Search Term Friday: How Many People Die By Handling Snakes?

A search term query that brought someone to the blog:

how many people die by handling snakes?

I actually know the answer to that question. As do regular readers of the blog.

That question directs you my posts from 2010 about the snake handling churches of Appalachia, one my most favorite series of posts.

What other theology blog do you read that reflects on the theology and spirituality of snake handling?

You can read that four part series starting here with Part 1 (links at the bottom of each post move you forward). But if you just want a summary, I recapped one of the biggest theological themes from that series--the theological predicament of snakebite--in a 2012 post "Them That Believe":

Snakebite is a theological problem in snake handling churches. Even more so is death by snakebite. And the theological problem of snakebite is a problem that many Christians share, even if they don't handle snakes.

Let me unpack that.

To start, some background.

Sometime around 1910 George Went Hensley walked down from White Oak Mountain in Tennessee convinced, because of his experiences on the mountain, that one of the signs accompanying believers baptized in the Holy Ghost was power over deadly serpents. Since the Azusa Street Revival in 1906 the main sign of Holy Ghost baptism had been speaking in tongues (along with other miraculous signs such as healings). But because of his literal reading of Mark 16, Hensley became convinced that handling poisonous serpents should be added to these signs. Mark 16.17-18 from the King James Version of the Bible:
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.
Hensley descended White Oak 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 the early days of the movement the message was triumphalistic. The Holy Ghost would allow "them that believe" to handle serpents and not be bitten. But over time people were bitten. In the face of snakebite the witness shifted to protection from death by snakebite rather than from snakebite itself. But people eventually also died from snakebite. In fact, Hensley himself, having survived 446 snakebites, eventually succumbed in 1955. Hensley died at the age 75 after being bitten on the wrist by a five-foot rattlesnake during a revival in Florida.

According to researchers Ralph Hood and Paul Williamson (see Appendix 1 in their book Them that Believe), from 1921 to 2006 there have been 90 documented deaths associated with snake handling worship. That averages out to about one death per year. Which might not seem like a lot, but these are very small and tight knit communities. One death a year is pretty significant.

All this presents the snake handling church with a theological problem. But the problem has less to do with snakebite than it has to do with a victory over the fear of death.

The central theological experience of snake handling is a victory over death. As the people in the church move toward the snakes and reach into the boxes they report a keen awareness of death. As their preachers repeatedly say, "There is death in these boxes." Snake handling is an eschatological act, a demonstration of a victory over death. Death is the real enemy being confronted. The snakes are just manifestations of Death.

The practice of snake handling, then, sits within a Christus Victor frame where a victory over death is at the heart of the soteriological experience.

But the trouble is, people do die in snake handling churches. How is "victory" experienced in those instances? And it's not just about death. Many snakebites are extraordinarily painful and lead to lasting tissue damage. Practitioners survive but they may go through hours and days of excruciating pain. How do they make sense of that pain? More, how do they experience victory over death when they annually witness or hear report of a death within the church? That's a theological puzzle.

In response, the snake handling churches eventually abandoned a triumphalistic stance toward snake handling. It became clear that "the anointing," the prompt of the Holy Ghost to move forward in worship to take up serpents, did not confer immunity to snakebite or snake venom. People got bit, people suffered from the venom and some people died. So the "victory" could no longer be associated with miraculous immunity. So then where was the victory to be found?

Perhaps surprisingly the answer was found in a close reading of Mark 16.17-18. Go up and read that text again. Notice anything?

There is no promise of immunity. All the text says is that them that believe shall "pick up snakes with their hands." That's it. And that, it was concluded, is the sign. The sign is not immunity. The sign is in simply picking up the snakes. Even if you get bit. Even if you die.

The victory here isn't immunity but fearless obedience. The sign to the unbeliever is the act of faith and obedience--the sign is an eschatological fearlessness in the face of Death.

The theological evolution of the snake handling churches is an interesting illustration of how the fear of death is revealed to be our primary spiritual predicament, the predicament described in a text in Hebrews:
Hebrews 2.14-15
Since the children have flesh and blood, he too shared in their humanity so that by his death he might break the power of him who holds the power of death—that is, the devil—and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death.
Salvation is found in being set free from the slavery to the fear of death. Snakebite is a symbol of this fear in the snake handling churches. Thus taking up snakes becomes a "sign" of salvation.

