Skip to main content

The Truth About Snake Handling and Snake Handlers

My Only 'Experience' With Snake Handling!?

Barbara and I are on our way to a new pastorate in a rural area in the Appalachian Mountains. We are anxious, excited and, more than a bit apprehensive. We drive the windy mountain roads, and observe the Creator’s beauty in the bounty of the many scenic backgrounds. As I marvel at God’s handiwork, we chatter the challenge of taking a new pastorate among this hard working, spirited hill folk. I do not know the congregation, and my appointment is an adventurous muddle of faith with some fear, a lot of hope with a smidgen of optimism, and topped with continual prayer. I arrive at the parsonage and am greeted by the church treasurer. He informs me that they are not quite ready for us to begin unloading our moving truck, “Take a few minutes and visit the church first.” He appears to me as a pleasant man, but maybe a bit of a prankster. Barbara and I approach the entrance of the church. We slowly survey the church, and we can feel our faith and optimism grow. I am the kind of fellow that enjoys laughing and some clean tomfoolery. The fact is that I enjoy teasing my wife with some not so practical humor. Earlier, I tried to push Barbara’s buttons by chiding her about these mountain folks handling serpents. Goal accomplished! Of course they did not handle snakes, but that did not stop me from privately taking task with her more serious side. As we approach the exit way, the evening light garnished what appeared to me to be a copper colored rubber play snake. I think how odd this spectacle is. I did not see this snake upon entrance. Having an unsound mental moment, I reasoned, “This is a joke played by my treasurer and the welcome party of the church!” Mountain folks, jokes about snake handling, and a new pastor who needs to be broken in – it all made perfect sense, and it is funny. My confused reasoning brings me to a monumental blunder. Not to be outdone, I upped the ante, “Look my dear! A snake, I will handle him!” I scurry to the spot of the ‘vicious’ serpent, and give the creature a hardy kick. You guessed it; it is not a rubber snake! The snake proceeds to coil himself with a quite menacing gesture, and the joke is on me! It is not poisonous, but I do not know that. This pastor, grabs his wife, and flees with heart in hand, and with humility to the quick. The story travels like buckshot through those mountains. Sister Hatfield (a real descendant of the Hatfield’s and McCoy’s), the rest of our ladies auxiliary and all the elders meet me on my first Sunday with a tale of daring do about their serpent handling minister with his foot in his mouth and his snake on the run!

Jolo, WV Homecoming 2008

Serpent Handler Pastor Jimmy Morrow

Dewey Chaffin of Holiness serpent handler

I write this hub to bring some interesting and helpful facts about these groups. I believe they are sincere, but they are sincerely misguided.

Actually, snake handling is a serious practice by a small number of mostly Appalachian Christians. These Christians should not be demonized, although it is very easy for people to do so. I write this hub to bring some interesting and helpful facts about these groups. I believe they are sincere, but they are sincerely misguided. The practice of the handling of serpents began in the early 20th century in Appalachia, with a scattering throughout mostly coal mining towns. The observance plays only a small part of the church service of churches that believe in snake handling. Practitioners believe serpent handling dates to the distant past and quote the Book of Mark and the Book of Luke to support the practice:

Mark 16:17-18 And these signs shall follow them that believe; In my name shall they cast out devils; they shall speak with new tongues; (18) 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. (KJV Bible)

Luke 10:19 Behold, I give unto you power to tread on serpents and scorpions, and over all the power of the enemy: and nothing shall by any means hurt you. (KJV Bible)

As a result of these texts and taking an extremely literal interpretation, these few churches practice snake handling. Not every service and not every believer handles serpents. It is only during some of the church services, some of the people actually handle poisonous snakes. This act allegedly gives evidence that they are true believers who are empowered and sheltered by God. I believe they are sincere but sincerely wrong!

Sincerely Wrong

Snake handler

Snake handler

What Would Jesus Do?


