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The role of rattlesnakes in religion

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Snake Handlers The role of rattlesnakes in religion

The bible says that, after Jesus was resurrected, he appeared to his disciples and gave them a “great commission” to spread the gospel. 

“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 harm them.” (Mark 16:17-18)

The edict about new tongues succeeded — a good number of Christians “talk in tongues,” babbling glossolalia. But only a tiny few obey the order about snakes.

When I was a youngish news reporter a half-century ago, I discovered a serpent-handling congregation deep in Appalachia’s mountains: the Scrabble Creek Church of All Nations. The volunteer pastor, a friendly soul named Elzie Preast, invited me to attend, take photos and write a newspaper report.

It caused a public jolt. Television crews flocked to the church. So did university researchers. One sociologist, Professor Nathan Gerrard of the University of Charleston, made many visits and persuaded the cordial worshipers to take a mental exam (the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory). For a control group, he also gave the test to a nearby Methodist congregation. He wouldn’t tell me the outcome, but he wrote a scientific paper saying the snake-handlers came out healthier.

I liked the handlers. They were earnest and sincere, although single-minded. They danced wildly during services, spouting “the tongues,” giving each other “holy kisses,” flailing electric guitars and singing vigorously, drinking a solution they said was strychnine.

One time, Professor Gerrard took me and a visitor — Harvard’s legendary Harvey Cox, author of The Secular City — to a service. When the ecstatic dancing began, we were surprised to see Cox leap up and join the dancers.

Another time, the sociologist took me and other professors — including one whose wife was a short opera singer. They were introduced to the church members, who invited her to sing. She stood on the altar rail and trilled “Musetta’s Waltz” from “La Boheme” while the congregation listened politely.

I took my physician to a service. He later commented that the worshipers seem to be in hypnotic trances during the wildest times. Pastor Preast called it “the anointment.” He said that “when the anointment comes over you,” believers feel completely fearless. But when they lack the anointment, worshipers still pick up rattlers “by faith.”

I saw a worshiper kick a wooden box on the floor until a frightening buzz of rattles came from within. Then he calmly opened the lid, reached inside and pulled out several rattlers, which, oddly, made no attempt to bite him. However, some believers have been bitten at church, and a few die after refusing medical care.

Once, a weekly paper in the mountains printed a wedding picture in which the bride and groom each held snakes.

Those were colorful times.

Regarding another command in Christ’s great commission, I can’t guess how many modern believers cast out devils. Occasional news reports tell of ministers arrested because of violent exorcisms that have caused injury or death.

It’s baffling: Why do hundreds of millions of Christians obey the mandate to “speak with new tongues,” but hardly any do likewise with serpents?

James A. Haught, syndicated by PeaceVoice, was the longtime editor at the Charleston Gazette and has been the editor emeritus since 2015. He has won two dozen national newswriting awards and is author of 12 books and 150 magazine essays. He also is a senior editor of Free Inquiry magazine and was writer-in-residence for the United Coalition of Reason. 

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