Snake People

Dennis Covington, Zbawienie na Sand Mountain. Nabożeństwa z wężami w południowych Appalachach [Salvation on Sand Mountain. Snake Handling and Redemption in Southern Appalachia], translated by Bartosz Hlebowicz, Czarne, Wołowiec 2016.

1.

Somewhere in the backwater communities of the American South, somewhere in the modest timber chapels lost between state roads and the Appalachians—is where the Spirit descends.

It descends and makes signs supporting the faith of those who gather in its name.

For it was said in the Scriptures: “He that believeth and is baptized shall be saved; but he that believeth not shall be damned. And these signs shall follow them that believe; in my name shall they cast out devils; they shall speak with new tongues; they shall take up serpents; and if they drink any deadly thing, it shall not hurt them.” (Mk 16: 16–18)

Thus members of about one hundred congregations in which the practice of taking up serpents is an integral part of services reason that it must be one or the other: either the Scripture is true, and then speaking in tongues and handling snakes is a real test of religious fervor and sincerity, or the Scripture lies, and then it does not make sense to bother about anything it teaches. As the second option is obviously impossible, there is no other choice but to strictly adhere to the letter of the Bible. There is no place for any deviation from the Divine message. It has to be fulfilled word for word, exactly as it says in the Holy Books.

What is more, whoever really puts his trust in Jesus, whoever approaches Jesus with a pleading prayer on his lips, with full devotion and a pure heart, he will feel the overwhelming power of His blessing in the most tangible, palpable, literal way. It is not Catholicism with its attachment to ritualism and ceremonialism, it is not Protestant intellectualism utterly lacking emotional and mystical substance. It is living ecstasy, overflowing with the Spirit, a trance overpowering the whole individual, replaced by something or rather someone infinitely more powerful and larger.

But it sometimes happens that the hearts of those handling the snakes are not pure enough. The punishment is merciless then. The rattlesnake is not to be fooled. It unfailingly senses mendacity, lascivious thoughts, insincerity, lack of dedication to the Lord.

Or perhaps it will sense nothing, perhaps the power of the Holy Spirit will simply not work on it, the murderous instincts will not be turned off. And then the snake will act in accordance with its serpentine nature—it will sink its teeth in the flesh of the one daring to take it in his hands unprepared.

Since the beginning of the 20th century, more than one hundred fatal incidents have been recorded, more than one hundred cases where this test for fervor and sincerity of faith was flunked.

This group includes George Went Hensley, the first man to take out snakes as part of worship, who died bitten by a snake in a shed somewhere in northern Florida in 1955, vomiting blood and writhing in pain.

2.

Dennis Covington, author of the book Salvation on Sand Mountain shortlisted for the National Book Award and recently published in Poland by Czarne, notes that between 1910 (when he started handling snakes) and 1955 Hensley was bitten about 400 times. Until the ill-fated last bite he always managed to receive the serum in time.

Why was it not delivered this time, why did he not have it on hand? Nothing is known about it, just as we do not know anything about the details of the first service when Hensley took a snake in his hands, thus laying the foundations for one of the most bizarre, but also the most fascinating phenomena in the modern religious history.

Either way, the pioneer of the church (or rather churches) of the snake people came from the Pentecostal movement, rapidly growing in the early 20th century. Apparently, Pentecostal services, full of religious rapture and the spectacular gift of speaking in tongues, did not satisfy his spiritual appetites. We do not know precisely how he came up with the idea of using reptiles in religious ceremonies, but we may assume that it was occasioned by a careful reading of the New Testament and especially the abovequoted fragment of the Gospel According to Mark, where Jesus openly declares that those who accept baptism will also be gifted with the ability of taming snakes and drinking poison, without the slightest harm to their health.

For 40 years Hensley travelled in the Appalachian area, preached about Jesus and radiated his extraordinary charisma. This is how he started several dozen smaller or greater—in any case always definitely obscure—congregations and sects were these bizarre rituals are practiced until today, and treated by outside observers or commentators as a dangerous madness.

One of Hensley’s followers was Glen Summerford from Alabama, currently serving a life sentence in a state penitentiary. And it is from Summerford’s story that Salvation on Sand Mountain begins.

3.

Covington meets snake handlers or snake people—he uses those terms interchangeably— in the early 1990s, when he notices a press report on a court trial of a minister in a local newspaper. Although the term “minister” is somewhat exaggerated, for we are dealing here with a leader of a tiny congregation from the environs of Scottsboro in Alabama, bearing a grandiose name The Church of Jesus with Signs Following. This leader, Glen Summerford, had been accused of attempting to murder his wife Darlene. And the weapons he used were rattlesnakes (!). He tried to make it look like a suicide, he forced her to write a suicide note, he threatened her with a gun and told her to put her hands in a terrarium with rattlesnakes. Bitten and almost unconscious due to botulism, she somehow managed to escape.

