American Evangelicalism is best know these days for its brash political pandering and social engineering attempts, but deep in the Appalachian mountains the tantric tremor of serpents and strichnine has been a staple of worship in some churches since 1910 when George Went Hensley brought the practice of snake handling to his pastorage of the Cleveland Church of God in Cleveland, Tennessee.
Dismissed by the orthodox on all sides, scientific, skeptical and religious, these folks cook up some of the best rockabilly that you’ll ever hear (check out the Jolo, West Virginia snake handling clips on YouTube if you don’t believe me) and the only trouble they cause is usually one of their own members dying from a snake bite. The extreme nature of their rites reflects the dismal living conditions that attend the areas where these churches find a home. The recent Mother Jones article, A World of Hillbilly Heroin, gives a good idea of the nihilistic milieu that has grown up in the coal mining towns where death is a constant companion, and each new generation finds that hope for escape is non-existent.
If you’re probably going to kick out at 45 years old after watching your family and friends suffer outrageous poverty and hopeless living conditions why not live it up a bit with some ecstatic snake worship? Seems logical to me. However, historically authorities in states where snake handling has become prevalent often take a less congenial approach to the practice. The folks at Four-Color Shadows recently found a great bit of anti-snake handler propaganda from the post war years reflecting the masturbatory fantasies of rationalist moral crusaders on a mission to stamp out irrational belief: http://fourcolorshadows.blogspot.com/2010/12/snake-worship-in-usa-picture-news-1945.html
“Here’s yet another fascinating slice of life from 1946, drawn by an unknown artist in PICTURE NEWS. This one tells the story of a popular Governor and his holier than thou troopers stamping out snake handling religions in Virginia in the 1940′s. I’m not saying the snake handlers weren’t a bit naive and ill-educated, but it’s hard to root for the brown-shirted troops who bust up a religious ceremony and start shooting…and yet they’re the heroes of the piece! According to Wikipedia, snake handling is still in practice today in Alabama, Kentucky and a few other Southern states, albeit illegally. It is, however, completely LEGAL in West Virginia. Apparently the troopers did well way back then, though, as there is NO mention of snake handling in Virginia anymore.”