Losing Yourself By Degrees

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."

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Sojourners Magazine March-April 1996
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