This news from a local newspaper seems somewhat strange to Covington, but an editor of the New York Times commissions an extensive coverage of the trial from him.

In this way the author of Salvation on Sand Mountain—going through a kind of existential crisis, having just emerged from his struggle with alcoholism, attending weekly Sunday masses in one of the evangelical churches in the American South—enters a world which is both quaint and fascinating.

Initially Covington treats the snake handlers with reserve, assuming an attitude of an objective, detached journalist, but as time goes by, journalistic observation becomes more and more participatory, and finally it leads him to nothing less than… a fully-fledged religious conversion, snake-handling obviously becoming an important part of this. At some point he starts perceiving this act, which initially filled him with fear and disgust, as the most natural thing. If the Scripture speaks about taming snakes, and the Scripture is the bedrock and foundation of a religious man’s outlook, then practice of taking snakes in your hands is only a logical consequence of all previous assumptions.

So there is absolutely nothing controversial about it.

And although the writer’s conversion turns out to be as fiery as it is short-lived (because of his progressive views on equal rights of women, Covington is effectively expelled from his congregation) it endows the book with an extraordinary quality. Regretfully, Salvation… is by no means a historical and anthropological analysis of the snake handlers’ congregations. It is rather a diary, a collection of personal reflections, a reconstruction of the attitude, outlook, and psychological conditioning which at some point engender a full opening to a radical religious message or rather an exotic, crude fundamentalism.

4.

Motivations from the level of individual psychology in Covington’s narrative are neatly interwoven with the social and historical context. Looking for an answer to the question of sources of the snake handlers’ phenomenon in the American South, Covington painstakingly reconstructs the history of Scots-Irish newcomers to the New World, who in the early history of the United States settled in the southern region of the Appalachian Mountains. Their austere mentality, simple manners, and strict religiosity, combined with particular geographic and economic conditions—he argues, meticulously invoking historical sources—at some point lead to the emergence and further development of this particular form of religion.

It is no coincidence that it happens in the early 20th century. For the inhabitants of this American region it is a period of economic crisis, of a deepening sense of hopelessness, and, last but not least, of a serious strain on social relationships, associated with the expansion of increasingly inhuman forms of capitalism.

In this environment, extreme forms of religious worship (such as taking out snakes or drinking strychnine) on the one hand provide a profound sense of meaning and transcendence through intense, ecstatic experiences, through a mystical trance which is directly accessible to everyone and literally at your fingertips, and on the other hand offer an antidote to loneliness and social alienation. Communities of snake handlers, its members usually recruited from among simple workers, develop extremely strong internal relationships. They meet regularly, they participate in religious ceremonies, they maintain close contact with each other, and marry between themselves, thereby reinforcing the sustainability of the groups. Widespread mistrust and sometimes open refusal of the outside world only strengthen this effect.

At the same time, Covington perceives the snake handlers’ churches as something inextricably linked with cultural processes characteristic for late modernity—in particular the progress of secularization of Western societies. His descriptions and reflections sometimes echo the diagnoses of Carl Gustav Jung or Mircea Eliade, who strongly emphasized the cultural and individual importance of the non-rational religious experience, engaging mostly the imagination and emotions; an experience from which modern man seems irretrievably isolated, although at the same time he strongly desires and needs it, for without it he suffers the most terrible existential disease imaginable—a sense of emptiness, meaninglessness, and despair. And snake handlers’ churches offer an excellent therapy for that, the efficacy of which was also experienced by Covington himself. Initially looking down on snake handlers, at some point he discovered a peculiar, unique quality appearing in the state of advanced religious exaltation, when you take snakes in your hands with joy and the feeling of complete security.

There is something almost erotically ecstatic in that, he writes. The juxtaposition of transcendence and a reptile, of sublimity and instinct, of the realm of the absolute and cruel bestiality— this is a paradoxical formula annihilating the experience of alienation, loneliness, uncertainty, and fear, replaced by joyful affirmation of existence. This affirmation is also paradoxical, for it comes about through negation, through a risk of death or serious injury. And perhaps this is why it is so strong, unique, and exerting a magnetic pull.

In this way a personal story about an unquestionably bizarre and three stars phenomenon imperceptibly turns into a universal story about the eternal spiritual quest, the need for meaning, but also about the need for a radical transcending of the drab and monotonous everyday reality.

Tomasz Stawiszyński

is a philosopher, columnist, the author of “Skirmishes with Freud. Myths, Temptations and Traps of Psychotherapy” (2013), the author of radio programs devoted to philosophy in Radio TOK FM. He recently launched the website www.stawiszynski.org.

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