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.
That sounds like a fascinating and disturbing book. It is truly sad that these people live this way. First, those vv. are additions to the Gospel of Mark but even if we conceded their canonical status those vv. don’t demand intentional snake handling, but likely were influenced by stories like that of the Apostle Paul at Malta. I guess all we can do is pray for them and be careful not to let the Holy Scriptures–which were given to us to point us to God–become something that keeps us from know the God of Scripture.
I wonder if what you wrote about “a very graceless God who has a standard for reaching him that is very nearly impossible to obtain” applies more widely to Oneness Pentecostals. It certainly applies to one such non-snake-handling group which I recently had some blog interaction with. See their blog Pentecostal Blogger, and specifically this post requiring “full length pants on men”, as an article of faith!
Unfortunately, our family has had an interaction with a non-snake-handling Oneness Pentecostal group. Our child raised under teachings of God’s grace was, for lack of a better expression, hijacked by one such group while away at college during the first semester…*: ( While first semester college student away from home and friends often fall pray to many non-christian forces, these types of groups can be almost predatory. While I won’t call them out as non-christian, their legalisms cause quite a bit of damage to the young and vulnerable. I prayed for protection from drugs and alcoholic immaturity and the obvious cult exposures, but I never considered covering this type of predatory danger! When you suddenly find yourself in the midst of a battle…then you realize why understanding the differences in fundamental doctrines is so important…
@Peter: I came from Oneness Pentecostalism and yes, there surely is a culture of gracelessness that pervades most of their churches. Now some Oneness Pentecostals have challenged this by telling me about there particular church or their local fellowship of churches, but I was around it from the ages of five until my early twenties, and I have family that is still connected to it, so I am well aware that while there may be exceptions the general rule of thumb is that they are a very legalistic group.
@Nancy: I am sorry to hear about your experience. If your son ever needs someone to talk to about this group feel free to send them my way. I am sure that Josh Smith (who wrote this blog post) or our other fellow blogger JohnDave Medina would be willing to dialogue with him as well.
@Peter: I certainly agree that most oneness Pentecostalism seems this way (from personal experience). I wonder where it comes from?
@Nancy: I’m very sorry to hear this. It can be very disheartening to watch someone you are close to get pulled into heresy. I would be very happy to converse with him if he would let me. Brian and John Dave would have a lot to offer as well. I will pray for you an toe family.
Well, Joshua, I could argue that a proper understanding of grace depends on a proper understanding of the Trinity. But then many nominally Trinitarian Pentecostals are rather legalistic as well.
Great book review! Fred Brown (I believe it is he) is a solid historian on Pentecostalism. Interestingly, many of the snake-handlers in that area are Oneness people. Daniel Segraves had mentioned this in a lecture once.
Yes, I would love to be of help for anyone who is trying to recover from Oneness Pentecostalism.
Brian, there are various Oneness groups that take their legalism to new heights when it comes to baptismal formula and view the “mainstream” Oneness baptism of ‘in Jesus name” to be insufficient.
Here is one such group that is very vocal about baptism “in the name of Jesus Christ” – the FIRST CHURCH OF OUR LORD JESUS, INC and the incomparable, Gino Jennings. Here Jennings rails on the UPCI, PAW, and others for their limited baptism (a must see video for its hilarity) :
The common thread among these sects is their use of faulty hermeneutic and proof texting leads to an exclusivist view that seeks to have a corner on God.
Thank God we are saved by grace through faith!
@ Peter: In the attempt to fairly convey their beliefs …. Knowing the “Pentecostal Blogger” through many years of online interaction, I can tell you that Ryan is linked with the UPCI and only expressed his own personal standard on “full length pants”. Albeit, a large majority in the UPCI would concur with Ryan.
As a UPCI minister, he must affirm their Fundamental Doctrine and Holiness article. The latter article only speaks to dressing immodestly and does not specifically address pants vs. shorts.
See: http://www.spiritualabuse.org/issues/affirmation.html for their affirmation statement
See their articles of faith here: http://www.spiritualabuse.org/issues/affirmation.html
Some UPCI churches look the other way when their young men wear “modest” shorts (usually knee length). There is debate within their ranks about whether their Public School Activities article addresses all shorts when it speaks out against their children being obligated toe wear “gymnasium clothing which immodestly exposes the body” in mixed company.
iam a oneness Pentecostal and a former baptist.I also know many serpent handlers oneness pentecostals.the bibe says not many wise and noble are called,but he has called the foolish things of this world to confound the wise.Iin many peoples eyes the pentecostals are foolish the serpents handlers are foolish.I read youre post and youall have set youre selfes above these people as being being wiser in the scriptures,wiswer in culture and noble in youre own eyes.i would be careful who you call mis guided and thumb youre nose downon and csay there is needless suffering,Needless suffering is not knowing jesus christ and diesing with out him.Peace be unto all.Bro.Steve Sparks
@Stephen: Please do not connect Paul’s words regarding the foolishness of the cross with absurd cult-like behavior associated with playing with snakes. You demean Paul, his words, Scripture, and the cross by equating these two.
iam a oneness Pentecostal and a former baptist.I also know many serpent handlers oneness pentecostals.the bibe says not many wise and noble are called,but he has called the foolish things of this world to confound the wise.Iin many peoples eyes the pentecostals are foolish the serpents handlers are foolish.I read youre post and youall have set youre selfes above these people as being being wiser in the scriptures,wiser in culture and noble in youre own eyes.i would be careful who you call mis guided and thumb youre nose down on and say there is needless suffering,Needless suffering is not knowing jesus christ and diesing with out him.Peace be unto all.Bro.Steve Sparks
@Dan. . . Hi! Long time no hear! LOL! You still blogging on your “magical hair blog”?
@Others. . . Well, glad I could make such an impression with my little list of things I consider important. BTW, that was meant to be a list of some of the items I believe to be important, and not a doctrinal treatise on what you need to do to be saved.
@Peter . . . Thanks for the links to my blog! Appreciate it!
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