Read this Proclamation to the Snake Worshipers! This Practice Must Stop!

Handling serpents at the Pentecostal Church of God. Lejunior, Harlan County, Kentucky., 09/15/1946 (Photographer: Russell Lee)

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:

“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.”

17 Comments on "Read this Proclamation to the Snake Worshipers! This Practice Must Stop!"

  1. charlieprimero | Aug 29, 2012 at 12:44 pm |

    Interesting links.  Thanks.

    The history of religious majorities using The State to stamp out heretical minorities is an interesting study.

    Some say this is how modern Christianity was born.  The Flavian Emperors twisted later copies of their writings into a tax compliance psyop.  

    Prior to Roman take-over, “Christians” were a bunch of crazy Jewish pagans doing mystical trips in graveyards on psylocibin mushrooms to commune with interdimensial entities, angering both the Orthodox Jews and the local Roman bureaucrats.

    • lifobryan | Aug 30, 2012 at 7:06 pm |


      But now I can’t get the music to Jesus Christ Superstar out of my head …….

  2. I’m in full support of people of faith failing and accidentally supporting Darwinism.

    • Calypso_1 | Aug 29, 2012 at 1:41 pm |

      I’d like to see how well you’d survive living off scrabble land in hill country.

  3. Calypso_1 | Aug 29, 2012 at 1:40 pm |

    [This is a repost of some of what I wrote last time snake handling came up.  It’s relevant, so here it is again.  Kudos to Mr. Metcalf for recognizing the incredible rockabilly that goes on in these rites.]
    I would like to offer I different line of thought regarding the cultural/religious practice of Pentecostal-Holiness snake handling which has become one of primary mythic signifiers of Appalachian culture. 
    I believe there is sufficient evidence to suggest that Appalachian snake handling is a vestigial religious practice of the Cherokee people.  One could even call it a reverse cargo cult in that the Cherokee had a far more complex culture than that of rural Appalachia and that snake handlers have lost all awareness of the original cultural heritage and have grafted a far more primitive interpretation of Christianity and the Bible to account for and maintain a non-traditional Christian practice. 
    Snake dancing is well accounted for among the Native American tribes of the southwest (see images).  The references in Cherokee culture are not as well persevered.  However, there are some interesting possibilities.
    Tsa-la-tsi-s-gi  gv-do-di  ka-ne:  Dances with Snakes – is still a common Cherokee name. 
    The rattle snake was sacred to the Cherokee, not to be killed, except by medicine men, who had the knowledge of preparing its body for ritual use.  A snake medicine man would consume the flesh and poison of snakes to acquire snake power or perhaps simply survive being bitten by a snake.  Fangs were used for ritual scarification and there are accounts of medicine men who kept live rattlers wrapped around their waste inside their clothing.  Cures for various ailments were affected with different species of snakes by stretching the snake out head to tail with the hands, placing the snake in the teeth and biting down, carful not to pierce its flesh and then releasing the snake to carry away the illness (Note the similarity to image of Hopi serpent dance w/ snake in mouth).
    One of the primary myths of the Cherokee is that of the Horned Serpent, the Rattlesnake and the Sun.  The snakes were sent to save mankind from the overbearing power of the sun.  There are accounts in other tribe’s lore of medicine men turning sticks to rattlers and back again.  That ancestors of the Cherokee should turn to Bible versus emphasizing snake lore to explain older practices for which their own memory was fading is a not improbable.
    Appalachian snake handling, as historically documented began within the Church of God, Cleveland, TN in Cherokee Co NC and across the state line Monroe Co, TN – Cherokee country, about 50 years after the forced removal of the Cherokee.  But about half of the Cherokee stayed blending into the culture around them.  George Hensley the ‘founder’ of Pentecostal snake handling simply states that he witnessed an old woman take up snakes at a camp meeting as a child.  This dates the practice prior to any inclusion in the church and possibly prior to Indian removal. 
    Take a look at some of the videos of snake handing churches.  Listen to the music.  Tune out the Appalachian style hymn singing on top.  Listen to the steady Boom Cha Boom Cha of the drums and tambourines.  Watch the dance steps.  Try to feel the shack shaking of fifty feet.  Hear the woops and screams.  Tune out all of the poorly educated, extreme Christian rhetoric.  I’ve met these people.  They all talk about their Cherokee ancestry.  They say the peak of snake handling is a trance – Blinding light and ecstasy.  Realize that you may in fact be witnessing something far older and precious to the heritage of the land and its people.…

    • ^^ This.  I have no problem with the snake handlers.  It is an ancient pagan practice and I have a deep respect for these folks.