Does that mean we should take up serpents? Well, feel free to bring that up at your next worship committee meeting. Holler back about how that works out.

For my part I think snake handling, though well intended, misses a critical point about fearlessness. The problem of fear is how it handicaps our ability to love, how fear inhibits our willingness to open ourselves up to the messiness and risk of welcoming others. The goal isn't simply to display courage, but to display a courage for. A courage for love. "Perfect love casts out fear."

So there are "snakes" out there. And they are everywhere. The world is snake-infested, filled with fears large and small that inhibit our ability to love others. Thus "taking up" these "snakes" is an act of courageous faith. Loving others sacrificially and fully is an act of eschatological fearlessness in the face of death

It is a sign of them that believe.

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13 thoughts on “Search Term Friday: How Many People Die By Handling Snakes?”

  1. Auto trinity icon? Sweet.

    Most rewarding blog-reading/guest-commenting combo experience ever

  2. Thanks for noticing that! I picked the hospitality icon as I figured it would be a subtle way of suggesting we should "welcome God in the stranger" in the comment thread.

  3. Some recent news related to this post.

    Back in February Jamie Coots, a famous snaking handling preacher, died of snakebite:

    And just a few weeks ago, Cody Coots, the son of Jamie who took over Jamie's pastorate, was also bitten. Cody survived:

  4. Excellence in thoughts as always, Richard. I grew up in the mountains of East TN where this practice was common in the 1960-70s. I remember a local independent charismatic pastor who had a radio program every Saturday morning by which he prevailed upon the community that snake handling was a sure sign of faith. He always said, "We handle snakes because we aren't afraid to die." He presented it like Daniel's friends in the fiery furnace, "God will save us, or he won't. Either way, we will obey God."

  5. Your application to our "taking up of the snakes through love" is excellent. Since my first reading this morning I have imagined how once we face them and pick them up, they disappear. Examples would be of how there are American Christians who see the LGBT movement as a "demon", and how civil and voting rights for people of color and the poor still frighten certain segments of our nation, actually imagining them as poisonous venom that will destroy their culture, as they do even now the different religions that are coming to life in their areas.

    And here is my point: Whenever a person finds the faith, which comes from being in awe of God's creation and children, to reach out to these "demons" they have imagined and feared, these demons disappear, and all they see are human beings. Indeed, the courage to reach out is often slow in coming and in accomplishing, especially for those who are in populations where the voicing and acting of their gradual new birth would not be smiled upon. It is for these that this blog and other sights like it can be point of encouragement and blessing.

  6. Interesting though that they seldom drink the deadly poison, which "shall not hurt them." I was taught that these "signs to follow" were temporary to the First Century. The signs were needed to prove they spoke with God's approval and could be given credibility. But once that was accomplished in much of the world, they no longer needed them to "confirm" the word (Mk. 16:20). Then, many years later, Hebrews 2:3 states that the word "was confirmed." Therefore, once a thing has been confirmed to be the truth, it does not need reconfirming. Another argument, as you know, is that Mk. 16:9-20 was just an addendum since this section was for found in the older manuscripts. Also, last year there was a reality TV show ("Snake Salvation") about the snake handling churches. I think it was cancelled after their main character, Jamie Coots, died from a snake bite.

  7. This would be a challenge for the New Zealand churches. We have no
    snakes... Actually no venomous or particularly dangerous fauna of any
    kind... I suppose a cow might fall on someone. Cow tipping as a
    spiritual exercise!

  8. We have a spider whose bite is theorised to possibly be able to kill a small child...
    Perhaps we could start seeing people with severe allergic reactions to bee stings having a spiritual gift and starting them off in careers as apiarists...

    Actually I am more wanting to poke fun at New Zealand's relatively benign state than the snake handling practice. Growing up here it kinda freaks me out that people live on a continent where bears, large cats, snakes and spiders can kill people.

    So I do want to say something a bit more serious...
    It is always good to be given a way into understanding practices that seem bizarre from the outside.

    Radical obedience even to risk death has its own beauty and thanks Richard for bringing it to our attention. It lets me have a new respect and sense of kinship for these far flung members of my spiritual family.

  9. This challenges me because I've had someone come into my life who I describe as a snake. So the challenge I guess for me is not just "taking up the snake" so I can love others, but actually loving the snake too.

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