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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  • PuleThamex

    Isnt snakes meant to be like……representation of Satan to these Christians? I mean it was a talking snake that told Eve to eat that fruit

    • Edman

      It may have been during the Middle Ages, and may still surface from time to time, but according to most mainline Christian theology, it was Satan in the serpent’s form. Why God “punished” the snake instead of Satan is beyond me.

      Anyhow, the whole snake-handling thing is rooted in the highly controversial ending of the book of Mark:

      And these signs will accompany those who believe: In my name they will drive out demons; they will speak in new tongues; they will pick up snakes with their hands; and when they drink deadly poison, it will not hurt them at all; they will place their hands on sick people, and they will get well. – Mark 16:17-18 (NIV)

      • Danny Wuvs Kittens

        Its because the snake allowed itself to be possessed. It doesn’t make any sense to me either, but then again, the whole reason we have to work and get cut by thorns, and the whole reason women stay in abusive relationships and have pain in childbirth is because two motherfuckers ate a goddamn apple from God’s special tree 6000 years ago.

        I actually used to believe this shit.

        • Danny Wuvs Kittens

          Oh yeah, and here’s the verses if you want to reference them. Genesis Chapter 3, Starting with verse 14.

          To the woman he said,
          “I will greatly increase your pains in childbearing;
          with pain you will give birth to children.
          Your desire will be for your husband,
          and he will rule over you.”

          To Adam he said, “Because you listened to your wife and ate from the tree about which I commanded you, ‘You must not eat of it,’
          “Cursed is the ground because of you;
          through painful toil you will eat of it
          all the days of your life.

          18 It will produce thorns and thistles for you,
          and you will eat the plants of the field.

          19 By the sweat of your brow
          you will eat your food
          until you return to the ground,
          since from it you were taken;
          for dust you are
          and to dust you will return.”

      • Jordan

        It’s pretty likely that the snake in the Genesis story was meant to just be a talking snake (talking animals in stories were pretty common at the time) but you know those Christians love a good anachronism and just love to project Christian ideas and characters onto Hebrew stories that just couldn’t have been about what they say it was about.

        As far as snake handling goes- I’m absolutely terrified of them, so I have nothing but mad props for the huge balls on the guys (and gals) doing the handling.

  • busterggi

    Granted that snakes aren’t cuddly nor are they brilliant intellectually, but as someone who has owned snakes (including wild ones which I caught) I can testify that most of them calm down enough to be handled as soon as they learn they aren’t in any danger & that their handlers are supplying them with food.

    No miracles necessary for handling pets.

  • Steve

    I was introduced to snake handling by Wendy Bagwell. ( ) I heard this when I was about 7 or 8 years old. I thought it was Jerry Clower telling the story.

  • Bonnie

    This is a really interesting read if you get the chance. It explains how he gets sucked in to the church and why they have their falling-out. Oh, and it’s Dennis Covington.

    • atimetorend

      I highly recommend Covington’s book as well; very well written and interesting, especially the insight into such an odd group of people and the way he gets sucked in to the movement and ways of thinking.

  • krissthesexyatheist

    They are also the ones that speak in tongues.


  • Bill

    “The snake testes the air with its tongue”

    Anyone else snicker about this?

  • michael

    Had a Komodo dragon tempted Eve, would they have been able to handle them? Wishful thinking.

  • Anna

    They only harm themselves and their followers unlike the Pope whose ban of condoms condoms many more. In my opinion they should all be put away for their and our safety along with all cult leaders.

  • cornbread_r2

    If you click on and enlarge the photo with the article you can more easily see that the handler on the right is missing an arm — I’m guessing as a result of a previous failure of faith.

  • Steven

    In a sense, I really respect the snake handlers. Not because they handle snakes and drink strychnine, but because they actually BELIEVE in what they preach. You certainly aren’t going to go to THAT church to compare clothing or so you can tell everyone you’re a christian because you need an excuse to judge and/or persecute everyone that doesn’t think the same way you do. You kinda have to really believe in what you say to go there and handle snakes and drink strychnine. You don’t see them going door to door “recruiting” or on TV asking for money either. They do what they do because they believe in it and they don’t “threaten” you if you don’t believe as they do. I seriously doubt that any one of them is getting a seven figure non-taxable income from it either. Gotta give them props for that much at least. But I respect them most for their true belief in what they preach and the fact that they mind their own business with it.

    • Bender

      In that case you must have the utmost respect for the 9/11 terrorists. They also BELIEVED what they preached, to the point of giving their lives for it.

    • trj

      Standing up for your principles isn’t worthy of respect when those principles are idiotic. Strength of conviction isn’t laudable in and of itself.