Snake Handling

Young Snake Handlers Grasp the Power of Faith

Snake handling image via Arie v.d. Wolde/ Shutterstock
Snake handling image via Arie v.d. Wolde/ Shutterstock

NASHVILLE, Tenn. --- Andrew Hamblin's Facebook page is filled with snippets of his life.

Making a late-night run to Taco Bell. Watching SpongeBob on the couch with his kids. Handling rattlesnakes in church.

Hamblin, 21, pastor of Tabernacle Church of God in LaFollette, Tenn., is part of a new generation of serpent-handling Christians who are revitalizing a century-old faith tradition in Tennessee.

While older serpent handlers were wary of outsiders, these younger believers welcome visitors and use Facebook to promote their often misunderstood — and illegal — version of Christianity. They want to show the beauty and power of their extreme form of spirituality. And they hope eventually to reverse a state ban on handling snakes in church.

Snake Handling Pastor Dies of Snake Bite

Rattlesnake. Image via http://bit.ly/KMHG5x.
Rattlesnake. Image via http://bit.ly/KMHG5x.

Pastor Mack Wolford — an eccentric snake handler and Pentecostal minister — was bitten by a deadly rattle snake at an outdoor service (or “evangelistic hootenanny”) at Panther Wildlife Management Area in West Va. He died shortly after, surrounded by friends and family, which, coincidentally, is the same way his father (also a pastor and snake handler) passed away nearly thirty years ago.

According to The Washington Post, “Wolford [like his father] believed that the Bible mandates that Christians handle serpents to test their faith in God -- and that, if they are bitten, they trust in God alone to heal them.” As the article points out, Wolford comes from a niche tradition in where the gospel words in Mark 16 are taken literally (and somewhat peculiarly), to “take up serpents and if they drink anything deadly, it will by no means hurt them…”

Down From the Mountain

Did you ever get bored in church as a kid? Did you hide comic books or crossword puzzles in your Bible case to combat the boredom of a stale sermon? Well, they don’t have that problem at the church Dennis Covington used to go to.

While writing his book Salvation on Sand Mountain (Viking-Penguin, 1996; see review in March-April 1996), Dennis Covington attended a church where members of the congregation drink strychnine from mason jars and handle poisonous snakes.

In person, Covington does not come across as the sort of guy who would handle lethal objects by choice. But he’s no stranger to danger. Covington made 12 trips to El Salvador as a journalist, often working amid intense crossfire during the war. Now back in his hometown of Birmingham, Alabama, the soft-spoken college instructor and author is one of the most exciting new voices in Southern writing. His prose is lyrical, compassionate, and full of the musicality that defines Southern speech and experience.

Covington is currently busy at work on two new projects. With his wife, Vicki, he is co-writing a book describing their well- drilling trip to Belize this summer. Dennis is also working on a new book for Viking-Penguin.

While on tour promoting Salvation on Sand Mountain (which was a finalist for the National Book Award), Covington took time out from his hectic schedule to speak with us about writing, faith, and worship after snake-handling. Staff members Brett Grainger and Rose Marie Berger interviewed Covington in the back room of a Washington, D.C. bookstore in April. —The Editors

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Sojourners Magazine July-August 1996
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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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