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Them That Believe: The Power and Meaning of the Christian Serpent-Handling Tradition

Ralph W. Hood
W. Paul Williamson
Copyright Date: 2008
Edition: 1
Pages: 322
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  • Book Info
    Them That Believe
    Book Description:

    Although outlawed in many states, serpent handling remains an active religious practice-and one that is far more stereotyped than understood. Ralph W. Hood, Jr. and W. Paul Williamson have spent fifteen years touring serpent-handling churches in Alabama, Georgia, Tennessee, Kentucky, North Carolina, and West Virginia, conducting scores of interviews with serpent handlers, and witnessing hundreds of serpent-handling services. In this illuminating book they present the most in-depth, comprehensive study of serpent handling to date.Them That Believenot only explores facets of this religious practice-including handling, preaching, and the near-death experiences of individuals who were bitten but survived-but also provides a rich analysis of this phenomenon from historical, social, religious, and psychological perspectives.

    eISBN: 978-0-520-94271-4
    Subjects: Religion

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. List of Illustrations
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. List of Tables
    (pp. xi-xii)
  5. Preface
    (pp. xiii-xvi)
  6. CHAPTER 1 “They Shall Take up Serpents”
    (pp. 1-12)

    The contemporary serpent-handling churches of Appalachia remain fiercely independent. They have been referred to as the renegade churches of God. The phrase is apt, for these churches identify with the great Pentecostal movement at the turn of the twentieth century and two of the major denominations that emerged from it, the Church of God and the Church of God of Prophecy.¹ However, in what is widely recognized as the official history of the Church of God, Charles Conn (1996) only reluctantly admits to the role of serpent handling, for this Pentecostal denomination no longer endorses that practice or the practice...

  7. CHAPTER 2 The History of Pentecostalism Absent the Serpent
    (pp. 13-36)

    Pentecostalism has become a major movement in contemporary Protestant Christianity (Synan, 1997; Cox, 1995). In little more than a century, it grew from meager beginnings at Azusa Street in Los Angeles to nearly half a billion followers (including neo-Pentecostals) around the world. Once thought attractive only to the poor, disenfranchised, and disconnected (Holt, 1940), the modern movement has spread across class and ethnic lines and includes the educated of the world (Cox, 1995; Synan, 1997; Wacker, 2003). Given its success, few would dare speculate that this institution shares a common descent with those who practice the handling of venomous serpents...

  8. CHAPTER 3 The Media and the Man: George Went Hensley
    (pp. 37-51)

    Those who have traced the history of serpent handling have generally credited one man with originating this ritual practice. It is unlikely, however, that serpent handling has a single origin. Many emerging Pentecostal groups considered that the biblical justification for tongues speaking, Mark 16:17–18, also encompassed serpent handling. While some Pentecostal groups such as the Assemblies of God and the Pentecostal Holiness Church rejected serpent handling as a legitimate religious ritual (Crews, 1990), they did interpret Mark 16:17–18 to mean that if believers accidentally handled serpents they would not be harmed. This interpretation alludes to the story of...

  9. CHAPTER 4 Serpent Handling Endorsed by the Church of God
    (pp. 52-78)

    The contemporary serpent handlers of Appalachia trace their roots, as most Pentecostals do, to the Holiness tradition and to what became one of the major Pentecostal denominations, the Church of God. Indeed, while serpent-handling churches have different names, most of their names begin with or include the phrase “Church of God.” For instance, Jimmy Morrow’s church is the Edwina Church of God in Jesus Christ’s Name, and the church once located at Carson Springs was the Holiness Church of God in Jesus’ Name, a name shared by churches at Sand Hill and Big Stone Gap, Virginia, and elsewhere in Appalachia.¹...

  10. CHAPTER 5 The Serpent: Sign and Symbol
    (pp. 79-101)

    In a tradition with a ritual that poses the potential for injury and even death, it is only natural that outside observers will be curious about it and its sometimes adverse consequences. As we argued in chapter 4 , it was the gradual recognition of the dangers of serpent handlingthat led the Church of God and the Church of God of Prophecy to abandon the practice and now to deny that it ever played a significant role in their history. States began to outlaw religious serpent handling precisely in response to the resulting deaths. As the Tennessee State Supreme Court...

  11. CHAPTER 6 Trance States: Tongues Speaking and the Anointing
    (pp. 102-116)

    In the previous chapters we placed the serpent-handling churches in the context of what became the major Pentecostal denominations. The gradual recognition of tongues speaking as a biblically justified sign of Holy Ghost baptism or possession has led social scientists to attempt to explain this phenomenon in other than biblical terms. We address the issue in this chapter in two senses: first, whether trance states are necessary to engage in tongues speaking; and second, with respect to serpent handling, whether trance states are necessary for those who handle either by “faith” or by “anointing.” The major efforts to explain trance...

