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Sunday, February 10, 2013

Review of Taking Up Serpents: Snake Handlers of Eastern Kentucky

Goodreads | Eric_W Welch (Forreston, IL)'s review of Taking Up Serpents: Snake Handlers of Eastern Kentucky:

I have always been fascinated by the more bizarre (to us) religious practices.  What motivates people to do things outsiders would consider to be dangerous if not ridiculous? "This is my blood, this is my body," transubstantiation, drinking strychnine, burning oneself, I mean really.  I'm sure non-Catholics regard Catholic doctrinal beliefs as a bizarre form of cannibalism when viewed from a different cultural perspective, so it behooves us to consider other religious practices with a certain amount of equanimity.  I've always enjoyed learning about subcultures --"Swamp People" being a favorite show -- so naturally this book appealed to me especially having read The Serpent Handlers: Three Families and Their Faith. (

David Kimbrough, having grown up in Appalachia, understood the regional dialects, often difficult for outsiders to understand, * and he had a real empathy for the members of the snake handling churches.  He participated in the services and astounded the members by handling snakes as part of the service himself.  (Not too bright, but who am I to judge?)

Memory is fragile, and he soon discovered that accounts would differ.  Teasing out the actual sequence of events often required many interviews.  Memory is also selective,  and he found it "puzzling that in a group which uses the Bible as its rule book and which tradition and belief are ingrained, allowing little room for change, there have been many changes in belief ritual, and life histories concerning the early church leaders.  For example, George W. Hensley was married four times.  But most church members see divorce and remarriage (being double-married) as sinful, so they blotted out recollections of Hensley's marital and extramarital activities."

The rise of snake handling coincided with  rapid changes in society and the shift from subsistence farming to capital requirements meant that preachers like Hensley, considered the major evangelizers of the belief, had fertile ground for  expanding  their congregations.  Emotionalism predominated and Holiness preachers often were given credit for having performed miracles.  Snake handling was another way of impressing  the faithful and giving the preachers credibility.

All religious groups require external antagonism to solidify and consolidate their members, encouraging them to separate from general society and several deaths from snake handling,  providing  legislative opportunities to ban the practice, helped to build their feeling of specialness and of being anointed.

He begins the book with a description of a typical church service.  One interesting feature was that children who become caught up in the emotion of the moment (there is no question that the combination of music and group  delirium creates a heightened emotional state that is quite contagious) and move toward the front of the church where the snake handling is always conducted are immediately stopped.   The church is gender segregated but men kiss on the lips as a greeting (they cite scripture to explain this, "Greet one another with an holy kiss, interpreted to mean same gender only since kissing the opposite sex is reserved for spouses,)  even while condemning homosexuality.

The practice is controversial even in the Pentecostal Church, but the snake handlers response is simply that those who are opposed are simply not  "full-gospel."  Interestingly, the snake-handling churches have doctrinal splits similar to mainstream Christian churches, especially with regard to the Trinity, the Trinitarians believing  in the separateness of God, Jesus and the Holy Spirit, the Oneness faction insisting on the integral nature of the three.  Just do a quick Google search on Trinity to see the vitriol present in the debates.   (See When Jesus Became God -– and some of Bart Ehrman's work for more detail in the historical genesis of the argument.)  also  The Closing of the Western Mind: The Rise of Faith & the Fall of Reason by Charles Freeman (

There is a fascinating chapter on the Saylor family's origins in eastern Kentucky.  Families provided the communal backbone in a subsistence environment. Anything produced that was extra was traded or bartered, everyone worked, especially the women who were expected to stay pregnant and work in the fields, prepare the food, etc., etc. in what must have seemed to be a never-ending job.  Settlers were sparse, neighbors mostly members of the family, and anything extra was traded or bartered among the clan since markets were ridiculously far away.  Philadelphia was hundreds of miles by bridle path. Rivers could only be used during parts of the year and then were subject to  flooding. Education was virtually non-existent; medicine  consisted of home remedies and/or prayer when they didn't work.  As late as 1899, their existence was described as like Rip Van Winkle-ish.  Things just hadn't changed for 100 years.  Churches, preachers,  any kind of formal religious practices  were virtually non-existent except for circuit riders and their Scotch Presbyterian heritage, although the Methodists with their less formal and less intellectual sermons were making inroads by the mid-19th century.  Simplicity, superstition, and  reading the Bible literally thrived.  Ill luck and health were attributed to Satan.