    • That’s fantastic stuff! Thank you for adding these insights. I think you may be onto something very profound with this.

      There’s also similarity between the snake handling rites, and some of the more rural Sufi groups – Mostly in terms of the trance formation they exhibit, but there are stories of some of the more tantric based Sufi groups using poisonous snakes in ecstatic rituals to exhibit their submission to the divine.

      What you’ve pointed out, however, is a direct line of influence! Another thing to look at would be the fact that the practice was also associated with some Canadian churches. It would be interesting to see if those areas had native traditions similar to the Cherokee.

      Do you know of any other resources for the Cherokee link? I’m very intrigued by this.

      • Calypso_1 | Aug 29, 2012 at 3:59 pm |

        Not a direct, link.  All my research has been illusive.  Part of my own family is from Sand Mtn and I’ve had direct personal experience both with snake handling and with various Native American spiritual rites, insomuch as an outsider is allowed to do so.  So this is largely my own theory.
        The Cherokee were a very evolved Nation when white settlers arrived and many tried desperately to accommodate themselves to maintain independence by adopting European modernity thus forsaking much of their own heritage.  For many of those who stayed after removal it was a shameful to even mention Cherokee heritage.  Any cultural connections exist only in fragments except on reservation strongholds (and forgive me if I am wrong, but my impression has been that they don’t have much left either).  . 
        There is very good documentation on Hopi snake dancing.  I realize this has no link with the Cherokee, but there are so many universal elements in Native American spirituality. I believe with as many references as I have found to the snake in Cherokee legend it is not at all improbably to believe that someone handled them. The only references I have found to an actual snake dance are more of a conga line.  I have also found notes here and there related to early medicine shows and carnivals with snake women being Native Americans.  There are some archives that are only available in the Library of Congress on Cherokee Medicine practice that I hope to look at soon.
        On a side note related to music – try to find Link Wray’s interviews where he talks about his Shawnee heritage and its connection to charismatic tent revival music.  There is a close connection to rockabilly there.
        PS – have you ever run across the idea that low dose snake venom may have been used for visionary states in many of the Mediterranean snake cults?

        • I’ve read about the use of scorpion venom in the Himalayas:

          “Q. There has been some fuzz about the smoking of scorpion-poison. Can you tell us something about that?A. Scorpion tails are very poisonous and smoking them is very dangerous. Still, some babas smoke scorpion poison at high altitudes in the Himalayas. It makes the body hot with fever, which some babas find useful for living in the snow naked” from – I wouldn’t be surprised if snake venom had been used at one point or another in rituals, especially those pertaining to the use of the snake as a meditative focus. I’ll definitely see if I can find that Link Ray information, I bought a digital recorder hoping to get to some Holiness churches to record music, but I haven’t had a chance yet. There’s no recordings that I can find of the Jolo church, or any of the other snake handling congregations, but that music is spectacular. Would you be interested in writing an article up on this topic?

        • Also remember that the New England witch trials were influenced by witch panics among the indigenous north Americans, and were distinct from those in Early Modern Europe. Cultural contacts in colonial America were indeed going in both ways.

          • Calypso_1 | Aug 30, 2012 at 11:03 pm |

            I can’t say that is a connection that I am very familiar with.  Interesting.  I am certainly aware of native treatment of ‘bad’ medicine practitioners.  Native medicine practice, from everything I’ve studied, seems to have been an extremely individual pursuit, no guarantee that it was going to lead you into territory that was accepted by the community.  Like so many aspects of shamanism the possibility of being feared and reviled as much as revered and held as a source of wisdom is just one of the many risks of walking with the spirits.