  12. CHAPTER 7 Extemporaneous Sermons in the Serpent-Handling Tradition
    (pp. 117-131)

    Contemporary Christian serpent handlers share with other Christian fundamentalists the love of what they claim is “the Word.” Preachers are “God called,” not seminary trained. Their knowledge of the King James Bible is extensive and deep; this is true even of preachers who might be considered illiterate. There is a powerful oral tradition in which the Bible is preached and memorized. Preaching is unscripted; notes are never used. Typically a pastor of a church will ask, “Who has the Word?” The person who is moved to preach will approach the altar, Bible in hand, and speak. There is but one...

  13. CHAPTER 8 The Experience of Handling Serpents
    (pp. 132-156)

    In this chapter we focus exclusively on what it is like to handle poisonous serpents by using a particular phenomenological method, one that allows handlers to freely explore and describe in an open-ended interview what their specific experiences have been in handling serpents.¹ In chapter 7 we explored the meaning of serpent handling based on what is publicly proclaimed in sermons. Here we study its meaning based on what believers have to say as they reflect on their experiences in the context of personal interviews. Our main focus is on handling that, in the words of believers, granted them “victory”...

  14. [Illustrations]
    (pp. None)
  15. CHAPTER 9 The Experience of the Anointing
    (pp. 157-169)

    Anointing, like tongues speaking, may be linked to trance states. However, “trance” does little to describe the experience of anointing, a central experience in serpent-handling churches. Anointing is a common experience among Pentecostals, whether or not they handle serpents. In the existing research literature, there is little that deals specifically with the anointing experienced among Pentecostals—let alone serpent-handling churches. Also, as we noted previously, conceptualizing the anointing or tongues speaking in terms of changes in mental states or chemical levels suggests a causal analysis that bypasses the question of what the experience of anointing is like and what meaning...

  16. CHAPTER 10 Near-Death Experience from Serpent Bites in Religious Settings
    (pp. 170-184)

    In this chapter we place near-death experiences by serpent bite (NDBs) in religious settings in the context of what has become known as near-death experiences (NDEs). We do this for two reasons. First, the conceptual issues in NDEs are directly relevant to the religious beliefs of serpent-handling churches, particularly with respect to human immortality. Second, the claim to prototypical NDEs widely reported in the popular literature lacks clear empirical support. It is not, for instance, typical of NDBs from serpent bites in religious setting by believers who handle. Thus it may be that NDEs are influenced by the beliefs of...

  17. CHAPTER 11 Music among Serpent-Handling Churches
    (pp. 185-207)

    The serpent-handling churches share with the larger, mainstream Pentecostal denominations the use of music as an essential component in worship. At a typical serpent-handling meeting, it is most likely that instrumentals and singing will provide a prelude to the service as members enter the church and fellowship with one another. The importance of music is such that services rarely begin “on time” but usually whenever the musical prelude happens to end or, more often, as it swells and rises to a level that elicits participation from congregants to join in with singing. In such cases the music itself has blurred...

  18. CHAPTER 12 Serpent Handling and the Law: History and Empirical Studies
    (pp. 208-226)

    Despite the fact that serpent-handling churches are part of the biblically based Pentecostal tradition and that they are most prominent in what many refer to as the mountain region of the “Bible belt,” local governing bodies and state legislatures have sought to prohibit their central ritual. In this chapter we explore the history of legislation against serpent-handling churches and the success of this legislation in appellate courts. We then investigate both rational and prejudicial reasons for opposition to serpent handlers and discuss a study in which the presentation of factual information regarding serpent-handling churches alters people’s opinions on whether laws...

  19. Epilogue
    (pp. 227-238)

    The Hood-Williamson Research Archives for the Holiness Serpent Handling Sects of Appalachia is a rich source for exploring the rise and fall of churches and the tension within the tradition. For instance, twenty three DVDs from July 1994 to July 2002 document the decline of one of the most powerful Jesus-only serpent-handling churches in Georgia, the Church of the Lord Jesus Christ, pastored by Carl Porter, who died in 2006 of natural causes. Porter died expelled from his own church and disgraced in the eyes of many within the tradition. The reason is simple enough: his wife of many years...

  20. APPENDIX 1. Deaths by Serpent Bite
    (pp. 239-245)
  21. APPENDIX 2. Deaths by poison
    (pp. 246-246)
  22. APPENDIX 3. The Phenomenological Interview and Hermeneutic Techniques of Interpretation
    (pp. 247-256)
  23. Notes
    (pp. 257-266)
  24. References
    (pp. 267-284)
  25. Acknowledgments
    (pp. 285-288)
  26. Index
    (pp. 289-301)
  27. Back Matter
    (pp. 302-303)