.
    “. . . you can do what you like: handle snakes or be a Methodist.” You can even indulge in patronising claptrap.
    “The bottom line is that they function on the same theological and philosophical assumptions: that the Bible is the sole authority and I can interpret it the way I ‘feel led’.” Well, Jesus did say (I know he wasn’t a Pope or anything, but he is mentioned in this dangerous Scripture stuff you talk about) that the Holy Spirit would lead us into all truth. I don’t remember him saying anything about us never making mistakes or nurturing misunderstandings along the way, but there you go!

    • Fr. Dwight Longenecker

      My whole point Vic is that everybody from the snake handlers to the pagan Lutherans to the strict Methodist to the mild mannered Anglicans all claim to be “led by the Holy Spirit.” Shucks, the wild and crazy sect leaders like James Jones or Joseph Smith the founder fo the Mormons or Rev Moon–they all claim to be “led by the Holy Spirit”.

      Are you going to make any distinctions at all, and if so how, if not why not?

      • Andreas Kjernald

        As a Methodist pastor I recognize this problem and am not sure how to deal with it. Methodists, the UMC kind, meet every four years to decide on many matters, some pertaining to what is to be considered a sin or not. Democracy is the means by which we “feel led by the Holy Spirit”. I for one wonder how a sin can become a virtue by a simple majority vote. Strikes me as odd.

        However, the RCC didn’t proclaim the pope as infallible until the late 1800s so…and does the RCC really have that authority (to call the pope infallible)? On what grounds? What divine revelation led you to that conclusion?

        However, I am realizing that there is much truth in what one of your cardinals (or perhaps bishops) said: “Outside of obedience [to the RCC] there is chaos [or perhaps he said anarchy]“

  • Bryan

    Gotta love it when vic weighs in. Filtering to get to the point of his comment…

    Near as I can tell, the implication of flyingvic’s comment is that there really is no particular reason to view the Jehovah’s Witnesses or snake handlers or anybody else as heterodox ’cause, it’s all good, man. Excellent! Thanks, flyingvic!

  • flyingvic

    Thanks, Bryan! But maybe you should read more carefully? The real point is about the nature and source of authority: is it to be found in the leading of the Spirit, as Jesus promised? Or in an organisation that claims at least some degree of infallibility? Some of the original post sounded to me to be more akin to the Pharisee’s “Thank God that I am not like other men” than to the publican’s “Lord, have mercy on me, a sinner.” But perhaps that danger is inherent in organisations that believe themselves to be authoritative?

    • Fr. Dwight Longenecker

      This is a straw man. Catholics believe that the ‘organization’ was founded by the Holy Spirit and continues to be guided by the Holy Spirit. How else could this ‘organization’ have survived persecution from without and corruption from within for 2,000 years if not filled with the Holy Spirit.

      Why not address the actual point of the post and tell me what other authority structure you might possibly have which can distinguish between snake handlers and Anglicans? Why should snake handlers be wrong and gay bishops be right?

      Or if they’re both wrong who says so and why? Just the “leading of the Holy Spirit? Both the snake handlers and the gay bishops claim to be “led by the Spirit”.

      • flyingvic

        The scriptural answer is, “By their fruits shall you know them.” Christ had an authority structure constantly in front of him during the course of his earthly ministry, one that had strangled the spiritual life out of the Jewish people and that eventually manoevred the Romans into crucifying him. Would Christ then have envisaged an authority structure growing up after him and claiming to have the final and infallible word on everything? Surely not! Instead, he promised his Holy Spirit to lead his people in to all truth; he told parables like The Sower that clearly envisage genuine and not-so-genuine responses to the Gospel growing, for a time at least, side by side; and he issued warnings like “by their fruits…” that indicate how it may be easier to come to a sound judgement after the event than before.

        Personally, as an Anglican, I deplore the in-your-face liberalism of American Episcopalians as much as the fundamentalism of African Anglicans; and I find I have enough snakes to handle on the Parish Church Council without importing any more from the zoo. In fact, give me time and I could think of reasons why I don’t wish to be a part of any denomination under heaven. But then I could also quite easily bring to mind people from many different denominations who, when the acid-test of “by their fruits . . .” is applied, make the question of their denomination quite irrelevant.

