Snake Handling

Some folks asked if the snake handling sign from Saturday was real. It is real. The snake handlers are a small Pentecostal movement, found mostly in the Appalachians and dating back to the 1920s.

Probably the best book on the subject is Dennis Covington’s Salvation on Sand Mountain, which I believe has just seen a reprinting for its 15th anniversary.

Covington spent some time with a congregation from the Church of Jesus with Signs Following, one of the few sects of snake handlers. He was covering the story of the Church’s former pastor, Glenn Summerford, who had been convicted of trying to kill his wife with rattlesnakes. Covington’s roots were in a charismatic church, and he approached the Church of Signs with a fair amount of sympathy.

Here’s his description of the first time he saw snake handling in the church, with Carl Porter filling in for the incarcerated Summerford:

[Brother Carl Porter] laid his Bible on the pulpit in triumph. He took a hard look at the wooden serpent box that rested on the bench that served as an alter. It was a flat, finely joined box stained the color of coffee. The top was hinged, half screen and half wood, and the corners were reinforced with decorative studs. Brother Carl leaned over and tapped at the screen. The dry rattling that arose from the box seemed to satisfy him. I figured that’s when he would take up a serpent, but he didn’t. He hopped around a little more while Cecil improvised on guitar. Then Brother Carl did a stutter step and seemed to stumble, catching himself at the last minute. He shuddered. He shook. He praised and shouted and praised. Cecil finally launched into a full blown song that the congregation started singing, and then another.

We were singing “Prayer Bells from Heaven” when Brother Carl finally opened the hinged door of the wooden box and lifted out a canebrake rattlesnake. It was fat and desultory, a yellowish gray. After holding it up to the light, he passed it to Willie Southard and took out a copperhead that had almost finished shedding its skin.

The copperhead was bronze and gold in the overhead light. Brother Carl held it up, regarding it with something like suspicion and regret. The snake testes the air with its tongue. Brother Carl put his thumb in front of the snake’s head, letting the snake touch it with its tongue. Then he put his face up to the snake’s face. They seemed to watch each other for a moment, until the snake drew back and began searching the air with its tongue. Brother Carl let the snake fall to his side and then lifted it up again. This time he held the snake high above his head, part draped over his forearm, the rest stretched across the tips of his fingers. It was though he was holding aloft a fine gold chain, some elegant piece of filigree. When the snake slowly moved in and out of Brother Carl’s fingers, bits of shed skin fell to the floor. The snake appeared to be in the process of reinventing itself, forging a new self out of the old.

After a few minutes Brother Carl put the snakes back into the box. The service went on for another half hour.

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