Why I Believe A Christian Should NOT practice Snake Handling

Is that what Mark 16:17-18 is really instructing us to do?  I know a lot of good Christian people do not see eye to eye with my study of Scriptures, and I respect that.  Before the reader of this hub makes a snap judgment, I ask you to take note of the following facts:

  1. Nowhere in the New Testament (or in these passages) is there an imperative for the Christian to pick up serpents or drink poison as a matter of practice.
  2. If this were to be a church doctrine and practice, we would find examples in the New Testament worship where they practiced it.
  3. To codify snake handling as accepted practice, such as water baptism or communion, would be to add to Biblical imperative and lay an undue burden on the Christian Body.  I remind you that Paul preached a similar teaching as regards to converts having to be circumcised as many Jewish Christians taught.
  4. When Jesus was tempted in the wilderness, the Devil quoted Messianic Scripture to persuade Jesus to jump off a cliff.  Jesus could have done this but refused, and said that we should not do things to “tempt” God to protect us!

So, I take the words of Mark to mean that supernatural signs (these and others) have continually followed believers from the beginning.  The believers are not to follow after, nor seek any signs.  The believers are but to believe, the disciples are but to learn, to follow and to carry their daily cross.  This is ample burden for any man to bear. Any miracles or signs are in the LORD’s hands, not ours.  God often winks at our ignorance and indulges our hardened hearts, but it is not His will for us to make a spectacle of our grace.

As to handling snakes or poison being a sign of special favor, I would rather live my life in balance with a good, consistent, disciplined testimony.  It is better for my life to be like a consistent star than cannon blast in the night.  One may get more attention, but the star gives lasting light and guidance to those who need direction.  I pray that my life will be such that when my time comes, I will need no eulogy of my greatness in faith and power.  Instead, my friends will say, “He is a Christian!”

Here are the reading resources I found helpful in writing this hub!

Most Churches Have Reputiated This Practice

I am an ordained Bishop in the Church of God, a denomination with headquarters in Cleveland, Tennessee. Our churches repudiated snake handling in the 1920’s. We needed to publicly state that we do not accept such practices. Many, if not most, of the churches that practice this teaching use some form of the name “Church of God.” This has been a blemish we have endured for years. The name may have been taken from the Church of God because of a minister, George Went Hensley, of Grasshopper Valley in southeastern Tennessee, taught the practice and left the Church of God denomination to form his own group.

Serpent handling in north Alabama and north Georgia began with James Miller in Sand Mountain, Alabama. This movement originated at about the same time. It seems that Miller formed his belief independently of any acquaintance with Hensley's ministry. Snake handling in due course crossed the borders into Canada into the provinces of Alberta and British Columbia. Worship services are mostly typical for fundamentalist, Pentecostal believing churches. They all include singing, praying and preaching. If the worship seems right, some believers may approach the front and take snakes (mostly venomous snakes native to Appalachia) in hand, lift them in the air as if to show their power over them. Believers see these creatures as incarnations of demons. It is important to note that members are not required to handle snakes. People die of snakebites in some of these religious services. National Geographic reports that there have been over 100 cases documented in the United States. Snake bites during worship are viewed as caused by a lack of faith, or the believer not fully following the leadership of the Holy Ghost. Ironically, George Hensley died in Florida in 1955 from a poisonous snakebite.

I believe that there be may be nothing supernatural about handling snakes and surviving. I am told that with study and practice a person can learn to keep one step ahead of the snake and not be bitten. Holding the snake near its head limits its ability to strike, and not all venomous snakes are equally likely to bite. Keeping snakes well fed, cool and calm prevents bites. Also, snakes that are hand treated from hatching may grow used to being handled. As to the bites, folks have survived them before. Different snakes, different bites, different amounts and potency of fang injected venom, differing health of the victims all make death far from certain. It should also be noted that many of these survivors have been bitten many times and are scarred with distorted extremities.

At any rate, God is in charge, not I. If He wills to protect misguided believers from harm, or if He wills to see them through a snake bite, I do not debate this. I do strongly disagree with this extremist practice, and I believe it does more harm to the Christian church than it does good.

