The Common Good
March-April 1996

Losing Yourself By Degrees

by Carol LeMasters | March-April 1996

Salvation, snake handling, and subcultures

Salvation on Sand Mountain is Dennis Covington's passionate account of the two years he spent among Appalachian snake handlers. Driven by a love of danger, a need to find his own roots, and a genuine thirst for authentic religious experience, Covington immersed himself in a Southern pentecostal subculture in which poisonous snakes are handled as a regular part of religious services.

Carefully interweaving the personal and the sociological, Covington writes as outsider and insider, detached journalist and involved participant. Part psychological exploration, part spiritual quest, Salvation on Sand Mountain successfully captures the sensuality, the complexity, and ultimately the madness of ecstatic pentecostal spirituality at its most extreme.

Stringing for The New York Times, Covington arrives in Scottsboro, Alabama, in 1992 to investigate Rev. Glenn Summerford, on trial for attempting to murder his wife with rattlesnakes. Even after Summerford is convicted, Covington continues to take part in snake handling services. For two years he visits churches from Alabama to West Virginia, gradually winning acceptance as "Brother Dennis" and finally taking up serpents himself.

Snake handling is only the most recent in a series of transforming experiences in Covington's life. Attending revivals as a child in a Methodist church in Birmingham, Covington was exposed early to "strange outpourings of the Spirit" which gave him "a tender regard for con artists and voices in the wilderness no matter how odd or suspicious their message might be." In later life, having lost his spiritual bearings and turned to heavy drinking, he abruptly abandons a teaching position and travels to El Salvador, knowing only enough Spanish to declare, "I am a journalist. Please don't shoot me."

In the trenches, Covington discovers two things: a will to live and a need for religious faith. He quits drinking, returns to a successful writing career and full tenure, and begins a spiritual journey that eventually leads him back to the South and to one of its most fringe religious movements.

SINCE GEORGE Went Hensley first took up a serpent near Sale Creek, Tennessee, around 1910, snake handling has been an integral part of spirituality for many Appalachians. The subculture consists of a loose network of pentecostal churches throughout the South and Midwest which are often linked through extended families. More literal than most fundamentalists, snake handlers take seriously Jesus' promise that believers can drink poison and handle serpents unharmed. When moved by the Spirit, they take up snakes; if bitten, they refuse medical help and sometimes die.

The Appalachian pentecostal lifestyle is a simple one, characterized by modest dress and abstention from worldly amusements. But such asceticism is more than compensated for by the sheer magic of the meetings: tongue-speaking, dancing in the Spirit, spontaneous sermons lasting far into the night punctuated by enthusiastic "hallelujahs" and "amens."

Most striking is the music-what Covington describes as "a cross between Salvation Army and acid rock." The result? Unpredictable outpourings of inexhaustible power, wild acts, and miraculous transformation. "It is theater at its most intricate," writes Covington, "improvisational, spiritual jazz. The more you experience it, the more attentive you are to the shifts in the surface and the dark shoals underneath."

Covington tells the often-moving stories of the people who comprise one of the most despised groups in America: poor southern whites, "the only ethnic group in America not permitted to have a history." Yet it is precisely that history with which Covington is obsessed.

Originating with the waves of poor Scotch-Irish who arrived around the middle of the 18th century, they brought with them "their feuds, their language, and their love of music, strong drink, and sexual adventure." After World War II, many came down from the hills looking for jobs only to discover violence, poverty, and the barrenness of a secularized culture alien to their own. When faced with a hostile society, they turned to a religion as marginalized as themselves and began to speak in tongues, anoint one another with oil, and, when led by the Holy Ghost, drink strychnine and take up poisonous snakes.

Why would any sane person risk his life in such a bizarre way? For Covington himself, the meetings constitute a kind of homecoming, as he discovers the manifold connections between his family and the Holiness movement from which snake handling sprang. The drive behind snake handling becomes clear only when Covington takes up serpents himself. In one of his most poetic and powerful passages, Covington writes:

The air was silent and still and filled with that strong, even light. And I realized that I, too, was fading into the white. I was losing myself by degrees, like the incredible shrinking man. The snake would be the last to go, and all I could see was the way its scales shimmered one last time in the light, and the way its head moved from side to side, searching for a way out. I knew then why the handlers took up serpents. There is power in the act of disappearing; there is victory in the loss of self. It must be close to our conception of paradise, what it's like before you're born or after you die.

SALVATION ON SAND Mountain succeeds largely due to Covington's careful balancing of personal involvement with the professional distance of a reporter. Keeping background information to a minimum, Covington focuses on the snake handlers themselves: their stories, their conflicts, their faith. Gradually recognizing the movement's limitations and his own, Covington realizes he is too much a product of his own time and place to remain. He discovers that the real danger of this kind of spirituality is not death but spiritual pride, self-deception, the institutionalization of ecstasy as an end in itself. Yet even in the midst of leaving, he continues to write with honesty, humility, and respect.

In an era when mainstream churches would deem such extreme ascetic and life-risking practices as irrelevant or masochistic, Covington demonstrates our need for the ecstatic and the non-rational. He reminds us that, in what many think of as a secular age, there still exist those for whom religion is a life-and-death issue.

Although Covington's book is a strong and moving account, on at least one disturbing occasion Covington falls prey to the idealization of a new convert. At Sand Mountain, he listens to several in the congregation describe their experiences with exorcisms of evil spirits, rituals involving hours of prayer and violent confrontation, and often focusing on children. One believer, for example, is called upon to exorcise a young girl walking about the house with a knife in her hand and hearing voices.

To an outsider such tales sound absurd. For the children of believers to whom the spirit world is terrifying real, however, exorcisms can prove incalculably damaging. Such stories hint at a sinister side of ecstatic spirituality we are somehow never allowed to see.

Like so many Southern writers, Covington reminds us that madness and religion are but a hairsbreadth apart. For Covington, any religion not willing to risk madness is unworthy of the name. "Feeling after God is dangerous business," observes Covington. "And Christianity without passion, danger, and mystery may not really be Christianity at all."

CAROL LEMASTERS is a graduate student at Ohio State University in Columbus, Ohio, and a former writing teacher at Indiana University.

Salvation on Sand Mountain: Snake Handling and Redemption in Southern Appalachia. By Dennis Covington. Addison-Wesley, 1995.

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