Serpents, Sainthood, and Celebrity: Symbolic and Ritual Tension in Appalachian Pentecostal Snake Handling.

Author:Tidball, Keith G.

Keith G. Tidball and Chris Toumey


Intense media coverage of Appalachian Pentecostal-Holiness serpent handling sometimes causes a switch in signifier/signified relationships. The snakes used symbolically in this practice are grounded less in traditional religious meaning, and more in a certain recent secular meaning: from signifying faith in the Holy Spirit to indicating the value of celebrity status. This phenomenon is analyzed in a framework of theories about symbols and rituals, and is then described in a series of ethnographic observations at a serpent-handling church in Kentucky. This case study raises some troubling issues about how cosmopolitan media represent a distinctive local culture.

[1] Why do some Pentecostal Christians handle serpents in their religious services? This practice, so firmly associated with low-income white Protestants in the Appalachian mountains, has received a great deal of scholarly attention, which in turn has generated a series of explanations. Here we summarize three, and explore them at length in a subsequent section. Mark 16:17-18 (KJV) teaches that "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; they shall lay hands on the sick, and they shall recover." And so according to one explanation, that reference, in and of itself, accounts for this practice, in the sense that serpent handling is an act of faith defined by a biblical text.

[2] A second theory suggests that serpent-handling symbolizes socio-economic issues which transcend Biblical belief. The serpent represents the Devil--a common Christian image--but the Devil is equivalent to evil forms of capitalism which have stolen natural resources and destroyed communities in Appalachia. In this view, the religious features of serpent handling are part of a larger whole.

[3] A third account of serpent-handling in Appalachia develops the idea that serpent handlers are oppressed and exploited by outsiders, but it adds an intriguing interpretation to that observation. It tells us that the larger American society has taken almost everything of value from the people of Appalachia, and has confined them to such negative social categories as "hillbillies," "holy rollers," and "poor white trash." Some Appalachian people have then reacted against those who have exploited them by embracing a cultural practice which is so peculiar and so perplexing that it cannot be co-opted or exploited. In other words, the ritual handling of serpents is a dramatic act of symbolic resistance to cultural imperialism. Again, the religious features are nested within large-scale socio-economic dynamics.

[4] It is not our intention to dismiss these theories. We recognize that a full appreciation of serpent handling includes all three of them. We especially appreciate these explanations as case studies which contribute to serious thought about symbolism and ritual. We would, however, like to introduce a newer interpretation of Appalachian serpent-handling. We argue that the behaviour of some Appalachian Pentecostal serpent handlers is strongly motivated by certain media representations, and that this phenomenon has several important implications: first, that serpent handling is changing; second, that secular values are competing with religious values, thereby upsetting the religious basis of this practice; and, third, that some developments in ritual and symbolic theory can help us understand the changing nature of serpent handling in Appalachia.

[5] To elaborate our argument: we observe that intense coverage in the print and electronic media has made secular celebrities of some Appalachian serpent handlers. That process gives superficial attention, at best, to the religious meanings associated with this practice, while emphasizing instead the danger and excitement of dealing with poisonous snakes. Some Christian serpent handlers have then enhanced their own celebrity status by presenting themselves primarily as skillful snake wranglers, that is, heroes who can face danger and control it. They may not intend for this to overshadow their genuine religious motivations when their serpent handling is represented in the media, but it does. The media may still portray serpent handling as an exotic symbol of something else, but in this media-driven process it need not be closely identified with religious belief. Instead, it becomes a secular symbol of a secular value, that is, personal fame derived from one's ability to flirt with dangerous snakes. Serpent handling then becomes as much a path to celebrity as to sainthood.

[6] We present our interpretation in three steps: first, a brief review of historical accounts of the early days of Appalachian Pentecostal serpent handling; secondly, a selective discussion of theories about symbols and rituals, as they pertain to serpent-handling rituals; then, a description of recent developments in this phenomenon, including a case study which indicates how secular meanings are intruding upon the religious meanings behind serpent-handling.

