Anyone been to a snake-handling/drink poison church service?

This weekend I read a few books about “Holiness/Following the Signs” churches of Appalachia – really excellent reads and respectful of the congregants and their beliefs.

Has anyone been to a snake-handling/strychnine/speaking in tongues church service? I’m really interested in what the experience was like. I have a friend who attended a Pentecostal church for a while and tried speaking in tongues a few times, but it wasn’t a snake-y church.

Never snake handling or poison. I have attended services where people spoke in tongues.

Those leading the worship were careful not to allow the various manifestations to interfere with the worship of people like me, who don’t seek tongues or things of that nature.

Not my thing. My understanding of things like snake-handling is shaped more by Matthew 4:7, and of tongues 1 Corinthians 14.



Yes, several times with an anthropologist who was studying them. Not quite certain what her rationale for wanting me to accompany her was, but she was a good friend, so I went. It’s a different sort of religious experience than generally seen among white, Northern European Christians. It reminded me of some of the rituals I have seen with Caribbean religious groups with syncretic beliefs that are a blend of indigenous, African, and European religion.

In college I went home for a weekend with a friend, and she mentioned that we might have to go to her church. It was–I don’t remember the actual name, something like Church of God of something, don’t remember the word Pentecostal in it. It was a rockin- and rollin- and emotional kind of service, people prayed out loud, they danced. I was thinking this might be my kind of church.

And then they brought the snakes out. They were in white boxes and a bunch of the elders went up to the front to handle them, which I guess anybody was free to do but I didn’t see any ladies doing it. There was some twaddle about why they did it (Snakes are Satan, we are showing what we think of temptation and that we have the faith to surmount it) but by this point my mind was on something like “Get me out of here.”

I asked my friend if anybody ever got bit. She said, “All the time, it’s a rite of passage.”

An old school Christian comedian/singer named Wendy Bagwell used to tell a story about when his band was asked to sing at a Pentecostal church way out in the middle of nowhere. He tells of how everything was going well right up until ‘and then they brought the snakes out’. He looked over to his drummer and asked “Hey, Brother Bill, reckon where the back door to this place is?” The drummer answered “Brother Wendy, I don’t believe they have one.” Wendy said he took his eyes off those snakes just long enough to look back at his drummer and ask “Well, where do you recon they want one?”

I live near such a church in Kentucky but my Roman Catholic parents wouldn’t allow me to go anywhere near that place.

Are the snakes they bring out in places like that actually venomous? Or are they just like harmless pets, like kingsnakes?

They are venomous, and practitioners have died from the bites. Wiki gives an uncited figure of 71 deaths since 1922. More recent cases can be easily confirmed.

Actually, since snake handling is illegal, how do they get away with it? (At least, I think it’s illegal in most areas)

The “X-Files” episode was enough to tell me I’m not having any of it. But for those who are, carry on.

Mark 16:18
“they will pick up snakes with their hands; and when they drink deadly poison, it will not hurt them at all;…”

I was once invited by some friends to come with to their church. Turned out to be somewhat like this. First thing I noticed was when we entered, the family split up, the mother & girls went to one side, and the husband & boys sat on the other side. Then the sermon – hardly any of it about living a good life or anything like that, mostly denunciations of liberals, hippies, race-mixers, catholics, and pretty much any other religion except them. No actual snake handling at that service. But there was the ‘speaking in tongues’ part by a bunch of people in the church. On the way home, they told me this was the divinely inspired speaking in syllables not from any human language, but a heavenly language that even the speaker didn’t know. I kept quiet about one of the speakers in a neighboring pew – I had recognized his ‘speaking in tongues’ dredged up from my memory from years ago – he was reciting a declension of verbs in Latin. I didn’t think they would appreciate me commenting on this.

Possession of venomous snakes without the proper license is illegal in most states, but in areas where religious snake handling is practiced the local authorities mostly turn a blind eye. Occasionally one will run across a story of a preacher arrested for snake possession, but it’s pretty rare.

An even later addition to the Gospel of Mark loosely translates as:

Then the Lord didst spake unto them, saying “Geez, don’t be idiots!”

Many years ago, I saw an amateur “Art” movie (filmed perhaps in 1950 or 1960, in black and white) of a visit to a rural Appalachian church of snake handlers. The movie said that the snakes were copperheads, and the church folk collected them from the adjacent woods.

According to this site:
copperheads are common in Applachia and eastern USA, and their bites are painful, but rarely fatal.

I especially like the author’s advice: ( in case you need a tip on how to have a nice day today)


These are all interesting posts, thanks!

I finished the second book on snake-handling churches – it was more about doctrinaire than the first read. The whole “Signs following” orientation is really intriguing.

However, there was a glaring omission from both: what about the snakes? Both books mention in passing that snakes captured for handling tend to live just a few months and aren’t cared for very well (appropriate food, etc) – the handling in and of itself must be terrifying for the reptiles and surely affects their mortality? I’d like to have had this covered. The fines levied for unauthorized snake possession are in the $50 - 100 range; not much of a deterrent.