Finally, let me say that, although I am very much offended by this practice, I do believe that these churches have many sincere, God loving, born again Christians. I remember talking to a pastor friend of mine years ago. My best description of his demeanor is that he was wrung with anger. I ask him, “What is wrong, Brother?” He burst out, “I get so upset with Christians who, when they feel close to God, think it is their calling to condemn everyone else!” He had some fragile believers he was trying to nurture, and some self-made judges were undermining his work. I know there is a thin line between correction and edification, but we must all be careful in our words.

Scroll to Continue

Few outsiders are drawn to this practice of serpent handling, but it is part of the Appalachian tradition. Tom Burton, a professor emeritus at East Tennessee State University, says that as long as there is an Appalachia, there will be snake handlers. (see National Geographic link)


Arnie on January 09, 2015:

Aptaernply this is what the esteemed Willis was talkin' 'bout.

Eric Dunbar from New Orleans on July 31, 2014:

Very well stated. I wholeheartedly agree with you Pastor Walt. I believe many Christians are sincere but misguided. One reason I believe this to be true is the scriptures tell us that the Holy Spirit is our helper; only He can reveal scripture to us.

I believe the church has a responsibility to (1) teach the word of God as is; (2) teach love, for Jesus said that the whole law revolves around love; (3) not be involved in the "spooky" things of this world; (4) save souls.

God is sovereign. He does whatever He desire to do and no one can stop Him. We can never put God in a box, so rather than try to figure God out, we should love Him and receive His goodness.

Bro. Tom on April 12, 2014:

With all do respect sir, it is YOU who is seriously misguided. The fact that a two people "ran" out of the church when seeing a snake is a prime example of most of you folks who have no faith. Why? Most of you Christians exist in the "natural" and know nothing of the "supernatural". The Bible says not to lean on your own understanding. You, like most Christians, do exactly just that. Let's' replay your statements as a "cop out" from abiding in Mark 16. In other words, your "man made" fear. It's not Godly fear, it is Satanic fear. You said: (1) "Nowhere in the New Testament (or in these passages) is there an imperative for the Christian to pick up serpents or drink poison as a matter of practice."

My response: Who cares. Jesus said it, that settles it. Who are we do be so selfish and dictate to Almighty God just how "far" we are going to go for him. Demons do that, they rebel.. Then you said: "If this were to be a church doctrine and practice, we would find examples in the New Testament worship where they practiced it.