        • Fr. Dwight Longenecker

          Yes, “By their fruits” is all well and good, but who says what fruit is “good” and why? My basic point stands–without the agreed infallible authority it’s every man for himself. You have the usual Protestant assumption about the Catholic Church that it is a man made institution which cannot possibly be infallible and that as such it cannot be of the Holy Spirit.

          Catholics believe exactly the opposite of this: that the Catholic Church was founded by Jesus Christ himself at Pentecost with the outpouring of the Holy Spirit on the Apostles and it is through this Spirit filled living body (not an institution) that the Holy Spirit does indeed continue to lead us into all truth, that Jesus Christ as the mustard seed which was planted and the church is that great tree which has grown from him in which all the birds of the air find a nest. The church is, since it is the body of Christ, the vine about which our Lord spoke, and we are the branches.

          To extend the analogy–the vine needs a trellis on which to grow and thrive. That trellis is the visible ‘institution’–the canon law, the dogma, the moral theology, the magisterium. Without the trellis the vine is amorphous and cannot yield good fruit. The trellis is not the most important thing, but without the trellis the vine fails.

          • flyingvic

            Would it be too unkind to say that having a trellis allows you to get ‘hung up’ on authority? Maybe, I guess; but then that’s the peril of extending an analogy too far!

            Seriously, do you really need an ‘authority’ to tell you the difference betwee good fruit and bad? Isn’t that more like a comfort blanket? Are we not to use our own God-given critical faculties at all?

            And by the way, I’m not at all sure that you have the authority to stick your ‘usual Protestant’ label on me! But as you know, since I have written this before, I have a deep suspicion of anything that uses human logic to say what God must do, or that looks at an institution like the Roman Church and says that it must be of the Holy Spirit because otherwise it wouldn’t have survived. Please don’t tell me that the Roman Church has never been in error, has never taken a wrong turning. It may be of divine origin; it may from time to time allow the wind of the Spirit to blow it in a direction nearer to God’s will; it has certainly been subject to the earthly control of a great mixture of sinners and saints down the centuries: that means that at best it is a glorious mixture of the human and the divine, and neither one nor the other exclusively.

          • Fr. Dwight Longenecker

            We acknowledge the mixture of human elements and divine inspiration. There have been plenty of Catholics who have sinned and plenty of Catholics who have fallen into theological error, but I am not aware of any formal heresies or wrong moral teachings ever formally promoted by the Catholic Church.

            I hope I don’t offend you too much in saying it, but you really do not understand the Catholic Church beyond the usual Protestant misconceptions. It is understandable that you fall into these misunderstandings, and I don’t blame you.

          • flyingvic

            I’ll reply here because your 5.48 post doesn’t have a ‘Reply’ button. It’s very decent of you, by the way, to acknowledge that “By their fruits” is “all well and good”!

            I’m sure that they thought the Inquisition was a good idea at the time; but at what point did they decide that torture was more of a bad fruit than a good one? And likewise the policy of just moving to another parish a priest against whom there had been lodged a complaint? It is upon grounds such as these that many will judge the Church – and judge harshly any claim to be constantly led by the Spirit.

            “Every man for himself”? I accept that danger. I accept that oddities and absurdities will arise and that I will have to form my own opinion of them – just as I have to form my own opinion of the people I meet and must deal with day by day. And I accept that pruning must take place: “I am the true vine,” said Jesus, “and my Father is the gardener.” At what point, therefore, do I decide to take God’s work into my own hands? Or give it to his church? Or leave it in his hands altogether?

          • Fr. Dwight Longenecker

            We make the distinction between the sins and failings of individual Catholics–even members of the hierarchy–and the infallible, formal teachings of the Catholic Church. There have been popes who have been thieves, murderers and fornicators, but there have been no popes who taught that stealing, murder and fornication were good.

            The individual question of bishops who moved a man against whom complaints have been made: these cases are very complicated. In hindsight, some bishops’ decisions were unquestionably shockingly bad. Others–the situation was more complex and not as easily judged as the journalists might like to think.

  • veritas

    As usual Father, you have “hit the nail on the head”.
    Our Lord gave us an authority to guide us – Peter and his successors. Jesus knew what incredibible twistings men would put on the truth of God’s revelation, so He gave us a guide that is continuous, back through the two millenia, to the foundation of the Church.

    I how I love being a Catholic. I thank God for leading me home.

    By the way, I clicked on the link you gave re Lutheran wichcraft, and almost brought up my recently eaten breakfast! Whoa! When people turn to their own idols they really do go all the way!