    • lifobryan | Aug 29, 2012 at 6:20 pm |

      Thank you for this! It’s a really intriguing insight, and I hope you write more on this topic.

      I’m glad that you bypassed the New Testament passage on serpent handling and focused directly on indigenous cultural ritual.

      The pertinent passage in the gospel of Mark is thought to be a later addition, anyway. It was likely intended to “Christianize” a popular rite at a time when the church was still absorbing certain pagan ceremonial practices. 

      An unrelated, but perhaps relevant tangent …. do you know the music of Sixteen Horsepower or Woven Hand?

      • Calypso_1 | Aug 30, 2012 at 11:07 pm |

        Thanks, I’m glad you liked it. 
        I’m somewhat familiar with 16 horsepower.  I’ve got ‘Heel on the Shovel’ in my repertoire : )  I’m into any music that might be deemed Southern Gothic.

  4. In the 1960’s the federal government tried deal with rural poverty in Appalachia by giving the residents welfare, thereby trapping people in an endless cycle of poverty, low paying jobs, dying towns and religion.  I have been to towns in Appalachia that many churches but no libraries or book stores.
    As societies and technologies change, many rural towns and some cities (Detroit, Cleveland) have outlived the initial propose of their founding.  It is pointless to try and save these areas and keep people there.
    The humane way to help the rural underclass is to help them more to the areas of the country that are prepared for the 21st century, mostly major cities near the coast and in warmer areas.

    • Take a closer look at our towns. You’re unlikely to find any young adults, as they emigrate by their own free will. Coal-mining towns were in the endless cycle of poverty and low paying jobs long before any welfare program, thanks to the companies. Strip mining and coal politics made matters even worse. No kids + no jobs = no tax base = no libraries, schools, etc. The better way to help is not to force people from their homes, but to rejuvenate rural areas and small towns. Big land grant universities bring jobs (eg Penn State, Virginia Tech), as do new factories (eg Mercedes, Volvo), and government agencies (eg FBI, DOE). None of these need to be enveloped in a city, where commuting produces sprawl, pollution, and race/class segregation. Don’t forget agriculture, either–there is plenty of good land that’s being neglected due to cheap imports, anti-tobacco and hemp laws, factory farming, and wealthy exurbanites who buy land, but don’t work it. The ability of America to be self-sufficient is increasingly important.
      Oh, wait, sorry . . . I forgot about the snakes!

  5. This is simply a religious folk tradition like those of ‘Native Americans, Africans or Polynesians and I have no doubt that if these people weren’t white their religion wouldn’t be targeted.

    There is a difference between the theological nonsense of religion, and such traditions as this that bind communities together, and the function of religion in regulating peoples lives by shared values. Of course today’s left doesn’t seek to liberate people from those who abuse religion for corrupt ends (such as corrupt televangelists or much of the Catholic Church), but to undermine folk religion as part of their assault on ‘implicit whiteness’ as well.

    Unless animal abuse is involved and the handling is consensual for all humans involved, I see no grounds for outsiders to intervene with it.

  6. Bdramsey1023 | Sep 3, 2012 at 3:31 pm |

    As a Cleveland, Tennessee native and someone who has gone the the Cleveland Church of God, been a member at many other Church of God affiliated churches, and has a grandfather who was one of the founding members of the Cleveland Church of God and a father who is a pastor in the Church of God, I can honestly and factually state that this ritual involving snakes has absolutely no validity and has never been a part of the heritage in the Church of God denomination. The Church of God is a spirit-filled,  charismatic,  pentecostal, evangelical denomination, and believes that there is no higher authority than the Trinity, and that the only way to heaven in through the one and only Son of God, Jesus Christ. Anybody who claims to worship anything else outside of these two standard doctrines are not affiliated with the Church of God. To the writer of this article: I suggest you get all your facts straight, and make sure you know and can confirm every detail in which you are writing about. Writing based off of speculation doesn’t make you a journalist or an intellectual. Feel free to call the Church of God International Headquarters in Cleveland at any time to find out if any part of what you are saying is true.

Comments are closed.