The gradual industrialization of eastern Kentucky had profound effects on the religious practices of the formerly independent and communal families. They had always been subsistence farmers but industrialization and the influx of capital required labor.  These people  worked on a cycle determined by the natural growing cycle of the seasons rather than the arbitrary work rhythms of the mills and coal mines. In addition, the capitalists had purchased the mineral rights to the land which often resulted in roads being built through fields and land being torn up to retrieve coal.   The missionaries became tools of the new industrial class: " In 1909, H. Paul Douglass of the American Missionary Association of the Congregational Church published a book titled Christian Reconstruction in the South. Two chapters, “The Old Men of the Mountains” and “The Passing of the Mountaineer,” called for the mountaineers to be evicted from their traditional homelands. The Home Missions endorsed a change in the legal control of land and undermined a self-sufficient mountain society, while making its members into a property-less wage-earning class. It was the Home Missions goal to convey the culture of the capitalists to the mountaineers."  

Politicians joined forces with the missionaries and industrialists for a variety of reasons. The loser was always the local farmer. "The capitalists used every means possible to gain a total grip on mountain society. Toward that end, missionaries and educators played a particularly important role. Their function was “to make legitimate the exploitation, to eliminate some of the worst abuses, and to educate and change values so that the people would accept the new ways.” Schools, churches, movie theaters, ballparks, and other recreational facilities were built by the mine owners as disguised means of achieving these ends. They were critical in restructuring local communities and the lives of mountaineers. Company preachers and teachers were used to harness any destabilizing factors that threatened the interests of the mine owners and to mediate the process of proletarianization. "

Fire handling arose concomitant with snake handling, again with Biblical justification.  Between 1914 and 1920 it even surpassed snake handing in frequency during services.   The participants believe themselves to have been anointed by the Holy Spirit making them immune from poison, fire and venom. Gradually, anti-snake-handling became a cause celebre, pitting the righteous and religious freedom against the law.  Deaths from snake bite were becoming more common and as "non-believer" bystanders congregated around their religious services, the risk of someone else being killed increased. Georgia went so far as to make snake-handling that resulted in a death a capital crime for the one who brought the snake. ("Section 3 of the legislation stated, "In the event, however, that death is caused to a person on account of the violation of this Act by some other person, the prisoner shall be sentenced to death, unless the jury trying the case shall recommend mercy")

Killer snakes, i.e. those whose bite had resulted in a death, were in high demand since the "faith" required to handle such snakes was proportional to the danger. Ironically, believers interpreted a death as either the handler having too much faith or, conversely, not enough, or the handler wasn't sufficiently "anointed", or God just wanted to bring them home. Convenient.  As is typical of non-mainstream belief systems, pressure and harassment from law enforcement merely solidified their belief.  Ironically, handling was very hard on the snakes who often died after repeated handling.  This was often seen as evidence of the devil being driven out by the anointed.

In his conclusion, the author notes: "The sociologist Emile Durkheim created a “nonobvious theory of religion, in which the key to religion is not its beliefs but the social rituals that its members perform. Religion is a key to social solidarity, and religious beliefs are important, not in their own right, but as symbols of social groups.” Thus, religion becomes sociologically and culturally important, playing a significant role in the social life of Holiness worshipers. Except for his use of the loaded term “cult," J. Wayne Flynt described the snake handlers perfectly: “The cult was an enigma, a classic confrontation between cultures. Snake handling occurred most frequently not in the most isolated regions of Appalachia, but in peripheral areas undergoing change from subsistence agriculture to industry. The cult helped its members cope with the humiliation attendant to being poor and hillbilly. One way to adjust to threatening new values was to reject them, and the snake-handling group demonstrated the tension of people torn from decades of isolation and thrust into the modern world.”

The author, who holds a PhD. in history, remains dispassionate throughout, a remarkable feat, given he is a snake handler himself.  My only regret is that he should have spent more time on the “drinking poisons” such as strychnine more.  His belief in snake handling (there are pictures of him handling snakes at a service) provided unparalleled access.  A riveting history of the origins and practice of a fascinating religious belief system.

Excellent documentary at

Other recommended titles:  Seedtime on the Cumberland ( ) and Flowering of the Cumberland ( ) by Arnow.

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