Earlier this summer, our local library advertised that authors Fred Brown and Jeanne McDonald would be speaking about their book, The Serpent Handlers. I wasn't able to go to the seminar, but I did find several copies of the book at the library the next week. I have a weird fascination with religious fringe groups, like the fundamentalist LDS movement as described in John Krakauer's Under the Banner of Heaven.
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.
Brown and McDonald introduce three serpent-handling families: the Brown family very near us in Parrottsville, TN; the Coots family of Kentucky; and the Elkins family of West Virginia. All three families have long histories of being involved in "taking up serpents"; all three have suffered several deaths in their families and congregations from snake bites.
The authors handle the lives of the snake-handlers gracefully and graciously. While it would be easy to mock the handlers for making Mark 16 a literal and vital part of their faith, Brown and McDonald recount their beliefs without bias and then allow the individuals themselves to tell their own stories. It's up to the reader to come to his or her own conclusions about this faith tradition.
Living in East Tennessee, I've long been aware of that snake-handling is not a thing of the past, but I didn't know much about it. (I've been told that there is at least one church just 10 minutes away, but the churches don't exactly advertise widely.) It's easy to smirk at what seems like such bunk, but after reading the testimonies of the handlers in this book, I do have a much greater understanding of these believers also known as Signs Followers. (Other signs are followed are handling fire, healing, drinking strychnine and other poisions, and casting out demons. Not all members follow all the signs.) I think what was made especially clear is that the signs are not the primary focus of the church members, but rather an element of worship. Also emphasized is that snake-handling and other signs-followings are not attempts to prove faith but are done to confirm the Word of God.
But honestly, while I do have more of an understanding, I still find it all bizarre and, frankly, taken out of context.
Interestingly, two articles in our local newspaper in the past few months reference snake-handling. This one most recently reports that Gregory Coots, one of the handlers featured in this book, was arrested by wildlife officers in a crackdown of the venomous snake trade. And this article details how the curator of the herpetology department at the Knoxville Zoo went out in the fields to collect snakes with a local snake-handling preacher.
If you're curious about life in Appalachia or in religious traditions, I'd highly recommend this book. The writing is excellent and purely unbiased and the personal narratives are fascinating.