Snake Handling and Religious Freedom

Snake Handling and Religious Freedom August 3, 2015

Snake HandlingSnake handling churches are back in the news after a Kentucky man died from a rattle snake bite at a recent worship service. If this piece of news failed to show up during your daily Internet browsing, your sources might be insufficiently cosmopolitan.

If there is any religious practice in America that receives smirks from both secularists and educated believers alike, it is this curious practice from the Southern foothills of Appalachia. Today, there are an estimated 125 snake-handling churches from the Virginias down to Alabama.

The practice is believed to have originated in rural Tennessee in the early twentieth century among certain Holiness churches who brought a no-holds-barred literalist reading to New Testament passages such as Mark 16: 17-18: “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. Or, Luke 10:19: “Behold, I give unto you power to tread on serpents and scorpions, and over all the power of the enemy: and nothing shall by any means hurt you.” (To my knowledge, scorpion handling has never taken off.)

If you’ve never been tempted to feel the Spirit by picking up snakes, you might pick up an excellent book by Dennis Covington, Salvation on Sand Mountain: Snake Handling and Salvation in Southern Appalachia. He might not make you a true believer, but as an outsider observing the practice (and even participating at one point) Covington offers up probing empathetic inquiry, not dismissive condescension. You might also consider watching a National Geographic special, “Snake Salvation,” which also provides an inside glimpse into snake-handling spirituality.

The history of snake handling fascinates. But so too does the history of its legality. Today, it is actually illegal in all of the states where it is practiced with the single exception of West Virginia–the legislature and courts of which presumably consider it a point of honor that their understanding of religious freedom extends this far. By sharp contrast, after a seven-year old died of the practice in rural Georgia in 1941, the Peachtree State made it a felony punishable by death under certain circumstances. (This was never enforced and the severity of the punishment led to its repeal in 1968).

But here is the point—and the rub. In the middle decades of the twentieth century, one could practice snake handling freely in West Virginia while in Georgia it, theoretically, could cost you your life—from the state not the snake, though presumably from the latter too. Very different takes on the scope of religious freedom!

The recent Obergefell (2015) and Hobby Lobby (2014) Supreme Court decisions have concentrated the mind of the nation on the permissible boundaries of religious freedom and the relationship of this liberal good to other ones. Historically, the federal solution has been to grant states much latitude in cases involving religious freedom given how central this notion has been to the history and identity of the nation. But precedents from the past help explain the present only until the moment that they cease to do so.

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  • I wonder…should it be illegal for Christian Scientists to withhold essential medical care from a child? Where, in your view, is the line between expression of faith and protection of citizens who profess that particular faith?

  • stefanstackhouse

    This is a vivid example of what is wrong with ripping isolated
    verses out of context. If one considers the whole Bible, then how differently
    these verses appear when compared alongside Acts 28:3-6 – or Matt 4:7.

  • Maoh

    Yes it should be. The line comes when their faith hurts people.

  • Robin Warchol

    The court has done so with different groups that believe that going at getting medical treatment would be against their faith. This includes JW and blood transfusions and other “faith healing” type groups. It is a fine line to walk here and hard cases make bad laws.

  • Robin Warchol

    Yes, but how does one define “hurt” and is it just limited to physical only? What about psychological? It is a thin line here and it is easy to look at extreme type groups like this that are very small and a minority and then make court cases and try to set precedence which could be used against other more mainstream religious groups.

  • Mark Martin

    Yeah, why would a reasonable person expect your “omnipotent” god to have the foresight to not include edicts like this one. I mean who would ever take something like this literally when it’s “gods word”.

  • Warren

    The slippery slope goes both ways, though. If it should be legal to kill a child through neglect in the name of Jehova, why should it be illegal to kill a child through immolation in the name of Moloch?

  • Croquet_Player

    As incredibly idiotic as snake handling is, adults have a right to do it. I think it’s worth investigating how to improve the lives of these these ignorant, impoverished people. Maybe then they won’t be so interested in this deadly practice.

  • hytre64

    Should it be illegal to dismember them (in the womb) in the name of Convenience?

  • swbarnes2

    Adults only have the right so long as the snakes are responsibly sourced and treated humanely.

  • Agreed. If an adult wants to take on that risk, that’s on them. If parents allow children to do it and they are killed, they should be prosecuted.

  • Yes, we give far too much latitude to people any time they claim something is a religious belief. If adults don’t want medical treatment, that is their business. But to allow your child to die because your religion is against medicine is negligent homicide and depraved indifference. There have been cases where more than one child in the same family died from easily treatable conditions. We should not be allowing that to happen. it’s obvious that their “faith” didn’t cure the disease but medicine would have. This lunacy cannot be allowed to kill people.

  • llamaspit

    So…if a bartender can be arrested for over-serving a customer who drives drunk and kills someone as a consequence of his drunken driving, why isn’t a minister held responsible for encouraging a gullible member of his flock to handle a poisonous snake which bites him causing his death?

    What is the difference?

  • swbarnes2

    When the bartender starts to claim that needing a liquor license is an outrageous infringement of his religious FREEEEEEEEDOM, there won’t be a difference.

  • LinCA

    I care more about the well being of the snakes than the morons that handle them. As long as the snake isn’t harmed (or innocent bystanders), I’d say have at it. I’d even encourage it.

    Come to think of it, maybe it should be a rite of passage. Every 18 year old in these sects and cults should, untrained, be required (by their cult, not the state) to handle these snakes. For good measure, they should do that weekly for at least a year.

  • LinCA

    No, of course not. At least until the fetus is old enough to survive outside of it. As long as it is nothing more than a parasite, the host should have the absolute right to eradicate it.

  • Derk King

    Now snakes need to be free range? Good gawd. Not like this is a growth industry and we have to worry about big Ag and abusive snake farms. I can’t stop laughing.

  • jrb16915

    As far as I know its not illegal to pick up a rattlesnake in any context. It would be weird if it was only illegal in a religious context.

  • RoyMix

    Georgia, especially before the modern era, has never had a great commitment to religious freedom, the Convent Inspection Act of 1916 is proof of that. And Catholics at least numbered prominent citizens among their number, and until the late 19th century and the rise of anti Irish entiment been an accepted part of the state’s ruling class. Snake handlers, right or wrong, have always been at the margins.

  • Andrew Dowling


  • Andrew Dowling

    There is actually a huge illegal trade in all sorts of animals, including snakes. Just like one should get a puppy from a licensed breeder (or better, the shelter) than an unlicensed puppy mill; there are legitimate and non-legitimate ways to obtain reptiles.

  • Andrew Dowling

    I do think a clear line here is that a child is not an equally willing/capable participant, whereas a snake-handling preacher fully is.

  • Andrew Dowling

    WIDE majority of abortions are performed before the fetus has anything approaching limbs . . .

  • David Hennessey

    So…nobody feels a need to explain why God told them to seek out those who displayed the signs of snake handling, poison drinking and faith healing because these are his select few? I don’t understand how a Christian can cavalierly mock these verses, if these are not the snake handlers Luke referred to, why are you not seeking them, where are the real poison survivors and scorpion resisters?

    I get it that christians all believe whatever they find convenient and comfortable but I hoped for a simple theological explanation from the author. Is it not the age of miracles, has God changed his mind, was this a mistranslation or is Christianity untrue, what does the author think?

    Who cares what the secular laws say, if it is God’s sign, it should be done in every church on every Sunday with no public spectacle, of course. False christians will be quickly eliminated and the church will be purified, am i wrong or is the Bible? Maybe just a lack of faith, methinks.