“They Shall Take Up Serpents”
And he [Jesus] said unto them, Go ye into all the world, and preach the gospel to every creature. He that believeth and is baptized shall be saved; but he that believeth not shall be damned. 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 [poison], it shall not hurt them; they shall lay hands on the sick, and they shall recover. So then after the Lord had spoken unto them, he was received up into heaven, and sat on the right hand of God. And they went forth, and preached everywhere, the Lord working with them, and confirming the word with signs following. Amen.
- Mark 16:15-20 (KJV)
[Scholars doubt the authenticity of the above verses since they are not found in the earliest known manuscripts of Mark. Indeed, three different added endings to Mark have been found in later manuscripts, so perhaps early Christians were trying to make up for the lack of a proper ending in the original. But none of these textual questions discourage serpent-handling Christians who believe that their faith and practice demonstrates the authenticity of Mark 16:15-20 and the miraculous foundations of their particular faith and church.]
Excerpts From the Serpent-Handlers: Three Families & Their Faith
[In His Own Words, Joe Robert Elkins] “Lot of people think all we do is handle serpents. We pray for the sick. Theyʼs some sick people thatʼs healed here. We drink the strychnine [poison]. We donʼt deny none of the five Signs. We do our best to put all five in action, because He said “these” Signs. We donʼt just pick out praying for the sick or speaking in tongues, but all five Signs is going to be made manifest in Godʼs church. You are either a believer or an unbeliever, and the unbeliever is going to hell. I believe they are going to burn…
The Bible says to pray without ceasing. See, you go with a prayer in your mind all the time, lest you enter in the temptations. Prayer is what keeps the temptation away. When you are approached by the devil, you pray. God moves that thing. He said to resist the devil, and he would flee from you… God talks to people, if they would just slow down and listen. God talks. I hear Him. He speaks to you through the heart. It is a small, still voice. It is real quiet. It speaks within you. You hear it… But it ainʼt every spirit that talks to you that is God… People think we are crazy, but it is a wise man who fears the Lord and keeps His Commandments.”
[Introduction to the book, The serpent handlers practice their religion daily in though, word, and deed. When they fail, they suffer, pray, and try harder the next day. Their religion demands a price too high for most of us to pay. Imagine having enough faith to pick up a deadly reptile to confirm Godʼs Word, knowing that a bite could be crippling or even fatal. What about the miracles? How can they be explained? We have seen people hold flame in their hands and dance on fire without being burned. We have witnessed believers drinking strychnine with no ill effects and handling poisonous snakes without being bitten. Other miracles are related in this book—healings, casting out devils, baptism by an unseen spirit. Even these stories seem plausible because we believe in the veracity of the people who witnessed such events firsthand.]
[In Her Own Words, Cynthia Church] “This religion is not David Copperfield. Itʼs not smoke and mirrors and magic. … It makes me angry when people think serpent handlers are ignorant rednecks from Appalachia. The way people talk here is cultural. Just because some of them are uneducated doesnʼt mean they are ignorant, but that is the way they are portrayed by most of the press… Mamaw had the gift of fire. She would pour kerosene on a little white handkerchief—you know, the kind ladies used to carry—and she would set it on fire and burn it in her hand. The hankie would burn with fire and smoke, and Mamaw held that fire in her hand for about fifteen minutes while she danced [in the spirit]. Finally, she closed her other hand down over it and put the fire out, and her hand was not even burned, and the handkerchief was not even burned or scorched.”
[In Her Own Words, Linda Turner Coots] “They were handling serpents. My brother-in-law was handling fire. And Joyce leaps up shouting, speaking in tongues, and Gregʼs dad, he held up his hand and wanted everybody to listen. And he said, ‘Thereʼs something that just donʼt sound right.’ Joyce was speaking in tongues, but it wasnʼt God. And when he pointed a finger at her, she just fell on the floor. And then he begin to pray for her, and that devil was talking, and it was saying that Jesus was the devil. And he cast the devil off her. Joyce repented of her sins, but somewhere, that devil took over, and she didnʼt know how to resist him…Hayden, Gregʼs dad, prayed for him one night at my momʼs and cast the devil out of him. He told the devil to go into the dog that was outside. And when he done that, the dog howled, made the awfulest, pitiful sound. It went mad a few days after that, and my uncle had to kill it. He had to destroy the dog…Yeah, I been to a lot of baptizings. Iʼve seen the Lord baptize Gregʼs dad one Sunday: They was about fifteen people being baptized that Sunday, and he baptized every one of ʻem, and then he was just standing in the water after everybody else walked out, and it was just like something just laid him down in the water and brought him back up.It was beautiful. He never said anything [about that experience]. We watched it. It was amazing…I just know that the Word of God is the truth. They say that speaking in tongues is evidence of the Holy Ghost, but I believe the real gift of God is eternal life. I wish everybody could see heaven, but they canʼt. Itʼs not for everybody. Itʼs only for a chosen few. Everybodyʼs not going to see Him. I have friends who say theyʼre Christians, but the way I feel about it, they donʼt believe in the full Gospel, and theyʼre not gonna make it. Theyʼre not gonna go where Jesus is… I just want to make it [to heaven]. Love. Thatʼs the most important thing, to have that love.”
