Every other Friday in D-List SaintsLuke T. Harrington explores one of the many less-than-impressive moments in Christian history.

It’s a tale as old as time: some guy discovers a verse in the Bible, he’s convinced no one has ever noticed it before him, he doesn’t bother to look into what thousands of years’ worth of scholars have had to say about it, and he starts his own movement based on a single sentence. Sometimes it’s the sort of thing that turns into a weird historical footnote; sometimes it results in strange phenomena like horned Moseses or Calvinism; and sometimes it results in dozens of people dying from snake bites.

This week, we’re going to talk about that last thing.

While historians generally agree that there was no one beginning for the uniquely Pentecostal and uniquely Appalachian practice of snake handling, most trace its 20th-century popularity to one man: George Went Hensley. He had been raised Baptist and had had a come-to-Jesus moment or three, but there was one pair of Bible verses that he couldn’t get out of his head—Mark 16:17–18, which go like this:

And these signs will accompany those who believe: in my name they will cast out demons; they will speak in new tongues; they will pick up serpents with their hands; and if they drink any deadly poison, it will not hurt them; they will lay their hands on the sick, and they will recover.

Hensley heard these words and immediately thought to himself, “It says right there, ‘they will pick up serpents with their hands’! Why aren’t any of us picking up serpents? Specifically, with our hands?”

The story goes that Hensley wandered out into the wilderness to seek God’s will, which he was pretty sure would involve snakes.

The passage, for the record, is considered at least somewhat questionable, even by most conservative scholars—it’s part of the “long ending” of the Gospel of Mark, which doesn’t appear in the earliest manuscripts. Probably more importantly than that, though, the quote is a prophecy, not a command. It’s a prediction of what is to come, and it’s at least partially fulfilled in Acts 28. Beyond all that, though, the fact that basically no other Christian in history had read the passage and taken it as a command to play with snakes probably should have given Hensley at least a little bit of pause. But unfortunately, Hensley didn’t have access to any of this information, because he was illiterate. He couldn’t read a word.

In any case, the story goes that Hensley wandered out into the wilderness to seek God’s will, which he was pretty sure would involve snakes. While walking through the hills, he came upon (wait for it) a snake, knelt over it in prayer, and picked it up. It didn’t bite him—and say what you will, but you can’t argue with results. Ecstatic, he took his new snake friend and ran to his local congregation, who were all duly impressed and decided that snake handling was a great idea. Then, depending on whether you ask Hensley followers or historians, spontaneous revival either broke out, or didn’t. But whether or not a lot of people got saved, a lot of snakes definitely got handled.

It wasn’t long before Hensley was entering the ministry full-time, applying to be ordained in the Church of God via paperwork his wife had filled out for him. (Laugh if you will, but this is the only way I’ve ever gotten a job.) He was apparently up-front with them about not being able to read, but he had memorized some Bible verses and he claimed to receive direct revelation from God (most of which was “pick up more snakes”), and that was apparently enough for the church. He then proceeded to lead revivals throughout Appalachia, allowing whichever wife he had at the time (he went through several, apparently due to divorces more than snake bites) to do the Bible readings for him, eventually founding the Church of God with Signs Following. He was also arrested for moonshining in 1923, because apparently he wanted to make it really hard for me to get through this piece without making a hillbilly joke.

Hensley continued to conduct his snake-handling revivals until July of 1955, when things ended pretty much exactly how you were expecting them to. He was leading a revival in Altha, Florida, when he decided to pick up a snake and rub it on his face. The snake was apparently okay with this, but when he went to put it back in its cage, it got angry and bit him on the wrist. (Presumably the snake was a biblical literalist—after all, the verse says “they will pick up serpents”; it never says anything about putting them down.) Soon his arm had turned a strange color and he began vomiting blood (Hensley, not the snake), but he refused to seek medical attention, insisting that God would heal him. That didn’t work out so well, but Hensley’s death didn’t deter many of his followers, including his widow, who insisted she hadn’t lost “an ounce of faith.”

In any case, Hensley had successfully done for snake fondling what Phil Vischer did for talking vegetables, and the practice had become popular enough throughout greater Appalachia that state governments were moving to ban it out of safety concerns—including Georgia, which unbelievably imposed the death penalty on anyone engaging in the practice, arguably undoing whatever public health benefit the law might have served. (The only major exception here is West Virginia, which constitutionally bans any restrictions at all on religious practice. So if you want to sacrifice a golden retriever to Def Leppard, or whatever, now you know where to go.)

And while the laws are undoubtedly excessive,  it wouldn’t be wrong to point out that even Scripture itself speaks directly against risking life and limb to prove faith. When given the opportunity to do so, Jesus is pretty direct, quoting Deuteronomy: “It is said, ‘You shall not put the Lord your God to the test.'” That’s at least as direct as “they shall take up serpents,” which is why it’s so important to read Scripture as a whole within the broad tradition of the Christian faith—if you’re discovering things in it that no one has ever noticed before, despite the fact that millions of people have been reading the Bible over thousands of years, the odds are good that you’re the one who’s a little confused.

That goes for all those unreasonably angry atheists making YouTube videos, and it goes for the amateur herpetologists in the pulpit as well.


8 Comments

  1. Fortunately there is another way to judge whether our Christian brother’s faith measures up. It is not how many divorces they have had, or how misguided are the expressions of the Holy Spirit they seek. It is if they love their neigbor. The mocking and ridicule doesnt seem like love to me.

  2. My children are currently vying for the award of “most serpent-like” and handling them is treacherous. So I banished them to their holes to read this piece and I’m ever so glad I did. Thank you.

  3. When reading the Bible everyone should be certain that they understand the text that they are reading and if they don’t and they want to do it on their own considered purchasing a Good Quality Study Bible that was printed in 1992 thru 1997, like a K.J.V. King James Version, Matthew Henry Study Bible with commentary on nearly every Verse in this bible. This is the Bible that i use

  4. To comment on your title, the common communion chalice is hardly a health hazard so as long as the rim is wiped clean prior to giving the chalice to the the next communicant.
    This snake handling, though, is the real danger. Lol

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