  • http://WarmSouthernBreeze.wordpress.com K.L.B.

    What a fascinating topic, to be certain! And, how ironic it is that not too far from my present location is the area in general where such activities have had their heyday. For the readers’ interest, that would be Huntsville, AL (where we grow cotton, and rockets). Located in northeastern Alabama, the Sand Mountain area, and much of Alabama is significantly rural, with their accompanying populations which are “largely poor, uneducated, and easy to command.”

    There is certainly mystery in the issue of deliberate viper handling in those rural Southeastern churches, and to some extent, mystery is good. However, when we examine the roots of the behavior, we often see a type of concrete thinking. The word “bibliolatry” also comes to mind. That behavior – the foolhardy handling of vipers as an edict – is reinforced when someone is not bitten after deliberately tempting fate. I hasten to add that such adherents may also deliberately ingest poison, citing the same misguided notion that somehow, the laws of cause and effect – created by the Almighty – do not apply to them. That’s also a characteristic of some mental illnesses, which is called “magical thinking.” Merely believing a thing to be true does not make it so.

    Not surprisingly, when one of their faithful perish from such foolhardy behavior, the death is viewed fatalistically (no pun intended), because “It was the hand of God. It was his time to go.”

    Much of the “worship” in those churches is characterized by highly emotional, if not erratic behavior – which in some cases is trance-like – and accompanied with myriad frenzied activity, music and dancing that would be commonplace in a juke joint (Southern parlance for a lounge/dancehall)… which is definitely NOT a place such an adherent would frequent.

    The state of Alabama, and its immediate northern neighbor Tennessee, have passed laws outlawing the practice, as has Kentucky. I’m uncertain whether Georgia has, or not. West Virginia has not.

  • David

    As an employee of a rather large corporation I find that we make money is spite of ourselves. We stumble and search for the majic bullet and lo and behold, we’ve made a profit. I take that to be like many of my Protestant friends, who are sincere in their belief, and certainly might participate in the Beatific Vision. We certainly do know them by their fruit. In the last chapter of the Gospel of John Jesus asks Peter 3 times if he loves him. I believe this is a command to him to lead and teach and if he does this Jesus’s Church will prevail. I think for the next 1500 years there was no argument as to which Church Jesus was referring.

  • Michael Donahue

    I know this is actually not the point of the piece, but to get a somewhat more sympathetic account of serpent handlers, may I recommend “Them That Believe” — by Ralph W. Hood and W. Paul Williamson, both respected psychologists of religion. See also http://www.lib.utc.edu/Serpent-Handlers-of-Appalachia.html

  • Dr. Donald Ingwerson

    I found your comments that Christian Scientists were “off beam theologically speaking” somewhat beneath your title and for me questionable. I would prefer rather than to be judgmental to briefly mention a couple of points that are important to me as a Christian Scientist. Christian Science is based on the words and works of Christ Jesus, and draws its authority from the Bible. It’s also important to Christian Scientists that no book can take the place of the Bible. I don’t see Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures by Mary Baker Eddy as a “second Bible” or as a substitute for biblical revelation at all. As an example, a key doesn’t replace the door it’s intended to unlock–it opens it. One might say this is what you do when you deliver a sermon to your congregation.

    • Fr. Dwight Longenecker

      I find that those who most often use the ‘do not judge’ slogan are those who’s beliefs do not stand up to close scrutiny. In other words, “Do not judge” means “Please don’t look too closely.”

  • Joe

    Father, while your replies to flying Vic make sense, you didn’t address the issue of the authority structure in place in Jesus’ day…you know the one he constantly derided. Couldn’t it be said that it was divinely instituted as well, and yet fell into obvious pride and institutionalism? What good is a “trellis” that’s orthodox on paper but heretical in example? Hasn’t the Catholic church fallen into similar scenarios in times past? For instance, Aquinas’ comments on the church of his day weren’t too favorable. Luther was so appalled by the blatant simony, corruption, and inability to listen in
    his day that he felt compelled to leave (for better or worse). Just look at the low ratio of popes being declared saints in the period from the great schism
    to the reformation. If Jesus would have walked the earth then I have a feeling his actions toward the religious structure would have been
    remarkably similar to 1st century. I’m not really taking a side here, but just sharing honest thoughts.

