Pentecostalism is a sect of Christianity that originated in rural areas of the USA in the early 1900s. Members believe that baptism in the Holy Spirit results in a personal experience of God, but salvation requires that they practice the teachings of Jesus Christ. They take every word of the Bible as literal truth and act on those words in order to be saved and be assured of entering Heaven.
George Went Hensley began to practice snake handling while a minister of the Church of God in Cleveland, Tennessee (a Pentecostal church which today claims 6 million members in 150 countries). Around 1909, his church became aware of his activities and prohibited it. Eventually, sometime in the 1920s, Hensley started his own church naming it The Church of God with Signs Following. Various other churches also began to follow the practice of snake handling, particularly in rural areas in the Appalachian region.
Snake handling churches are likely to include more mainstream Pentecostal practices as well, such as foot-washing, public repentance of sins, speaking in tongues, as well as healing by prayer and the laying on of hands. Some female members refrain from cutting their hair while the men keep short hair. The women do not use cosmetics and favor ankle-length dresses while the men wear long-sleeved shirts when attending services. The use of tobacco and alcohol is considered sinful. Along with snake handling some worshipers also drink strychnine. These practices derive from a Bible passage:
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, it shall not hurt them; they shall lay hands on the sick, and they shall recover. - Mark 16:17-18
During a church service a worshiper may feel a call from the Holy Spirit to take up a snake or drink poison, in order to obey the above scripture. Even though some do suffer snakebites, it is a proof of faith to survive the bite. Though over 100 cases of death by snakebite have been reported (including that of the sect's founder, George Went Hensley), church members see these incidents as a sign of a lack of sufficient prayer and faith by the handler or even by the whole congregation. Snakebites are also seen as a punishment for sin or because the handler did not put down the snake when commanded by the Holy Spirit to do so. For these reasons, victims of snakebites do not seek medical attention but instead are prayed over until they heal or die.
In 2001, it was estimated that 40 small churches practiced snake-handling, most of whom would consider themselves part of the holiness movement, in turn part of the pentecostal movement. Originally members of the holiness churches came from mostly rural areas and included coal miners, mill workers, factory laborers and farmers in Appalachia. Today, the churches have spread to urban areas and include followers from various walks of life. Despite opposition, serpent handling continues, with the tradition apparently being passed down in families, generation after generation.
This article was originally published in November 2010, and has been updated for the
September 2011 paperback release.
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