I was raised as a Mormon and our services were beyond staid and boring. This is one of the reasons I’m fascinated with charismatic religions, though I’m pretty sure I couldn’t participate (I think I would be too embarrassed to dance and speak in tongues – oh, plus I’m an atheist :slight_smile: )

According to my reading this week: yes, venomous copperheads, water moccasins, eastern, western, and canebrake rattles are all used. The authors claimed that the snakes aren’t “milked” or de-fanged prior to services (but many of the survivable bites are dry strikes – the snake bites but doesn’t pump venom).

It seems most deaths are attributable to rattlesnakes, though handlers tend to claim that a copperhead bite is more painful.

There was one church that has handled cobras, mambas, and freakin’ GABOON VIPERS! :eek:

Yeah, I went once.

This happened in the late 1970s when I was a much younger man, albeit already depraved…and years later I wrote this poem about it, which got read at some performance poetry open mikes and published two or three times…instead of rewriting the piece for the Dope, I’ll just lay the poem itself on you.

$60 or a box of rattlesnakes

skinny rich got religion 2 or 3 times a year
between salvations he dealt pills
one day during the hottest august on record
he came by and told me “all debts are forgiven
to whomever would open his heart to the Word”
“you mean like that $60 i owe you?” i asked
“yes, that’s part of the life i’m leavin behind and
besides, you’re my friend and i want to do you right”
that evening i went with him
to a church he’d found he said “these folks
practice the Word for real”
it was just over the virginia line
up a curvy blacktop sideroad gummy with
august wednesday evening heat that shivered the air
ahead of rich’s bad-luck chevrolet
this looked like no church i’d ever been in
a long low brightwashed boardsided shack
a gravel parkin lot full of rustbuckets and pick em up trucks
and a plywood sign out front that said
“atkins run mark 16:18 church of the holy ghost”
in red barn paint
inside, it was a sweatbox full of locals of the sort
who worked the cafeteria and buildin maintainence at the college
men in $80 kmart suits or pressed fresh work clothes
women dressed not to be looked long on and a handful of kids scrubbed
pink and quiet
half of them seemed to know rich
they all wanted to shake our hands
we were wearin’ our hipster townclothes but nobody seemed to notice
there was a lot of “bless you boys” and “welcome, brother, jesus loves you”
big toothgone smiles hard coalshovel palms
rich was blessin and thankin right back at ‘em
if i hadn’t seen what he did last week
i’d have believed he was one too
no pews and pulpit in there and no piano
just four or five dozen foldup chairs
a mikestand up front and a big plywood box on a card table
when services commenced the pills i’d taken before rich picked me up
were startin to move we sat in the back near the door
2 scruffy longhairs in rock n roll t-shirts the preacher tall bony
with a face from one of those wpa photographs from the great depression
turned on the mic and the hot still air in the chickenhouse church went
they sang the same hymns i knew from a thousand sunday mornings
but meanin every word
no music only their coal and sawdust throats
rich looked convinced when the prayin started somebody hollered “yes,
jesus!” and sounded
so much like my aunt alma i blushed
my family were mostly baptist and shoutin methodist so i’d gotten used to
but it’d been years ago
they started gettin the gift of tongues hammerin the walls with
sanctified human zoo noises i squirmed we had second and third
cousins back up in the hollers who didthat every week
but we weren t that kind of people
the preacher opened the hinged top on the box and then
i realized where exactly we were
this was a signs followin church
signs followers are christians who take mark 16:18 to heart
one of the gifts of the holy ghost is that believers
will take up deadly serpents
the preacher thrust his arms in that box and pulled out
a tail-buzzin copper-headed tongue flickin double handful of poison teeth
and cold shiny eyes
a little gray woman and a big truckdriver lookin bald hillbilly came forth
reachin out to the pastor and his bouquet of vipers granny got the
she held it up and screeched “oh, mah precious jesus!”
“jesus christ!” i wailed myself then turned to skinny rich
he was rockin in his chair
eyes glassier than when he was stoned cryin a little and mutterin’
“oh forgive me, please god, oh i m so sorry save me save me”
“hey rich lets go” i whispered then i yelled “fuck it man! it’s just 60
i ll have it tomorrow!” nobody heard or saw that i
was already out the door and runnin
all the way to the highway i hitched home in an hour
rich came for his money the next day and started bitchin
he said that i d embarassed him in front of his new friends
they were sincere spiritual people and did i want
any beauts or ludes he’d give me a good rate
they d be here tomorrow

I’ve heard great things about this book on religious snake-handling and those who practice it, but haven’t read it:

Salvation on Sand Mountain was the first thing I thought of when I read the OP. Some of the events in the book took place near where I grew up in Alabama.
I heard about churches with snake-handling and “speaking in tongues” when I was young but I never experienced it. I grew up in Church of Christ which was very conservative. We weren’t even allowed to have instrumental music during church services.
Dennis Covington wrote the book after covering the trial of Glenn Summerford in Scottsboro, AL. Summerford was a minister who tried to kill his wife with rattlesnakes in 1991.
I’ve met Covington a couple of times when he appeared on a Public Television program I worked on. He’s an interesting guy and an accomplished author.

Review of the book:

Interviews with Dennis Covington: