A Snapshot of Snake Handlers: Background information when reading The Serpent King

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The Serpent King

by Jeff Zentner

The Serpent King by Jeff Zentner X
The Serpent King by Jeff Zentner
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  • First Published:
    Mar 2016, 384 pages
    Jun 2017, 384 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Bradley Sides

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About this Book

Beyond the Book:
A Snapshot of Snake Handlers

Print Review

In the opening pages of Jeff Zentner's The Serpent King, we come to know about Dill Early's family history of snake-handling. His father is an infamous snake-handling pastor at the Church of Christ's Disciples with Signs of Belief. Dill's great grandfather was also a preacher with a shared tenacity for using snakes in his church's worship services. Dill's own mother condemns her son for not wanting to take up the tradition. For this Beyond the Book, I set out to explore the history of snake-handling and to learn more about the taboo practice still used today in certain churches.

Snake Handling at Pentecostal Church of GodUncovering the exact date that snake handling began in American churches is difficult to pinpoint; however, according to information from Christianity Today, there is a record from 1910 that proves that George W. "Little George" Hensley, an illiterate preacher from Tennessee, took a literal application to Mark 16: 17-18. The verses read: "These signs will accompany those who have believed: in My name they will cast out demons, they will speak with new tongues; they will pick up the serpents, and if they drink any deadly poison, it will not hurt them; they will lay hands on the sick, and they will recover." After preaching a sermon based on the passage from Mark, Hensley concluded his service by retrieving a rattlesnake and passing it around his congregation. Word spread, and snake handling became a practice for some people in the Appalachian region of the U.S.

Snake handling is not common in Christian churches; in fact, such practices are extremely rare, occurring only in a small number of Pentecostal churches. As ABC News reported in February 2014: "It's estimated that 125 churches in the United State use poisonous snakes during services today."

Jamie CootsAmerican popular culture has a lot to do with the recent growth in this religious group's popularity. National Geographic Channel, in 2013, aired a series set in Kentucky called Snake Salvation. The show, while only lasting 16 episodes, followed different Pentecostal, snake-handling preachers. Jamie Coots, from the Full Gospel Tabernacle in Jesus Name in Middlesboro, Kentucky, was one of the stars of the show, and he is a great example of the kind of fervor and dedication these preachers embody. In February 2014, Coots was bitten by one of the snakes he handled, and he died after refusing treatment. Coots' story was popularized throughout the national media. While the show was cancelled, Coots' legacy, as well as the controversial practice of snake handling, continued on. Andrew Hamblin, a young, twenty-something snake handler, was present when Coots died. Hamblin cites Coots as being one of his greatest mentors. Grace Wyler of Vice interviewed Hamblin and asked him if Coots' death made him scared to continue the snake holding tradition. Hamblin replied, "…It has not made me scared or nothin' – because the word of God is still real, and it's still right. It'll never change, and I'll never stop doing it – I'll always take up serpents."

Hamblin is not alone in his decision to continue practicing this dangerous custom. Snake-handling is a dangerous, and oftentimes deadly, religious practice. For people on the outside, such behavior might seem irresponsible. For those who hold the snakes, though, snake-handling is a vital part of their lives. Believe it or not.

Snake Handling at Pentecostal Church of God, Lejunior, Harlan County, Kentucky September 15, 1946, courtesy of Russell Lee
Jamie Coots, courtesy of rand.org archive

Article by Bradley Sides

This article was originally published in March 2016, and has been updated for the June 2017 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.

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