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Win Bassett: These Signs Shall Follow Them

March 13, 2014

The Signs Followers of southern Appalachia prefer not to be called “snake-handlers,” but “serpent-handlers,” due to the King James Version of the Bible’s use of the term.

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Image from Flickr via Vasnic64

By Win Bassett

“Chambliss lettered the words ‘Mark 16:17-18’ in black paint, and that was just about all he felt led to preach on too,” Wiley Cash writes about Carson Chambliss, a preacher at the fictional River Road Church of Christ in Signs Following outside Asheville, NC. Cash continues his narration on Chambliss in the beginning of his New York Times bestselling novel A Land More Kind Than Home:

I’d seen people I’d known just about my whole life pick up snakes and drink poison, hold fire up to their faces just to see if it would burn them. Holy people too. God-fearing folks that hadn’t ever acted like that a day in their lives. But Chambliss convinced them it was safe to challenge the will of God. He made them think it was all right to take that dare if they believed.

Cash tells me that he learned about serpent-handling worship services in an undergraduate class on Appalachian history at the University of North Carolina-Asheville, and he used the introduction to this faith tradition to develop Chambliss’s character. “I didn’t see it as something exotic or strange,” Cash says. “I just saw it as something that was realistic to the place, its people, and their traditions.”

The popular portrayal, casting Signs Followers as poor, backwoods people that throw around snakes and speak gibberish, is effective in getting television viewers and page visits, but it perhaps misses the complexity of Signs Followers’ culture.

A pastor that picks up snakes and drinks poison might not sound convincing to many of Cash’s readers, but some will recognize the familiar beliefs and practices that live not only in the depths of Appalachian lore. One need only to explore the more than one hundred Signs Following congregations that exist today in Alabama, Georgia, Kentucky, North Carolina, Tennessee, West Virginia, and Ohio. The number of churches remains difficult to estimate, says Shannon Bell, Assistant Professor of Sociology at the University of Kentucky, because handling poisonous snakes in this setting is illegal in all of these states except for West Virginia. For example, Tennessee makes it against the law “for a person to display, exhibit, handle, or use a poisonous or dangerous snake or reptile in such manner as to endanger the life or health of any person.” Kentucky’s statute fines a person who “uses any kind of reptile in connection with any religious service or gathering.” “That’s not to say that there aren’t serpent-handling churches in other states,” Bell says. “In Jolo, West Virginia, serpent-handlers come from other states to the church’s annual homecoming every Labor Day weekend.”

“Signs Following” churches, though all independent, typically fall into one of two camps: “The Church of God with Signs Following” congregations believe in the Trinity, or that God exists as three persons (Father, Son, and Holy Spirit); “The Church of Lord Jesus with Signs Following” congregations, like the one in Jolo, believe that God was revealed as Jesus, and baptism is in Jesus’s name only. Both types of churches fit within the Pentecostal movement, which developed in the early 1900s from the broader Holiness movement that emphasizes a “second work of grace” experience that allows adherents to have lives free of voluntary sin. Depending on the congregation, the manifestation of a second baptism can take many forms including another baptism that involves water or a ceremonial blessing. Pentecostalism takes one more step after this second cleansing, or “spirit baptism”—its followers exercise and emphasize spiritual gifts, such as speaking in tongues and faith healing, in their worship services.

Signs Followers, whose tradition stems from the serpent-handling practices of George Went Hensley in early twentieth-century Appalachia, take these beliefs another step further. Like Wiley’s Chambliss, the churches’ congregants interpret all of the other words in Mark 16:17-18 not only literally but as mandates to prove their faith in the Christian God. Signs Followers read only the King James Version of the Bible, whose corresponding verses from Mark state,

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.

That Signs Followers hold on to these words sincerely is an understatement. They prefer not to be called “snake-handlers” but “serpent-handlers” due to the King James Version’s use of the term. Noticeably absent from the label that the media often imputes for Signs Followers is that their worship services frequently include drinking poison—most often strychnine, a pesticide used to kill small rodents that can cause muscular convulsions that lead to asphyxiation in humans.

In some ways, the family traditions that have been passed from generation to generation in these hollows are their belief systems.

The popular portrayal, which often casts Signs Followers as poor, backwoods people from the 1972 film Deliverance that throw around snakes and speak gibberish, is effective in getting television viewers and page visits, but it perhaps misses the complexity of Signs Followers’ culture. One missing piece of information, says Bell, “is that all of the church members aren’t poor.” Of her trip to Jolo, she says, “There were some folks who had moved elsewhere who came back for the homecoming. One of the daughters was a nurse. Others were coal miners… The money that you earn as a coal miner today has greatly increased.” In other words, Signs Followers don’t always fit into the poor and uneducated stereotype.

A particularly important influence on these practices and beliefs, says Bell, is “the ruralness of it and the fact that these people have lived in the same areas for many generations.” In contrast to the transitory nature of some urban populations, these rural dwellers tend to stay put, in part, “for the connections in the hollows where they grew up.” In some ways, the family traditions that have been passed from generation to generation in these hollows are their belief systems.

These traditions have sometimes taken practitioners away from the flock perhaps sooner than they had imagined. The most recent death attributed to a serpent-handling worship service occurred in February when Jamie Coots, pastor of Full Gospel Tabernacle in Jesus Name in Middlesboro, Kentucky, died after a rattlesnake bit his right hand. Counting backward from Coots’s son, four generations of his family have considered themselves serpent-handling preachers.

Signs Followers remain ever present for the possibility of death from their worship services, and this vigilance doesn’t mean they’re never afraid.

Ralph Hood and William Williamson, in their comprehensive book Them that Believe: The Power and Meaning of the Christian Serpent-handling Tradition, state that from 1921 to 2006, ninety deaths have been associated with serpent-handling worship services in the United States. They write, “A final reasonable estimate is that an average of one person per year dies from handling serpents in religious settings.” According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about five people per year in total die from venomous snake bites. “The number of deaths would be much higher if people did not seek medical care,” the Center states. Reports state that Coots refused medical treatment, another practice among some Signs Followers because reliance on medicine shows a lack of faith in the power of God to heal.

Signs Followers remain ever present for the possibility of death from their worship services, and this vigilance doesn’t mean they’re never afraid. Hood and Williamson interviewed one parishioner on this fear who said, “[W]hen you’re looking at that thing, you’re looking at your life because it can bite you, and if God don’t intervene, you’re gone. I mean it can take you out, and it don’t take a day or two, it can take you out the very minute it bites you.” But they bank on God superseding. That new generations of Signs Followers develop in their hollows proves to them that God continues to interfere while they prove to God that they still believe by taking up serpents and drinking any deadly thing.

Win Bassett’s essays have appeared in The Atlantic, The Paris Review, The Los Angeles Review of Books, and Guernica. His stories and poems have been published or are forthcoming in Pank, Image, Ruminate, and Trop. He’s a former assistant district attorney and serves on the PEN Prison Writing Program Fiction Committee. He’s from southwestern Virginia and studies at Yale Divinity School. Follow him on Twitter: @winbassett.

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