The snaking handling churches of Appalachia are a part of American Pentecostalism. Most church histories trace the modern Pentecostal movement to the Azusa Street Revival.
The Azusa Street Revival, led by William J. Seymour, was a Pentecostal revival that took place in Los Angeles, California at the African Methodist Episcopal Church. The revival began in 1906 and lasted for almost ten years. During that time thousands of people made the pilgrimage to participate in the nightly worship services, services characterized by emotional worship and ecstatic spiritual experience such a speaking in tongues. The particular theological innovation at Azusa Street was the explicit teaching that speaking in tongues (glossolalia) was the definitive marker of Holy Ghost baptism. This teaching became one of the defining features of American Pentecostalism. A contemporary example of the experience can be seen here on YouTube, where the description of the clip reads: "Brother H.M. receives the holy Ghost baptism, with the evidence of speaking in tongues."
The rise of the Pentecostal snake handling sects is generally credited to George Went Hensley. As we saw in the last post, Mark 16 explicitly cites speaking in tongues as one the the signs that should mark the church. But Mark 16 also mentions serpent handling. What about that sign? It was Hensley who demanded hermeneutical consistency in the interpretation of Mark 16, teaching that serpent handling was a sign of the Spirit along with the other Pentecostal experiences, speaking in tongues in particular.
According to Appalachia oral tradition, around the year 1910, a few years after his 1908 Holy Ghost baptism at the Church of God at Owl Hollow in Tennessee, Hensley climbed White Oak Mountain to confront his growing disillusionment that Pentecostal preachers were preaching only three of the five signs mentioned in Mark 16. As reported by J.B. Collins the following events transpired on White Oak Mountain:
[Hensley's] decision was to risk his life in order to have rest from his spiritual burden. Thus it was that he set out on probably the first religious snake hunt in modern civilized history.Hensley descended the mountain, snake in hand, and launched his first snake handling revival meeting in the community of Grasshopper Valley. So powerful were these revivals in their demonstration of the Holy Spirit that snake handling began to spread throughout the Appalachia region and, for a brief time, was endorsed by the Churches of God.
In a great rocky gap in the mountainside he found what he sought, a large rattlesnake. He approached the reptile, and, disreguarding [sic] its buzzing, blood-chilling warning, knelt a few feet away from it and prayed loudly into the sky for God to remove his fear and to anoint him with "the power." Then suddenly with a shout he leaped forward and grasped the reptile and held it in trembling hands.
George Went Hensley died in 1955 at the age 75 from a snakebite during one of his revivals in Florida. Having been bitten by snakes at least 446 times, this bite on the wrist from a five foot rattlesnake proved fatal. As he lay dying Hensley reportedly said, "The snake would not have struck--if fear had not come over someone here."
Hensley's death was ruled a suicide by the Calhoun County sheriff.
I'd like to make a few observations about religious experience in light of the Azusa Street Revival and Hensley's experience on White Oak Mountain.
First, whatever you think about George Went Hensley you have to admire his hermeneutical consistency! We all pick and choose from the bible. My tradition, the Churches of Christ, pride themselves on restoring primitive, 1st Century, New Testament Christianity. But we don't speak in tongues. Which is curious, given our commitment to mimicking the New Testament pattern of worship, as the early church clearly spoke in tongues. But this isn't too surprising as every faith tradition reads the bible selectively. Even Pentecostals. Just ask George Went Hensley.
But my more important observation has to do with religious experience. Ecstatic experiences have always been a part of Christianity. And outbreaks of charismatic fervor seem to sweep across the faith in waves, the pathos of the Spirit waxing and waning. I see this on my campus. In the last ten years of teaching at ACU I've seen two distinct charismatic waves wash over the student body.
No doubt there are a variety of explanations for these charismatic outbreaks. Whatever the explanation, I think it clear that many people crave ecstatic religious experience. It is my assessment that this craving is particularly acute during modernity. During this Age of Reason it is particularly difficult, on intellectual grounds, to be a person of faith. Consequently, I think many people seek out religious experience as a form of apologetics, as a first-person (and, thus, irrefutable) experience with God. Pentecostalism provides that experience. And its anti-intellectualism is its virtue in this regard. It is a way toward belief when truth-claims are hard to come by.
But it is hard to maintain the fever pitch of Pentecostalism. Many, over time, become disillusioned. Some wander from church to church looking for the something new, some form of worship that can rekindle the emotions and fire the passions. In this, I can see the attraction of snake handling. I doubt it ever gets old or boring. Maybe it does, but I'd expect facing death every worship service takes awhile to get used to.
On to Part 3