Encyclopedia of Religion
and Society

William H. Swatos, Jr. Editor

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Folk-religious Protestant groups, unique to America, that originated when George Hensley first handled serpents at the turn of the twentieth century in the rural South.

Snake-handling was normative for some time in the Church of God (of Cleveland, Tennessee) but later abandoned. Today the practice is restricted primarily to Holiness churches in Appalachia. The practice is justified as one of the signs specified in Mark (16:17-18), which also includes the casting out of demons, speaking in tongues, healing, and the drinking of poisons. Most serpent-handling sects practice all of these five signs. No firm data on the number of serpent-handling sects are available, but active sects continue to be identified in many southeastern states despite the fact that the practice has been outlawed in some.

Despite numerous bites, there are fewer than 80 documented cases of death by serpent bite. Both bites and death are relatively rare given the frequency with which snakes are handled. Members differ on whether they seek medical treatment if bitten and on whether handling is to be done by faith or only when one experiences an anointing. Despite continual predictions of their disappearance, these sects continue to survive their obituaries.

Ralph W. Hood, Jr .


T. Burton, Serpent-Handling Believers (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1993)

D. L. Kimbrough, Park Saylor and the Eastern Kentucky Snake Handlers (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1995)

W. LaBarre, They Shall Take Up Serpents (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1962).

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