Histories and Interpretations of Appalachian Serpent Handling

[7] Industrialization began to have an effect on Appalachian society after the Civil War, when investors from the East and abroad took an interest in Appalachia's vast supplies of coal, lumber and other natural resources. Prior to that, much of mountain social life was centered on isolated local communities rather than the larger society, so that many mountain communities possessed a sense of political and economic sovereignty (Eller 1979). "Capitalist practices such as the accumulation of profit remained alien to rural people," who enjoyed egalitarian societal relations rather than hierarchical relations (Kimbrough 1995, 70). Ronald D. Eller observes that:

Status rather than class distinctions ... were the most important social divisions in traditional mountain society. - In remote mountain neighborhoods where economic differences were minimal ... the rural social order was divided not into upper, middle, and lower classes but into respectable and non-respectable classes, and each local community determined its own criteria for respectability (Eller 1979, 83, 109).

[8] C.L. Albanese notes a distinctive feature of Appalachian religious thought: in a setting that was rural, agricultural, and mountainous, "mountain people surrounded themselves with a symbolic system based, for the most part, on nature" (Albanese 1981, 236). The serpents of the Old and New Testaments, which stood for the hidden, lurking, and dangerous qualities of evil forces, were very real to people who were well aware of rattlesnakes, copperheads, and other poisonous vipers.

[9] When capitalist industrialization began to change the social world of mountain communities, its principal mechanism for doing so was the transfer of land and mineral rights from residents to investors. In the words of Shaunna Lynn Scott,

The agents of major investors used a variety of means to acquire land and mineral rights. Most Appalachian farmers, unaware of the market value of their coal, sold mineral rights and untillable land to these speculators for as little as $.25 to $5.00 per acre. These resources seemed useless to the subsistence farmer; to receive any cash in return for them appeared to be a good deal. Little did they know that the deed they signed, called the "broad form deed," gave the new owner the rights to all mineral wealth, including those which had not been discovered. It also granted them the right to use whatever means they deemed necessary to remove minerals (Scott 1988, 60).

An ethos of self-sufficiency was displaced by a capital-and-proletarian social order (Waller 1988). Accompanying that change was a wave of missionary work: "missionaries and capitalists saw Appalachians as morally weak and lazy because of their indifference to the forced pace of time-clock capitalism" (Kimbrough 1995, 82).

[10] Serpent-handling began to thrive shortly after Appalachian people lost the rights to the minerals under their land, the lumber from their woods, and the stability of their social order. George Went Hensley, the apostle of serpent handling, may have seen others handle serpents before he did it himself, but after picking up a rattlesnake, he began to preach this doctrine vigorously; first in Grasshopper Valley, Tennessee, and later in the mountain counties of Tennessee and Kentucky during the first decades of the twentieth century (La Barre 1962). His impassioned sermons focused on the power of faith in God's signs and miracles, as presented in Mark 16:17-18: casting out devils; speaking in tongues; taking up serpents; drinking poison without having ill effects; and healing by faith. Those who were moved by Hensley's message saw a means of reshaping a world they thought was going to hell (Kimbrough 1995).

[11] For many decades now, the ritual practice advocated by Hensley has been well known in the mountains of West Virginia, Virginia, Kentucky, Tennessee, North Carolina, Georgia, and Alabama. In addition, it can be found in churches populated by Appalachian emigrants in nearby cities, including Cincinnati, Cleveland, Indianapolis, Columbus, Detroit, and

Pittsburgh. It is estimated that there are at dozens of independent churches whose members handle serpents in their religious services (Birckhead 1996, 261; Daugherty 1976).

[12] What, then, is the relationship between exploitive capitalism and serpent handling? To answer this, we turn to a series of theories about symbols and rituals.

Some Theories of Symbols and Rituals

[13] The study of symbols and symbolism is both interesting and problematic because a symbol is, by definition, something which stands for something else. This field of study asks a host of questions, but the two most prominent are: (1) what does a particular symbol stand...

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