[In His Own Words, Charles Church] “Miracles are performed every day in the church. Ceilʼs mother, Barbara, had the gift of fire. She had a great anointing to handle it. She used to dip her hands into a coal stove and carry out hot coals with her hands, and she was never burned. Ceil has that gift too. She says the fire feels cool. Barbara would actually pour kerosene on the floor and set it on fire and dance barefooted in the fire and never be burned. Once, I saw her hold out a sinner manʼs tie and put that torch under it, keep it there for five minutes, and it didnʼt ever burn… And when Brother Raford Dunn was bitten in Brother Carl Porterʼs church, we took him downstairs, and he was laying on a bed. Lydia was sitting next to him and praying for him, and she said she could actually feel his heart beating. And then she felt it quit beating. We prayed for him down there, and he came back to life.”
[In His Own Words, Dewey Chafin, born 1933] “The first time I ever handled a serpent, the anointing felt just like it does now. It starts in my stomach, the feeling does. It works different in different people, but I get a little feeling right here [in the pit of my stomach], and it just gets bigger and bigger and bigger, and from there on up through my chest and my shoulders. It is a good feeling, a warm feeling. You can feel it… Over the years I have been bitten 133 times… Some people donʼt understand our religion, but it determines everything I do in life. I donʼt drink coffee. I donʼt chew gum. I donʼt smoke cigarettes, argue, fight, cuss. If you start an argument with me, just start, and Iʼll be out of your way in less than a minute. Cussing is definitely a no-no. People take cussing being just one thing, like using Godʼs name in vain. But cussing is a lot more than that. There are a lot of ways you can cuss without using Godʼs name in vain.”
The rules of the church hang above the pulpit, their supporting Bible verses listed in parentheses. They read, “Women are not allowed to wear short sleeves, jewelry and makeup (I C 3; I Tim. 2:9); No gossiping (James 1:26); No tale-bearing (Prov. 18:8); No lying (Col. 3:9, Rev. 21:8); no backbiting (Rom. 1:30); No bad language (Col. 3:8); No tobacco users (II Cor. 7:1, I Cor. 3:17). Men are not allowed to have long hair, mustaches or beards (I Cor. 11:14); Men are not allowed to wear short sleeves; Women not allowed to cut hair (I Cor. 11:15); and wear dresses above the knees (Tim. 2:9).” At the bottom of the sign, in parentheses, it says, “Members only,” meaning that visitors are excluded from adhering to these mandates…
Since his evangelist brother, Punkin, died from snakebite in 1998, Mark Brown is the lone surviving child of one of the best known serpent-handling families in the Southeast. Now Mark is more wary, but not afraid… He believes that he has a personal mandate from God, told through a prophecy related to him by family friend Cameron Short. “The Lord told me that my hands would do the work of the Signs.”
Fred Brown and Jeanne McDonald, “The Serpent Handlers: Three Families and Their Faith” (Winston-Salem, North Carolina: John E. Blair Publisher, 2000)
The Church of the Lord Jesus, Jolo, West Virginia
The Church of the Lord Jesus, a Pentecostal serpent-handling, or “signs-following” church deep in the coal fields of southern West Virginia, is one of the most eminent churches of its kind…
Almost all of the men and some of the women in the church of the Lord Jesus, exhibit some sort of deformity on their hands and fingers from a past serpent bite. An atrophied finger, the loss of movement in part of a hand, or simple scars from a serpentʼs fangs, are proudly exhibited by these church members when they are asked about their “battle scars.” According to Brother Bob, Pastor of the church, the serpents “are the visible sign of the devil,” and when one has power over these serpents through the anointing of the Holy Spirit, he or she is, in effect, exerting control over the devil. None of the church members seeks medical attention when bitten by a poisonous snake; in fact, Brother Bobʼs stepdaughter was killed by a serpent bite in the 60s.
Brother Ray was eighty-two years old and had been with the church almost since its beginning in the late 40s…Rayʼs right hand was bitten over twenty years ago by a diamondback rattlesnake and became extremely atrophied. His index and middle fingers were completely unusable, and both of his hands had a swollen appearance. Ray had been bitten 89 times throughout the almost fifty years that he had been with the church. During that Sunday morning, while holding a handful of copperheads, Ray was bitten five more times on both of his hands…At the end of the service, Rayʼs hands had swollen a great deal, but he wasnʼt feeling sick, nor did he exhibit any effects other than being a little “itchy.” He stood up to testify and said, Iʼd like to praise God for being here… thank Him for the Spirit. Iʼd like to thank him for the bites I got today, all five of them. I praise Him for it because theyʼre not hurtinʼ—theyʼre itchinʼ, but theyʼre not hurtin.ʼ Theyʼre swellinʼ…” Ray felt that there was a reason for what, to an outsider, would appear to be a “breakdown” in the power of the Spirit. His getting bitten was not a breakdown at all but was Godʼs way of showing Ray that He would still take care of him, even though Ray was an “old man.” According to the members of the Church of the Lord Jesus, God has a reason for everything that He does, and they as His children must simply trust that will, even if they do not understand it.
