If you enjoy the National Geographic channel (or are a nerd like me and seek out shows about religion) you may have heard about Jamie Coots and Andrew Hamblin, two Appalachian preachers leading snake handling churches in the mountains. Snake Salvation, a new series following these men and their families, gives American television viewers an insider’s look into the unknown world of the Signs Following congregations nestled in the mountains. If you’ve ever watched Snake Salvation, you know what the men go snake hunting in the brushes and forests, sometimes traveling as far as Texas and Louisiana to find those copperheads and rattlers; and you know that when the spirit calls for you to pick up a snake, the Lord will protect you from harm.
Yet even with the many scenes of successful snake handling in church, there are also times of peril. In one episode, Greg Coots – Jamie Coots’ father and church patriarch – gets bitten in the middle of a service. The 60-something year old man has vowed not to seek medical attention for a snake bite, and we wonder throughout the episode whether Greg will recover or if this will be the end. While he does get better, and handles in church again, it highlights the key criticism leveled at this religious practice – people get hurt.
I’m going to get back to the danger of religious rituals in a minute, but first a quick overview of the theology behind snake handling. The two churches highlighted in Snake Salvation are the average snake handling church: small, Pentecostal holiness churches tucked away in the rolling hills of the Appalachian Mountains.
The congregations are also referred to as Signs Following, as they take literally Mark 16:15-18 (Note: Not all Pentecostal churches are Signs Following. There are many Pentecostal congregations who condemn snake handling). No one really knows how many active handling congregations there are; in most states, snake handling in church is a crime and the pastors of snake handling churches are extremely careful with outsiders.
Snake handling comes from Mark 16:15-18, which reads:
15 He said to them, “Go into all the world and preach the gospel to all creation.16 Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned.17 And these signs will accompany those who believe: In my name they will drive out demons;they will speak in new tongues;18 they will pick up snakes with their hands; and when they drink deadly poison, it will not hurt them at all; they will place their hands on sick people, and they will get well.”
This passage is at the core of these holiness churches, and the signs are considered evidence of God’s favor and the believer’s righteousness. Driving out demons, speaking in tongues, snake handling, drinking poison, and healing. These are the signs of the Lord.
Snake handling is an extreme test and act of faith. To believe that God will protect you if you handle in His name is pretty incredible. However many people condemn religious snake handlers, pointing to the deaths that have occurred due to snake bites. Just last year, Pastor Randall Mack Wolford died due to a snake bite in church. Many church members across the region have been bit, seeking medical attention. When these bites happen, the media latches onto the snake handling congregation and the press is almost all negative. People are outraged that this ritual continues to be practiced, asking why these crazy Christians don’t see how dangerous it is and why the law isn’t doing more to stop it. And y’all, I am totally on board with this train of thought. Snake handling is a dangerous religious ritual. But in the United States, where we praise our freedom of religion, should we be looking over the shoulder of every holiness church in Appalachia? As I pointed out earlier, not every Pentecostal holiness church is a Signs Following congregation. Should someone go out to every known Pentecostal church and check for snake handling, simply because some take up serpents? There are religious traditions that believe in no or limited Western medicine – do we need to follow every Christian Scientist or Amish family in case they get sick and refuse medical care? That’s like saying we should keep tabs on every Catholic priest in case one performs an exorcism that ends in injury or death. It’s an impossible, and absurd, task.
I don’t want to argue for or against snake handling as a ritual of faith (or for avoiding Western medicine, or for exorcisms). I simply want to take this conversation in a different direction. When you back up and look at the larger discussion of dangerous religious rituals and freedom of religion, I think it makes things a little more complicated. Just because some think your ritual is dangerous, should that negate your freedom to practice whatever religion you want?
I’d love to hear your thoughts on this one. How far is too far? When is freedom of religion revoked? Would you ever handle a snake for God?