Years ago, I went twice to the snake-handling Church of the Lord Jesus Christ in Kingston, Georgia—about twenty miles from where I live. It wasn’t my unbounded personal curiosity that led me to that church the first time. I went with a group of Christian sociologists who were meeting at Berry College, where I teach. I had given them their keynote address, and so it seemed rude not to see their party through to its conclusion.
The first thing that impressed me about the snake-handling church was the complete absence of the written word. There were no words—including Bibles—anywhere inside. Can men and women who believe in every word of the Bible really put so little emphasis on reading it? They can, because they’re so familiar, in their own minds and hearts, with all the key words of it.
Anyone could preach, and many did. The service (if that’s the right name) went on for over four hours, until all the preaching was done. The preachers were mainly mature men who had had tough lives—often truck drivers, sometimes time in prison, and so forth. Their preaching was wonderfully emotional and full of Biblical references and hopeful confidence. There was a very old woman called “the prophetess” with spectacularly long grey hair who preached with the best of them.
The service was so long that just about everyone took a break from time to time, went out to the parking lot with the pick-ups, had something to eat and (non-alcoholic) to drink.
There wasn’t exactly any speaking in tongues, but there were times when everyone said his or her personal prayer simultaneously (and very loudly). More Holiness than Pentecostal in the precise sense? I’m no expert.
There was frenetic rockabilly music that had, among other things, the effect of stunning the snakes while rousing the believers almost into a trance.
There were some words on safe snake handling. We were told it’s only for the experienced and only those genuinely called should do it. That was an important warning, because there were a significant number of sociologists present, and nobody would benefit if one of them went rogue.
Snaking handling isn’t meant to be safe for those who do it. There were men there who had been bitten repeatedly—one thirty-one times. The danger of dying is greatest the first time, because you quickly build up immunity. Those called also drank poison without any ill effects; I’m not sure how that works.
Snake-handling is nothing if not a real test in trusting every word of the Bible. So you don’t get medical treatment if you’re bitten.
The snakes were large and beautiful rattlers brought in from West Virginia. They don’t eat in captivity, and so the supply has to be regularly replenished.
There were almost no kids. Young people aren’t going into snake handling these days, I guess.
In addition to the importance of faith for salvation, the part of Christianity most on display is the equality of all creatures under God, the indifference to worldly distinctions or status. That’s the same part we see, of course, in Robert Duvall’s Holiness movie The Apostle. I agree with Gabriel Rossman that the insistence on equality in the most important respect is especially stubborn and lived, at least at church. Jesus is capable of turning all of our lives around, and there’s no person so lost or low that he or she can’t be reached by “Holy Ghost power.”
The Apostle, from one view, is high church by comparison. The preacher carries a Bible, and the hymns are mainstream Protestant. But the The Apostle is more “inclusive”—the congregation there is both black and white, fat and fatter, and even more obviously deprived. To be fair, there are virtually no black people in the poor Appalachian region inhabited by the snake handlers. And they are sometimes the poorest of the poor—and always the marginalized.
There’s all kinds of negative stuff I could say about the inadequacy—and aching vulnerability—of the belief of the snake handler. But why bother? None of my readers are going to be tempted in their direction.
America, some complain, is the land of heretics, and so it is. We have more Christian heresies on display than any other country, and some of them are found almost only in America. Heresies aren’t all bad, because they put in neon letters a feature about who we are that we might otherwise neglect or forget.
When I teach constitutional law, I treat snake-handling as a gray area when it comes to religious liberty under our Constitution. The limit to that liberty is the rights of others, beginning with the right to self-preservation. The faith of the snake handler encourages behavior which is needlessly personally destructive and so a crazy violation of the law of nature according to our founding philosopher John Locke. A church with roused up men handling snakes could hardly be called a safe space. But handling is, after all, voluntarily chosen and (at least almost always) hurts no one but the handler himself. So some states are permissive—and others repressive—when it comes to snaking handling as a religious practice.
I’m not sure what we can learn about snaking handling that can illuminate our present controversies over religious liberty. Well, maybe that’s the point. Our historical answer has been to be reluctant to apply high principle to tough cases, but to err on the side of accommodating the practice of good people whose lives are completed by faith. The Yoder decision that exempted the Amish from valid secular policy concerning compulsory education neglected principle on behalf of prudence. What’s the harm? And, of course, there’s plenty of good in giving the Amish the space they need to live their faith as they understand it. The Amish are in many ways our models of responsible, self-reliant American life.
The snake handlers could never win a similar victory in our courts. They’re much less fashionable. Who’s less fashionable, in fact? But can’t we say that the snake-handling churches do more good than harm for particular persons? Lives really are transformed in the direction of responsible citizenship by genuine faith. It’s easier, in some ways, to side with the snake handlers than the Amish. After all, they seem to require nothing of their believers in or outside of church but faith, and they do nothing that affects the rights of those who don’t share their belief. For me, our great history of religious accommodation means erring on the side of our singular diversity of churches as organized bodies of thought and action. So my state of Georgia is correct in letting the church be, without making a big deal out of it.
In thinking about the snake handlers, we have to remember that, for our sophisticates today, they aren’t any stranger or more deluded than those poor women wasting their lives as Little Sisters of the Poor. Maybe in the most important respect, our country’s dominant tendency is to be less accepting of real diversity than ever.
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