To codify snake handling as accepted practice, such as water baptism or communion, would be to add to Biblical imperative and lay an undue burden on the Christian Body." My response: There you go again, using "reason" over solid obedience and pure submission to God. Then you said:  "I remind you that Paul preached a similar teaching as regards to converts having to be circumcised as many Jewish Christians taught." My response: Who cares? You are grasping at straws to get "out" of handling serpents. So, in other words, if the Holy Spirit came to you and gave you the annointing to take up a serpent, you would argue your way out of it. Good to know. Glad we have pillars like this in the community to give "conditions" to God so He could serve "us" instead if "us" serving Him.. Then you said and this as hilarious as it is my favorite one: "When Jesus was tempted in the wilderness, the Devil quoted Messianic Scripture to persuade Jesus to jump off a cliff.  Jesus could have done this but refused, and said that we should not do things to “tempt” God to protect us!" My response: Acts 28:5.. That's the average Christian's usual infamous "cop out" so they don't have to handle serpents. Paul and the firewood. A serpent jumps out and latches itself to his hand and then he casts it into the fire. So what? Doesn't mean anything. Intentional or not, he didn't freak out like most Christians with no faith would. He calmly threw it into the fire. And as for the "Thou shalt not tempt the Lord thy God" is concerned. It is "you" who is tempting, even if it were possible but it can't be. God cannot be tempted, read your Bible. First of all, when Satan took Jesus to the Pinnacle and told Jesus to throw himself off so the angels could catch Him, do you honestly know what Satan was doing? He was doing what so many of you opposers have done. You "mock" faith. This is what tempts God. Satan was "explicitly" tempting God by "mocking" Jesus' faith. By your admission, whether you know it or not, you are calling Jesus a liar. Here's how. Jesus said "thou shalt take up serpents". This has NOTHING to do with the part at the Pinnacle where He turns around and says to Satan thou shalt NOT tempt the Lord thy God. If handling serpents was tempting God, Jesus lied in Mark 16. He's NOT a liar, but many of you are making Him out to be. Don't twist and distort Scriptures through "your own understanding" because that is demonic and not of God's Will but your own.. The Bible also says "If you love me, you will do my commandments." So, you either love Him and do whatever He asks you to do, or you don't. Obviously you prefer the latter. You said you think serpent handling in the Bible is meant to be spiritual. Well, that's half correct. Moses was the first serpent handler but you probably believe that too was spiritual. Was the Red Sea spiritual or literal? Many things that happened in the Bible were literal as well as spiritual. Do you know why soldiers are trained to immediately pull the trigger at the moment of truth? If they hesitate they will be killed. So it is spiritually. You people really need to seriously pray to God because as it stands right now, when it comes to "your understanding" of Mark 16, Satan is the only one answering your prayers, hence your little blog here. Not saying you are demon possessed. I'm just saying you only follow what you want to follow and tell God you will only go 8 paces instead of 10. Doesn't work that way brother. All or nothing. It's one thing if you believed serpent handling was right and told Jesus if He asked you to do it, you would. But you thumb your nose at it. And yet you still expect favor from God??? I would pray for you but I seriously get tired of deluded men with convoluted logic. Pray for yourself. I will leave you to God. I love you in the Lord but you are a wide path with fools. Don't blow it. This about God and His commandments, not "yours". This is about Him, not "you".. I knew hard-line Christians of one church that claimed to believe ALL of the Bible but not "thoroughly" in Mark 16. They gave the same truly misguided answers you did. They're the kind of people where if I threw a mess of grass snakes inside their sanctuary, all of them would for the 4 corners of the church and claw their way up the walls. Some faith believers. Why? They're pale imitations.. They don't know the Lord. Whether they know it or not they worship Baal. The Bible says not to be a companion of fools. This not speaks of the Heathen world or those who are of different Un-Christian faiths, it also speaks of Christians themselves who mock the purity of those who genuinely worship and abide in ALL of the Word, no exceptions. God's wants us to trust Him, totally. Not to be selfish about it and try to stifle His Word and come up with the lamest excuses for it. Enough said.. No "unbelievers" will "con" us handlers from our experiences with God because we said YES to ALL of His WORD.. We don't care what sorcerers have to say about the Bible. Satan quotes Scriptures as many of our opposers have so done to justify their own lusts of delusion.. Not saying you are Satan, but you "do" have a demon of strong delusion. You believe as the masses do. We serpent handler don't.. And it is the masses who are a wide path to Hell Fire, unless you all repent and trust Jesus as your Savior, FULLY.... Serve God, not youself.. Have a nice day..

C Mann on March 31, 2014:

Good article and very informative. I used to work in plumbing and worked with a couple of handlers off Sand Mountain. They struck me as sincere in their beliefs so I appreciate that you did not use this article to beat up on them. I too think they mean well. Your article explains very clearly why they may be misguided in their interpretation of Mark. I also took classes in collage from Dr Ralph Hood and he has devoted a lifetime to the study of Snake handling churches. This brought about a lifetime interest in me and I pretty much have read all the books on the subject. I personally believe they should be allowed to practice their religion without government harassment as long as they only handle snakes with consenting adults of legal age. I will let God be the ultimate judge as to whether they have erred in their beliefs but personally I agree with your analysis in relation to most Christians. Religious freedom though is an important issue with me.Thank you so much for this article and God Bless you!

Will on May 18, 2012:

Pastor, good article. This is what happens when folk take the bible too literally and can't see the forest through the trees. God created snakes and they help humans by eating vermin that destroy crops and cause people to starve to death on an abundant planet. In the garden of Eden the snake could have been a finch or a giraffe or a's all symbolic...temptation being the real villain and that is the message. At these snake rallies they might more properly be burning/ holding fatty foods, ignorance, junk TV shows, porn, or other real temptations.

noturningback from Edgewater, MD. USA on January 23, 2012:

To me thIs reeks with a stench of pride (kind of strong language I know); just like spiritual gifts, speaking in tongues and gifts of healing being over used and over emphasized.

