Taking their faith--and lives--into their hands, mountain preachers handle snakes Rattlers at heart of rousing services

August 11, 1991|By Knight-Ridder News Service

ARJAY, Ky. -- Outside a simple white-frame church, before the evening breezes had cooled the day's heat, Gene Carter felt the Lord move on him.

He strode toward a pair of locked boxes, opened them and produced two timber rattlesnakes.

Grasping them firmly by their midsections, the tall, rail-thin preacher picked up the deadly yellow-and-black reptiles. Lifting them above his head, he swung them effortlessly back and forth.

"Help him, Lord -- in the name of Jesus," deacon Jim Hensley murmured hypnotically, while a half-dozen congregants stood transfixed.

Moments later, the rattlers were back in their boxes.

And Mr. Carter, 62, who says he has survived 13 snakebites in 38 years of handling rattlers, copperheads and cottonmouths in churches from Alabama to Michigan, once again had risked death to demonstrate the power of his faith.

Old-time Appalachian churches such as Mr. Carter's Rella Pentecostal Church of God, which once drew standing-room-only crowds, now summon only a handful of the faithful to services filled with ecstatic demonstrations of belief.

Like generations of mountain people before them, many of these believers lead straitened lives, often subsisting on the most meager incomes and renouncing most non-religious forms of entertainment.

Some of their most controversial practices, such as drinking poison, apparently have been abandoned. They don't take strychnine here in Bell County, Ky., anymore, but many say they saw it done in the past.

But members of these so-called Holiness churches still demonstrate their literal obedience to biblical commands and their faith in the power of anointment.

BTC Proselytes of a rigorously fundamentalist and charismatic faith, they court danger and defy the law by handling poisonous snakes, a practice that stems from the injunction in the King James version of the Gospel of Mark to "take up serpents."

The custom, paired with a belief in faith healing that often keeps victims of snakebites from seeking medical attention, sometimes proves fatal -- a fact that does not deter its remaining adherents.

"When you open the lid on a snake box, there's death in the box. . . . I've lost a lot of good brothers," said Mr. Carter, who has known as many as eight serpent handlers who died of snake venom, including Lee Valentine, founder of the Rella church.

Fulfilling a grim pact with one of them, a man named Shirley Wagers, Mr. Carter handled snakes over his casket. Twice, he said, he was "laid out for dead" himself; once, a hearse was summoned by a friend.

The law doesn't trouble Mr. Carter or others like him. While religious snake handling is a misdemeanor in Kentucky, punishable by a fine of up to $100, enforcement is virtually non-existent. When Mr. Carter handled snakes in protest in front of the Bell County courthouse a few years back, it was the snake that was hauled away by the sheriff, he said.

On another occasion, he said, a sheriff in London, Ky., who had vowed to arrest him, was felled by a heart attack the morning of the church service.

Still, said Mr. Carter, this is a bad time to be a snake handler, a time of rivalries between churches, corrupt preachers and declining faith, particularly among the young.

Serpent handling in Appalachia is said to have started in the early 20th century with the exploits of east Tennessee preacher George Went Hensley. He died in 1955 of a rattlesnake bite.

According to Kenneth Ambrose, chairman of the sociology department at Marshall University in Huntington, W.Va., the custom -- whose demise has been predicted since the 1950s -- flourishes in times of persecution by the authorities.

Snake handling "is really very infrequent," said Howard Dorgan of Appalachian State University in Boone, N.C. "You're talking about little pockets of it here and there."

Its practitioners are Pentecostal Protestants, primarily from the working class, Mr. Ambrose said.

"It becomes a status symbol in a sense that they're able to perform these signs and these acts when others are not," he said.

The "gift" is given to women as well as men.

When she feels "anointed" by the Lord to pick up snakes, said Chesney Brock of the Crockett Pentecostal Church in Bell County, it is "just like a shield comes down over you, and it teaches you what to do. . . . The voice speaks in your heart -- nobody else can hear it but you. It just lets you know what to do."

Given the explicitness of such instructions, said the Rev. Lonnie Surgener, 38, the Crockett pastor, snake handling is about as safe as driving a car -- if done properly.

Death from a snakebite presents a theological problem with varying solutions.

"I'd say you lost your life for the word of God," said the Rella church's Jim Hensley, who says he knows of no kinship with George Went Hensley.

A death does not discredit the practice, Mr. Carter said, but merely indicates that "your time had come."

To Mr. Surgener, however, death by snakebite means that someone has fouled up.

Not that the victim necessarily was a sinner.

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