(Photo: NARA/Russell Lee)
The recent death of a Christian minister from West Virginia who believed that the Bible instructs the faithful to handle snakes and drink poison has put into question a doctrine many believe is unbiblical and dangerous but that its adherents, biblical literalists, say they are compelled to obey.
To outsiders, mainstream Christians included, snake handling seems foolhardy at best and deadly at worst. And despite commending their desire to be obedient to Scripture, Christians have argued that snake handlers are wrong to take Jesus' words in Mark 16:17-18 literally. His statement, they argue, is not a commandment and, what's more, intentionally putting oneself in danger is tantamount to tempting God.
Greg Laurie, senior pastor of Harvest Christian Fellowship in Riverside, Calif., suggested in a Facebook response to a reader doubtful that God "would agree with this practice," that the passage in Mark is to be interpreted spiritually and not literally, as it "means that we as Christians are indestructible until God is done with us."
Citing Acts 28:2-4, Laurie added that "Paul was bitten by a poisonous snake in the book of Acts and did not die, and that is because God still had a plan for him. However, to intentionally handle venomous snakes is to me 'testing' more then trusting the Lord. I do not recommend it for obvious reasons."
Mark Randall "Mack" Wolford, pastor of House of the Lord Jesus in Matoaka, was passionate about handling snakes during worship services and, according to what the Pentecostal leader told The Washington Post last year, might have drunk two gallons of strychnine – a strong poison commonly used as pesticide to kill rats. If not strychnine, some snake-handling churches keep a flask of carbolic acid at the altar instead.
Wolford, 44, died May 27, about eight hours after being bitten by one of his poisonous yellow timber rattlesnakes during an outdoor Sunday service at a wildlife park about 60 miles from the House of the Lord Jesus church, where his funeral was held this past Saturday.
Despite his agonizing death – Wolford had refused medical help, choosing to battle the venomous attack from home as he had done many times before – and the similar death of his serpent-handling father nearly 30 years ago, Wolford's mother indicated to The Washington Post that her faith had not been shaken.
"It's still the Word, and I want to go on doing what the Word says," Vicie Hicks Haywood told the publication days after witnessing her son's death.
The "word" that Haywood and dozens of other small Signs Following Holiness congregations primarily in Appalachian states stand on is found in the King James Version of Mark 16:17-18.
Jesus, instructing his disciples to preach the Good News to the world, tells them what signs will accompany those who 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."
A belief in divine power and healing, including speaking in tongues, or unknown or foreign languages, is not uncommon to Christians. But the Signs Following community is unique when it comes to an interpretation of this passage in Mark, which some scholars doubt was included in the original Gospel account.
"Serpent handling comes out of that Pentecostal tradition which looked for biblical evidence of possession of the Holy Spirit, initial evidence of baptism of the Holy Spirit. They sought that evidence, which they settled upon as glossolalia or speaking in tongues," explained Ralph Hood, who is considered the foremost expert on snake-handling Christians. The University of Tennessee at Chattanooga Psychology of Religion professor, who has studied snake handlers for over 25 years, said he knew Pastor Wolford as well as the community of believers.
"While you find text for just plain speaking in tongues you also find text for just plain serpent-handling and that's why they focus on the Gospel of Mark 16:17 and 18 where it says 'these signs shall follow them that believe.' So they consider themselves to be Signs Followers believers," he told The Christian Post, adding that these Christians "handle serpents simply to be obedient to God and to follow the signs."
Serpent-handling first emerged in the early 1900s and its popularity is credited to George Hensley, a Pentecostal minister from Tennessee. Experts claim that between 80 and 100 handlers have been killed as a result of venomous snake bites, but not all members of the community actually handle serpents – nor are all snake handlers united in their practices and beliefs.
They all agree, however, that they are compelled by Scripture to handle serpents and some even incorporate ingesting poison or handling fire during worship. According to experts, it is also typical for snake handlers to avoid medical help if bitten by a poisonous snake, yet, ironically, seeking a physician's help for an ailment like a heart disease is not unheard of.
Christian author and columnist Christian Piatt, writing on Sojourners' "God Politics" blog, argues: "This approach to faith ironically transgresses one of the cardinal Biblical rules about not testing God. Though I'm sure serpent handlers and the like would not see this as a test of God, the effective message is, 'I'm going to do something unnecessarily, stupidly dangerous, simply to show that God will keep me safe.'"
But for most handlers, their worship practices are not simply about showing that God will "keep them safe" and many do indeed expect to be bitten, although danger is not an issue for them.
"They believe that when they pick up a serpent, whatever happens is up to God. But should they be bitten and should they die, it doesn't matter because their salvation is assured, and that's what matters most because they believe in this life being but a forerunner to eternal salvation. And what concerns them is eternal salvation," Hood explained.