Brother Dewey came out from behind the pulpit and took three serpents and began to preach, asserting that the Bible “didnʼt say these snakes wouldnʼt bite you or wouldnʼt hurt you.” He continued, “[The Lord] said, ‘these signs shall follow them that believe.’ These are the signs nobody wants to follow.” In other words, because the Word says those who believe in the Lord “shall follow” the signs in Mark, the Jolo church members feel that it is a command that they handle serpents. In an interview with Brother Bob, he added to this point: “If weʼre led by the Spirit and it [the serpent] bites us, then it was Godʼs will.” Furthermore, if it bites you and youʼre under the anointing, and you die, youʼve just done Godʼs will. That was your way to go. That was just your way to go. Because thereʼs going to be something that takes everybody out of this world. To me, itʼs fulfillment of the Word… the Bible says, “happy are you if you die in the Lord.” What better way would you find to die than doing what God said to do?
Shannon Bell, “Brother Rayʼs Serpent Bites” & “A Changing Approach,” copyright, 2000
Rattler-handling Rev. Dwayne Long of Rose Hill, Va., died in mid-April, 2004, after being bitten by a snake during an Easter Pentecostal church service and refusing medical treatment.
Linda Long, 48, of London was bitten by a snake during a church service at the East London Holiness Church she attended. Neighbors of the church told the newspaper the church practices serpent handling. Handling reptiles as part of religious services is illegal in Kentucky. Snake handling is a misdemeanor and punishable by a $50 to $100 fine. Police said they had not received any prior reports about snake handling at the church. Lt. Ed Sizemore of the Laurel County Sheriffʼs Office said friends went with Ms. Long to the University of Kentucky Medical Center. She died about four hours after the bite was reported, the Lexington Herald-Leader reported. Church officials could not be reached for comment. The funeral was scheduled for 2 p.m. Wednesday at the Arthurʼs Chapel Church in Rosehill, Va., according to the Rosehill Funeral Home.
E.T.B. [rewritten but based on an AP news report dated Nov. 7, 2006, London, Kentucky]
I saw in McDowell County, (where the Jolo church is located) that the unemployment rate is 260.8% of the national average, and the 1990 Census reported a poverty rate at 287.5% of the national average…Though the Jolo people may not have as much money as a great deal of Americans, one of the women in the church pointed out to me, “There are no homeless people here.” This simple statement made me re-think my definition of poverty and oppression because it was true, I had not ever seen a homeless person anywhere in McDowell County. “You want to know why?” she asked me, “itʼs because we take care of each other. We make sure that everyone has a roof over their head.” From her comment, I kind of got the feeling that it was I that was the deprived one, living in a world of assumptions and stereotypes.
Shannon Bell, “A Changing Approach,” copyright, 2000
After I wrote news accounts of the serpent-handling churches, sociologists visited and studied the congregations. One administered a psychological test to the Scrabble Creek flock, and gave the same test to a nearby Methodist congregation as a control group. The serpent-handlers came out mentally healthier.
James A. Haught, “Adventures in the Bible Belt” (1997), adapted from a Gazette column, Dec. 7, 1993.
One of the authors of The Psychology of Religious Fundamentalism, Williamson, is also a former minister in the Church of God (of Prophecy) from which the serpent-handling sects split; he conducted extensive interviews with 16 serpent handlers and commented on personal experiences with scores of others. One common thread through these interviews was the interpretation of snake bites during handling. Every instance of a bite was interpreted in one of three ways. First, it could be a sign to unbelievers that the serpent was indeed poisonous, proving that there were no tricks involved. Second, it could be divine retribution for disobedience and sin, as well as a reminder to keep your life in order because you never know when it will be your time to go. And finally, if neither of these interpretations seemed appropriate, the third interpretation was used, namely that the snake bite was simply the unknown will of God. This worldview leaves no room for the interpretation that maybe serpent handling is not a good idea.
In fact, serpent handlers are fully cognizant of the dangers of their practice, and they do not claim to have any special powers to ward off or survive snake bites. All the participants Williamson interviewed had witnessed a fatal snake bite, and eleven of them had been bitten themselves, some disfigured as a result. The interviewees were quick to point out that Mark 16:18 commanded them to handle serpents as a sign of true belief, but that it did not promise them no harm would come to them.
The advantage snake-handling Christians and other fundamentalist Christians have is that “They lay claim to absolute values with clear-cut answers to what others may find problematic” or questionable. (Though of course different fundamentalisms can and do propose different beliefs and clear-cut answers.)
David Ludden, “In the Beginning was the Word,” a book review of The Psychology of Religious Fundamentalism by Ralph W. Hood, Jr., Peter C. Hill, and W. Paul Williamson (Guilford Press, 2005). (Final paragraph edited by E.T.B.)
Read Luke 10:19, “Behold I give unto you power to tread on serpents and scorpions… and nothing shall… hurt you.” Funny, they donʼt seem too keen on treading on scorpions.
David Windhorst, “God May Kill You For Reading This… And Iʼm A Little Nervous Myself”
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