“Mack was one of the hopes for a revival of the tradition,” said Ralph Hood, a University of Tennessee professor who’s written two books on snake handlers and is probably the foremost academic expert on their culture. “However, I am sure others will emerge, as well.”Indeed, others are emerging, including a growing group of 20-somethings clustered around churches in La Follette, Tennessee, and Middlesboro, Kentucky. Their individual Facebook pages show photos of poisonous snakes and “serpent handling” appears on their “activities and interests” lists.Pentecostal serpent handlers – they use « serpent » over « snake » out of deference to the Bible – are known for collecting dozens of snakes expressly for church services.
At church, they’re also known to ingest a mixture of strychnine – a highly toxic powder often used as a pesticide – and water, often from a Mason jar. These same believers will bring Coke bottles with oil-soaked wicks to the church so they can hold flames to their skin.Key to understanding this culture are a pair of verses from the Gospel of Mark in the New Testament: “And these signs will follow those who believe: in My name they will cast out demons; they will speak with new tongues; they will take up serpents; and if they drink anything deadly, it will by no means hurt them; they will lay their hands on the sick, and they will recover.”Mainstream Christians – Pentecostals included – do not believe Mark 16:17-18 means that Christians should seek out poisonous snakes or ingest poisonous substances.
But experts say that several thousand people – exact numbers are hard to come by – in six Appalachian states read the verse differently. Known as “signs following” Pentecostals, they see a world at war with evil powers and believe it’s a Christian’s duty to take on the devil by engaging in the “signs.”Thus, a typical service in one of their churches will also include prayers for healing and speaking in tongues.But it’s the seeming ability to handle poisonous snakes without dying from their bites that makes these Pentecostals believe that God gives supernatural abilities to those willing to lay their lives on the line. If they are bitten, they refuse to seek antivenin medication, believing it’s up to God to heal them.At the Church of the Lord Jesus in Jolo, West Virginia – one of the country’s most famous “signs following” churches – a group of worship leaders passed around a rattlesnake at a service last year on Labor Day weekend. The snake twisted as it was passed from man to man.The women clapped, and one tried handling the serpent but quickly gave it back to a man. The pastor, Harvey Payne – who has never been bitten by a serpent – posed for the cameras, the reptile twisting and curling.