Additionally, as Pastor Wolford told The Washington Post last year, serpent handling is viewed as a means of evangelism. "Remember, back in the Bible, it was the miracles that drew people to Christ," he told the publication, adding, "Anybody can do it that believes it. Jesus said, 'These signs shall follow them which believe.' This is a sign to show people that God has the power."
Dennis Covington, a Christian and former journalist who wrote an insider's account of his experiences with serpent handlers for the 1995 book Salvation on Sand Mountain: Snake Handling and Salvation in Southern Appalachia, explained to CP that some handlers also see the practice as a means of fulfilling prophecy.
"I think the popular conception is that it's a test of their faith, and that they think that they won't get bit or they won't die, and that was not my experience with the handlers. To me it was very straightforward and pretty simple. They take literally the last chapter of Mark, particularly those verses in which the resurrected Christ says that believers shall take up serpents among a number of other spiritual signs, like healing, speaking in unknown tongues and so forth," the award-wining author and Texas Tech University professor shared.
"What the handlers told me is that 'he said believers would do that, so somebody's got to do it, otherwise that would be a lie and Jesus didn't lie. If he said that there would be believers who would pick up serpents, somebody has to do it in order to confirm the Word and we're the ones who are going to do it.'"
Covington, who has handled snakes on two or three occasions, noted that despite disputes among individual churches, handlers in Georgia and Alabama in general share that opinion. There are also some Christians "maybe in Indiana or Kentucky," he suggested, "who believe in what's called the 'perfect anointing.'"
"By that they mean that if you're really under the anointing of the Holy Spirit, then you won't get bit and you won't die. But that's a minority position," he explained. "The main thing is just 'we're confirming the Word.'"
"The believer believes two things," Hood explained. "They will tell you that if you don't believe in it, don't do it. So the first thing is to study Scripture and then to believe – and you believe two ways. When you have faith, you have faith this is the Word of God. People handle the serpent simply on the basis of that faith. And others believe that in addition to faith, you have this anointing – when you have this sense that God has anointed you, then there's a hedge around you and you're protected and granted victory over the serpent. So actually handling the serpent demonstrates to the serpent-handler this deepening of the faith and the realization that God gives them victory over the serpent."
Both Hood and Covington alluded to the Roman Catholic doctrine of the Eucharist – that a prayer offered during Holy Communion results in the transubstantiation of the bread and wine, making them literally the body and blood of Jesus Christ.
"They handle serpents for the same reason a Catholic might believe in the Eucharist. It's because it was said by Christ," Hood explained, referencing the biblical account of the Last Supper.
After noting "how everybody who believes kind of picks and chooses what parts of the Bible they want to take literally," Covington said, "It just depends. Different groups take different things literally and metaphorically."
Relating his two-year experience with snake handlers in Georgia, Alabama, Tennessee, Kentucky, and West Virginia, Covington said that when he first encountered snake handlers, "I was prepared to meet a bunch of crazy folks, you know, just insane, uneducated and superstitious and ridiculous."
"But they didn't strike me that way," he added. "When I talked with them during recesses at the trial (of a snake-handling preacher accused of attempted murder), they seemed perfectly ordinary and thoughtful. When I asked them why they did what they did and what it was like, I was getting answers that led me to believe that this was a genuine spiritual experience."
Although he finds it "illogical" and unsupported by Scripture that many snake handlers refuse to seek medical treatment if they are bitten, Covington said he can understand the argument that practitioners of this particular branch of Christianity are comparable to missionaries who take sometimes deadly risks to obey the Great Commission of preaching the Gospel to the world.
"In fact, one of the conclusions I reach in the book (Salvation on Sand Mountain) is that maybe Christianity without passion, danger and mystery is not really Christianity at all. Having said that, I have to tell you that I've got two minds about snake handling. On the one hand, I do believe that these are the people that Jesus was talking about when he said believers shall pick up serpents. I admire their faith – they're ordinary people like us who've got their problems and everything else. I do believe they're doing it sincerely. On the other hand, I hate the idea of somebody dying during a church service. That doesn't compute, it doesn't make sense to me."
As for the number of Signs Following Christians, Covington estimated that there could be about 1,000 adherents while Hood said it was difficult to know.
"They're scattered throughout Appalachia, they keep no records and churches come and go, and there has been probably as many as a 125 churches scattered throughout Appalachia," Hood explained.
"But it's clear that the serpent-handling tradition is now coming back again – it tends to wax and wane," he said. "But we have a lot of younger handlers now beginning to attract a following. My guess is that the tradition is on a pattern of growth once again."