Snake handling as a profession of faith has been a decades long tradition for some holynist Pentecostals living in the Appalachia mountain region. The National Geographic channel is hosting a documentary series titled “Snake Salvation”, which is promoted as a look inside the prominence of faith and religion in the life struggles of two pastors of snake handling churches. The series follows the daily life of the pastors who are trying to maintain their snake handling traditions while dodging the law, dealing with a disapproving society and family difficulties.
Members of my extended family are Pentecostal and I am familiar with Pentecostal worship practices such as speaking in tongues and being slain in the spirit so I know that people can have strong convictions that the power of God can overtake them and cause them to act in a certain way. I have never attended a snake handling church, nor have I ever wanted to. But with the showing of this series I wanted to satisfy my curiosity and compare this type of Pentecostalism with that I have experienced.
The “anointing of the Holy Spirit” during worship services is common in Pentecostal churches, but snake handlers take this anointing a full step forward. Snake handlers hold and dance with venomous reptiles as proof that they are faithful to God, evidenced by God’s anointment upon them that they will not be bitten, and if they are that they will survive, unless God has appointed it as their time to die. Besides handling snakes, they drink lye and strychnine, and also wave fire beneath their chins and over their hands as proof that they are being faithful to God. They perform these acts based on a literal interpretation of this scripture found in the Gospel of Mark:
“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.”
As I watched this series I could not help but wonder if it would be different if they knew the history of their religion, or if it was known that many biblical historians believe that the verse they take so literally as a call to exhibit faith was a late and forged entry to the text and not found in the earliest manuscripts of Mark. Even so, given the number of people handling snakes during religious practice, most are not bitten.
Does this mean that God protects the ignorant? Probably not.
Herpetologists who have studied the practice of snake handling attribute the relatively low number of deaths to the poor health and maintenance of the snakes during captivity. Snakes that are dehydrated and underfed are less likely to strike and the deteriorated condition of the snake produces weaker venom. It was noted that numerous snakes are crowded into one container and lack of fecal matter indicates that they were not being routinely fed. Snakes living in the captivity of snake handlers live an average of three to four months, whereas snakes living in their natural habitat can live much longer. Even in captivity a well-cared for snake can live 10 – 20 years. The data would seem to suggest that snake handling pastors increase their chances of not being bitten during a religious service by ensuring that the snake is in poor health and that snake bites which do occur produce much weaker venom that while it may cause serious harm it does not cause death. Death is more likely to occur when someone is bitten while handling a newly captive snake, still in relatively good health, and then refuses medical treatment.
Because some people have died handling snakes during a worship service, some states such as Tennessee have banned possessing venomous reptiles. But, as depicted in the series, don’t expect these religious devotees of snake handling to give up the practice. People attending these congregations are often family members following a long enduring belief that if they do not do these things that they will go to hell. They have been indoctrinated into this belief for the most of their lives as a part of their family culture.
My father’s family hails from Appalachia. I know this culture well and I also know that many of those living in this region are economically impoverished, poorly educated and socially isolated. Family and tradition are foremost in their lives and the religious tradition of the family is unlikely to be challenged by subsequent generations. The lyric of an old hymn (Gimme that Old Time Religion) that says, “It was good enough for my grandma and its good enough for me” is an accurate reflection of the mindset of these closely knitted families. A great many will never leave their communities or ever attend college and in turn will most likely never encounter alternative religious or life style points of view. And the traditions that they were born into will be passed to future generations, time and time again.
The Pew Institute reports that people who are poor and undereducated are those most likely to hold religious beliefs. Watching this series makes that point even stronger. It is easy to see that Jesus and the bible provide a means of solace for people struggling through poverty and the hardships that it causes in their lives. Their faith allows them to believe that they are rich in spirit, much richer than the man with the money, and it allows them to equalize their worth as a have-not when compared to the haves. To the poor, Jesus’ words of “blessed are the poor” and his gentle affection for the poor add value to a less than desirable existence. I’ve been there and done that. I know what it feels like to need a power greater than myself to be in control of my life so I understand how important their faith is to them. I am somewhat sympathetic to people continued to be deceived by a great lie. But that being said, as a Tennessean, I hope that Brother Andrew never succeeds in lobbying the state legislature to allow snake handling as an act of religious freedom; and I will remain committed to the separation of church and state which keeps dangerous religious beliefs and practices out of mainstream society.
And god forbid, that he ever acquires his dream of being the pastor of the first ever Snake Handling Mega Church.