I recently finished a book by Fred Brown and Jeanne McDonald called The Serpent Handlers. The book attempts to look past the hype and embellishment that often sprouts around media reports on churches that handle snakes in worship, and focus on the people who actually participate in snake handling. Snake handling is mostly practiced in the southeastern portion of the United States, especially the part known as Appalachia. These churches are Pentecostal, Holiness, and very rural. Snake handling churches refer to themselves as “Signs Following” congregations and usually drink strychnine in addition to handling snakes. They base their doctrine on Mark 16 where Jesus speaks of taking up snakes and drinking poison and not being harmed. They take this to be a commandment from Christ to all true believers. It is very strange theology.
The first thing that took me by surprise was that these churches are very similar in many ways to other more mainstream Pentecostal churches that I have encountered. They share many of the same linguistic patterns and use very familiar terminology. It was more than slightly alarming to read about people who are so similar, yet vastly different from people that I know. Another surprising thing about these snake handling churches was how calm they remain in the face of legal pressure (most states have made it a crime to have dangerous animals in worship services) and vilification by other churches near them. I expected that their response would be far more vitriolic than it is. Personal biases on my part I suppose.
I was also surprised to learn that these churches consider themselves to be oneness pentecostal. Although they split themselves apart by those who baptise in the “name of Jesus” and the “Name of Jesus Christ”. I had no knowledge of that distinction even existing.
One thing that I liked about the book was the way that the authors went about structuring it. It was the closest to a documentary that I have seen in written form. The book follows three major families in the serpent handling movement. Each family has its own section of the book that contains a quick family tree and then interviews with each of the family members. Hearing first hand from these people was very fascinating. The deep faith these people have in their traditions is fascinating to witness.
However, the real thing that I took away from this book was deep sadness for these misled people. They speak about a very graceless God who has a standard for reaching him that is very nearly impossible to obtain. It involves not wearing beards or short-sleeved shirts for men. No pants, make-up, jewelry, or haircutting for women. Everyone must abstain from coffee, alcohol, movies, and other “worldly” amusements. The list really goes on as well. They have all suffered deaths in their family from snake bites, and have also lost fingers, entire hands, and arms. A few described nightmares involving snakes which only speaks to the emotional toll their beliefs take on them. One minister died while handling in Church, his wife also died from snake bites and they left five children as orphans. Many stories like these exist. They all feel that they are suffering for Christ, but it is needless suffering. I am always amazed at the ways that people can distort the word of God into something that hardly resembles it at all. I hope these people can one day see that God does not require that you risk your life needlessly. There are plenty of Christians who suffer in this world. It is not necessary to turn the Church into another source of suffering.