If anyone has these gifts or others just use them to the glory of our LORD!

That's about all I have to say. Good read and an even better word of wisdom. ?

Mancini from Stoke-on-Trent, England on September 13, 2010:

Only in America! :)


Karen Metz from Michigan on June 17, 2010:

This reminds me of when I was a little girl and my mom had just gotten saved. She was invited to go to a church with some new friends and she accepted. At that time, my grandpa was staying with us and he was an athiest and didn't wan't anything to do with church. For some reason, he wanted to go with my mom that evening! It was just the three of us and I remember the music loud, people shouting, dancing and jumping pews. Then they brought out the snakes!! My mom couldn't wait to get out of the church, but couldn't pull my grandpa out of there. lol He was having the time of his life! He wouldn't have gotten a better time if we had taken him to a concert or bar. It was something he talked about for a long time. Thanks for the memories!

Pastor_Walt (author) from Jefferson City, Tennessee on June 08, 2010:

Thanks, James. I hoped the audience would enjoy this anecdote. There serious side is the harm that well meaning Christians often inflict the Body of Christ with.

James A Watkins from Chicago on June 08, 2010:

I thoroughly enjoyed your writing, pastor. I agree with your discernment of snake handling. The first part, your story of going to your new church for the first time, is priceless. That's a great intro into the more serious article that follows. Great device to loosen up your audience. Well done!

Pastor_Walt (author) from Jefferson City, Tennessee on June 04, 2010:

Thanks for coming by, Tony!


Tony McGregor from South Africa on June 04, 2010:

This was a really fascinating read, for which I thank you. I had vaguely heard of this practice but really did not know much about it until reading this Hub. The closest I have heard of is of a sect living in the North African desert in which members deliberately get themselves bitten by a particular species of snake because the venom induces a kind of trance with hallucinations seen to be a divine state.

Thanks for sharing this.

Love and peace


Pastor_Walt (author) from Jefferson City, Tennessee on June 03, 2010:

Thanks Joyce,

For the visit - You are a good friend!

Grace and peace!

J. Wyatt on June 03, 2010:

Good job, Bro. Walt! Very well said. I don't understand why snake handlers think they have to show God's power in that manner. God reveals His mighty power in His own ways and in His own time. He really doesn't need us to help him in that ball game. Your sermons are the best!!!!!!

Pastor_Walt (author) from Jefferson City, Tennessee on May 27, 2010:

Thanks BDazzler and Deborrah for the visit and comments!

BDazzler from Gulf Coast, USA on May 27, 2010:

Yeah, I'm thinking snake handling is best done with a shovel or other long handled implement.

Seriously ... though, I do personally know a man who was on the mission field, maybe 25 or 30 years or so back ... far away from modern communication or medical care. One night he was bitten by a cobra.

He wrote a note in his journal so when they found his body in the morning they would know what happened. He said his goodbyes in the note and sat down and waited for the Lord to come get him.

And nothing happened. He did not die. He lived. I'm pretty sure that's the type of thing Jesus was talking about in Mark 16.

Elder DeBorrah K Ogans on May 27, 2010:

Pastor Walt, Interesting and informative hub! Snakes of any kind represent to me the serpent in the garden... I believe the Scriptures caution us against the deceptiveness they represent! Through the Holy Spirit we are able to discern between what is GOOD or evil." Jesus could have done this but refused, and said that we should not do things to “tempt” God to protect us!" Thank your for sharing, In His Love, Peace & Blessings!

Pastor_Walt (author) from Jefferson City, Tennessee on May 27, 2010:

Thanks Philipo for the visit. This subject interests me because I was raised in the foothills of Appalachia, and snake handling is the butt of many jokes. Many folks generalize about spirited singing and worship and chide us with offensive names and actual distortions about our faith. Maybe this hub will help clear the air for some would be mockers! However, God be blessed and thanks to those who come by to visit!

Philipo from Nigeria on May 26, 2010:

I just hate snakes.

Related Articles