    • Fr. Dwight Longenecker

      Catholics make a distinction between the failings and sins of individual Catholics–even those in the hierarchy– and the infallible teachings of the church. There have been popes who have been thieves and fornicators, but none that taught that stealing and fornication were good.

  • Joe

    I mean Assisi, not Aquinas, viewing the state of the church as unfavorable. Bottom line is this: At what point does the tressel get rotten? I know in theory it’s impossible, but in reality it’s a reasonable question that would hold the church’s claims to the “scrutiny” you speak of.

  • Scott Greene

    This very issue is why I left the Baptist faith and joined the Catholic faith. I had a close friend who believed something different then I did in High School. We both fought for our side of the argument on any given passage and would both claim the Holy Spirit was guiding us. This really got to me. I started thinking about it and saw that every other different interpretation out there was claiming the same thing. I got very discouraged and finally came to the conclusion that everyone was wrong in some tiny way. I started on a quest to find the “true church”. I ruled out the Catholic Church right off the bat because I had been told my whole life they were a bunch of Mary worshipers and had a Christ substitute in the Pope. I systematically went though all the major Protestant denominations from right to left. I had found, through experience, that the Baptists were wrong. Half the Protestant denominations had either women preachers, approved of homosexuality, or both. All the others I found something that I did not agree with. When I thought all hope was lost I picked up the Catechism of the Catholic Church. I read the whole thing. I was amazed at how what I thought the Catholic Church to be was false. This shocked me. I, of course, had some issues with some of the theology that it had but there was one major difference. This faith was based on authority that interpreted scripture and wasn’t based on me. No longer was the question “do I agree with this” but rather “do my beliefs line up with 2000 years of Christians”. Then I started looking into how the Early Church Fathers interpreted scripture and saw how different they were from modern Protestantism and I was sold. I had to pick between a 400 year old or less interpretation of the Bible or a 2000 year old one. I chose the 2000 year old one. Why would God hide the true interpretation from mankind for 1600 years till Luther came along got the ball rolling?

    • Dwight

      That was my experience, Scott, almost verbatim: Southern Baptist to Catholic, and authority was the Holy Spirit’s driving force. I’m so thankful to God to be home in the Catholic Church.

  • Joe

    I understand your sentiment Vic but can’t go with you on “every man for himself.” Forming subjective opinions on people I deal with or other experiences is quite different from subjectivism in matters of faith. I’m as tired of subjectivism in matters of faith and morals as Fr. Dwight, but just not as convinced as he is as that the Catholic church is the source of objective truth. So I keep praying and reading…

    • flyingvic

      Joe – I’m saying that I make my own judgement on what I take to be oddities and absurdities – the snake-handlers, for example – not on those matters of faith as handed down to us in the catholic creeds. Father has a narrower view of ‘orthodoxy’ than I do: his only includes the Roman Catholic Church’s view and excludes, I believe, even the Orthodox!

  • Joe

    I don’t think I understand this “distinction” you speak of Father. Are you saying the integrity of the Church rests on the hypocrisy of bishops and priests who said one thing and did another? Don’t people’s actions, good or bad, create a teaching more powerful than words on a paper?

    • Fr. Dwight Longenecker

      It would be best if actions always matched teaching, but they rarely do, and hypocrisy doesn’t make a true teaching false. A preacher may commit adultery, but that doesn’t mean that his teaching that adultery is wrong is incorrect. Indeed–his failure and sin confirms that his teaching was right even if he life was not.

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  • Fr. Stu

    In defense of Fr. Dwight, of course we need an authority to tell us the difference between good and bad fruit–if not then we end up calling evil good and vice versa. If not for an authority to guide us then we fall into the same trap Adam and Eve did in the garden. Satan, father of all lies, tells Eve to eat the fruit in order to make her more like God–this deception led to the fall of all mankind, as we know. Without authority we only fall into selfishness, which is the root of all sin. Only Satan wants people to be disobedient and to not believe we have to follow authority.

  • charles allan

    The snake handlers were deliberately putting themselves in danger and thus tempting God. ‘though shalt not tempt the Lord thy God.’ He who loves danger will perish in it. That verse is written in Ecclesiasticus – Sir. 3:27 , in which it is shown that it is necessary that they who love and seek danger for the sake of their own power (pro posse suo) perish in it.

  • DougB

    I’m not sure SDA’s have extra-biblical Scriptures.


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