While working at the Center for Southern Folklore in Memphis, TN, our work was primarily in the Delta area. But since we had some advanced technology, other folklorists around the country would often send us films or tapes to be edited. I had to work on editing a film once about folks who handled snakes and drank hydrochloric acid in church. It was a 30-minute film, but I had to see it several hundred times in order to fix it (technical term for "make it watchable"). Those images stay in my mind even now, many years later.

When I was a kid, I heard about the Holy Rollers, as my dad called them, but I never really knew what they did that made them seem weird to my family. I know now.

The whole idea behind this snake handling began in the hills of Tennessee back in the early 1900's. A guy named George Hensley had an epiphany concerning Mark 16: 17-18.

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.

One day in church, as the story goes, someone threw a box of deadly rattlesnakes down in front of Hensley. He supposedly picked them up and handled them while never missing a beat in his sermon. Hensley died in 1955 of a snake bite.

These folks are generally in a church known as the Church of God with Signs Following. The practice itself developed out of the Pentecostal-Holiness movement which flourished in the first two decades of the twentieth century. By 1914 it had spread throughout the Church of God; however, the actual act of snake handling was only practiced by a small portion of the members. By 1928, snake handling became the activity of only a few independent churches in the Appalachian Mountains where it stayed until its revival in the 1940's. An exact number is unknown due to the autonomy of each individual group, but estimates range between 1,000 and 2,000 total church members, including those who do not actually handle snakes.

Snake handlers can be found as far south as central Florida as far west as Columbus, Ohio and as far north as West Virginia. The film I edited came from West Virginia, and the scary part was really watching them drink hydrochloric acid. I'm not sure how watered down it was, but they sure had a funny look on their faces as it hit 'em.

The practice of snake-handling is a relatively new concept from southern Appalachia. Its base lies in Mark 16:18 "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." It teaches a showing of faith in Jesus Christ rather than a statement of faith. The earliest churches I have found record of were in Tennessee and Alabama around 1920. They began the practice of picking up snakes, most often poisonous (using a non-poisonous snake sort of defeats the whole purpose) and parading around the church with them as a sign of faith. Their belief in God ultimately keeps them safe from the venom of the snake, though not the bite. Even so, snake bites are a rare occurrence during their ceremonies, probably due to several reasons. Snakes raised by the parishioners from hatching are likely to adjust to being picked up quickly, and over time may come to enjoy it. This can be used to its full advantage to impress newcomers to the church when a poisonous snake seems to be lunging after a faithful member, in reality only wanting to be held. Their loosely organized churches have highly fluctuating memberships and consist of little more than chanting pslams, and singing old folk hymns. Of most of the southern Christian sects, the snake-handlers seem the least involved with the bible itself. Though most of their words of praise and indeed, their faith and sect come from the bible, they do not tote it around, as others might, preferring instead, to let their actions speak their faith.

Several of the churches while trying to stay relatively low key within their area, have attracted the attention of media nationwide for their "bizarre" manner of worship. The most widespread media attention came in 1991, in Scottsboro, Alabama when the pastor of The Church of Jesus Christ with Signs Following, the Reverend Glen Summerford attempted to use his poisonous snakes to murder his wife. The case garnered national attention from two TV news magazines: ABC's 20/20 and A&E's City Confidential.

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