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In the end, all three critics sought to change the entire symbolic framework for understanding the sign by shifting it from the religious to the secular realm. In this way, they read pride, showmanship, and illegality written on the bodies of snake handlers. The new focus on pride and showmanship brought the Church of God in line with other major denominations such as the Assemblies of God. Ernest S.

Shall we consider them superior in spirituality? Nay, but rather they are drawn away of Satan being enticed to presume on gospel favors. By the few remaining positive references were replaced by harsh condemnation. Further, the suggestion that the spirit of snake handling is showmanship displaces the Holy Spirit from the practice. The shift from serpent to snake within the Church of God not only marked a transition toward denominational cooperation, but also coincided with intensified secular media coverage of the practice.

Church leaders came to regard the once-perceived evangelistic benefits of the practice as liabilities. As the Church of God withdrew support for the practice, municipalities and states passed laws banning it. Appalachian states began banning the handling of snakes in public venues in the s. For example, Georgia and North Carolina banned exposing people to poisonous snakes and also made it illegal to encourage someone to handle a poisonous snake—a prevision aimed at ministers who preached on the subject.

A series of highly-publicized deaths and conflicts between serpent handlers and police prompted the state to do something about the practice. Photograph by J. Collins Collection. Just as it took holiness-pentecostals nearly three decades to reach the consensus that snake handling was a distinct practice at odds with mainstream forms of pentecostal worship, similarly it took decades for the secular press to identify snake handling as something unique from holy roller religion.

This process of differentiation moved through three distinct but mutually reinforcing phases. First, initial reports of the practice in the secular press conflated snake handling with not only the Church of God but also holy rollers more generally. Next, as reporting on the practice increased, stories focused on the dangers of taking up snakes and sought to explain the seemingly pathologically irrational behavior of handlers with various psychological and sociological theories.

It is in this era that the secular press identified the distinct practice of snake handling. Finally, by the late s, reporting and editorials focused on the criminalization of the unique practice identified during the previous decade.

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Them That Believe: The Power and Meaning of the Christian Serpent-Handling Tradition

The development of the pathologized and criminalized category of snake handling paralleled the decline in usage of pejorative categories, such as holy rollers, by the press and the growing normalization and wider cultural acceptance of pentecostalism. The earliest coverage of snake handling in the secular southern press tended to focus on the absurdity of the practice by mocking the leaders of the various revivals in which believers handled snakes. The reporters imposed the former title on the handlers, while the handlers self-identified with the latter title.

Even though the Church of God despised the epithet holy roller, the conflation of terms in the minds of the reporters and, eventually, their readers was not accidental. There are evidences that the leaders of the Holy Rollers in this vicinity are conducting a thorough campaign to win strength of a financial and material sort to their organization. In a little house in the northern part of Cleveland one man, one woman and two girls are kept busy setting type. No doubt the typesetters identified here played an important role in publishing many of the accounts of serpent handling that appeared in Evangel in the s.

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From the late s to the early s, most reports abandoned labels such as holy rollers or Church of God to identify serpent handling saints. At the national level, the New York Times took particular interest in the practice during the Depression, running no less than fourteen articles on the subject between August and August As reporters refined their categories of religious difference, holy rollers and fanatics became snake handlers and serpent handlers. News accounts of snake handling services slowly abandoned the association of snake handling and holy rollers and the Church of God as various pentecostal groups became more well-known and significant in American culture, although more generic terms such as holiness and cultists uneasily persisted beside the newer designations until the s.

Cover to J. Papers throughout Tennessee and the United States covered the trial, with many wire sources relying on the images and stories produced by J. Collins for the Chattanooga News-Free Press. Popular interest in the trial helped propagate usage of the phrases snake-handling adjective , snake handler , and snake handling nouns , although Collins also used cult and cultist in his reporting. Drug stores and newstands in Chattanooga, Dayton, and Cleveland sold the book. At the height of the trial, Collins autographed a copy for Tom Harden, an event recorded in September 11, , issue of the Chattanooga News-Free Press.

In a Evangel article, Simmons, an elder in the church, washed his hands of the whole issue and turned snake handling over to the state. During a controversy over an independent Kentucky congregation of handlers who called themselves the Pine Mountain Church of God, Simmons rebuked the group for misappropriating the name of his church. It may seem at first that such a law banning snake handling is a violation of the Constitution but this is not true for the Constitution is founded upon the Bill of Rights and the Bill of Rights provides protection to all parties, so when people are displaying poisonous snakes in meetings they are not upholding the rights of all people.

As far as the church was concerned, the handling of snakes was a dangerous expression of a corrupt secular culture of showmanship and individuality that needed to be regulated by state authorities, not by ecclesiastical discipline. By the s, the Church of God, along with many other pentecostal groups, had completed a radical transition. By the s and s, the uneducated, poor white mountaineers who had once formed the bedrock of the Church of God—and some of its most active serpent handlers—gave way to a growing middle-class, urban-centered constituency. Lee and his successors continued the transition started by Tomlinson and eventually led the Church of God away from its rural roots.

It repudiated snake handling…. Pentecostal worship became less emotional and less dependent on the supernatural. The moderate consensus forged between the Church of God and other pentecostal bodies rejected the ritual excesses of early pentecostal worship and led to support for the criminalization of snake handling in order to draw a clear distinction between the saints of the Church of God and the wild snake handlers of some dangerous, irreligious movement.

Historian of religion J.

Review of Two Books on Snakes

The sign of handling serpents had been theologized and refined as a practice within the ecclesiastical structure of the Church of God under the leadership of Tomlinson to create a series of socio-symbolic differences between his saints and members of churches unmoved by the Holy Spirit. Within this process of differentiation, Tomlinson did not identify the handling of serpents as the singular trait that distinguished the Church of God from other groups.

Instead, he interpreted handling—and other actions such as drinking poison or handling fire—as part of a network of other signs including speaking in tongues, healing, and casting out demons that distinguished the Church of God from other groups. Leaders in the post-Tomlinson Church of God eventually interpreted handling as a distinct sign, a marker of absolute otherness that set the saints of the Church of God at odds with handlers. As the Church of God fell in line with the Assemblies of God, the Pentecostal Holiness Church, and other major pentecostal groups, serpent handling emerged as a distinguishing feature of a distinct form of worship over and against which all other pentecostals might define themselves.

Review of Two Books on Snakes

Through a metonymic process of othering, the Church of God located itself outside the vast body of non-holiness and non-pentecostal denominations in the South, yet inside a narrow range of practice that was neither dangerous nor marked by showman-like excesses. As the church shifted its symbolic framework for interpreting the practice, critics rejected its spiritual significance that is, serpent handling in order to highlight its secular symbolic essence that is, showmen handling snakes to entertain unlettered Christians and unchurched skeptics. Serpent handling was relegated to independent pentecostal churches, many of which descended from the Tomlinson-era Church of God, but no longer had any organizational connection to it.

This coverage focused tightly on the embodied practice of handling snakes in religious ceremonies. This reductive presentation of the practice tended to efface how and why Christians handled snakes. For instance, such coverage downplayed the fact that outsiders frequently challenged people to handle snakes and drink poison, or it ignored meetings in which snakes were not handled. This reporting overdetermined the role of handling in such services. As a result, the popular imaginary shared by many Americans represented serpent handling as a bizarre, criminalized ritual, not as a practice that developed in response to concrete theological and sociological problems that troubled a generation of pentecostal leaders and laypeople.

During Sunday worship service, Hensley handled a diamondback rattler for fifteen minutes. As he shoved the snake back into a lard can, it struck. He died in exquisite agony.

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Hensley puked blood and thrashed about on the living room floor of one of his followers. Church and state, media and academe inscribe competing narratives on the handlers. They are simultaneously saints and suicides, cultists and criminals, preachers and performance artists. In preparing this essay, I had a lot of help.

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Hugh B. Beryerchen who provided feedback on various versions of this project over the years, as well as the anonymous reviewers at the JSR. I also must thank Drs. Ralph W.

Serpent Handling Service

Hood Jr. Finally, to the serpent handlers who welcomed me into their churches, a hearty thanks is also warranted. In the course of this essay, I shift back and forth between snake and serpent handling. My use of these terms is not arbitrary and they should not be read synonymously.

For Christians who handle poisonous snakes in churches and revival meetings, the self-conscious use of the term serpent directly appeals to scriptural references to serpent. Because of their reliance on the King James Version of the Bible and its use of the word serpent in several key passages—especially Mark 16—handlers emphasize that they handle serpents , with all the symbolic and theological weight inherent in the term.

Stephen D.

Glazier Westport, Conn. Critics of the practice and secular audiences will often use the word snake. Some self-conscious critics use snake to undermine the scriptural nature of the practice, while others do so either because they do not appreciate the distinction or because they do not care about it. Karl G. Heider Athens: University of Georgia Press, , — The present essay shifts between the two usages as context merits and signifies particularly important shifts in usage with italics.

Out of respect for handlers, I use serpent whenever possible. Thomas G.


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Burton, ed. Folklorists and ethnographers have done some of the best work in the humanities on serpent handling. Elizabeth A. Castelli and Rosamond C. James V. Spickard, J. Shawn Landres, and Meredith B. Much of this work shows little concern for the historical development of the practice. Social scientists have been most active in piecing together the historical development and diffusion of handling. Anthropologist Steven M. Kane and psychologists Ralph W.