Snakes in the Church

Book review: Salvation on Sand Mountain

“Snake handling didn’t originate back in the hills somewhere. It started when people came down from the hills to discover they were surrounded by a hostile and spiritually dead culture.”

At some point last year, I read an article, I think either about a preacher getting arrested or else bitten and killed, and I learned about the Southern Pentecostal groups that interpret a Bible verse literally to mean they should handle venomous snakes. And drink poison and touch fire, and if they’re anointed by the spirit, as they say, God will protect them from the inherent danger.

This led me to some episodes of the show Snake Salvation, a reality show following several of these preachers and their families and congregations. I had to stop watching it though, because despite my morbid fascination, it was a big bummer in many ways. The people are overwhelmingly poor, uneducated, and religious in an aggressive way that’s unsettling.

Also, I’m screamingly terrified of snakes and want nothing to do with them, venomous or otherwise, but I would never condone abuse against any animal and the way the snakes are kept and handled seemed to indicate they weren’t treated well. The preachers are so poor that they can’t afford to buy enough food for the snakes so they try to hunt for it, many snakes die, and it just seems stressy for the animals to be flung around by a bunch of screeching holy rollers in the hot, overstimulated environment of one of these church services.

But when I came across a book about an investigative journalist who integrated himself into the churches, I was intrigued anew. A National Book Award finalist, Salvation on Sand Mountain starts out incredibly strong – Dennis Covington writes captivating prose, painting vivid, tangible pictures of a slice of Appalachia that both fascinates and repels. He’s from a similar area himself, so understands much of the ancestral and cultural background of the snake handlers.

Part of the narrative concerns Glenn Summerford, a Pentecostal Holiness preacher who was tried for attempted murder after forcing his wife to stick her hands into rattlesnake tanks. Covington saw a newspaper mention of Summerford’s arrest and it initially drew him back to Appalachia; to Scottsboro, Alabama, and into the mesmerizing world of snake handling churches. So begins his assignment and obsession with the Church of Jesus With Signs Following in rural Alabama.

About his own spiritual condition when he began this investigation, he writes, “I had reached that point in the middle of looking for something when you have forgotten what it is you have lost.” In other words, he was vulnerable and open to experience, so he became that ideal vessel certain religions or sects seek that they can mold to their belief system.

Covington gets in over his head, loses his journalistic distance and eventually tries snake handling himself, albeit briefly. He’s similarly fascinated and repulsed, and easily caught up in the frenzied, frenetic energy of the churches and members, and with the exciting possibility of the taboo and the dangerous acts that might take place: “It’s hard to know what to wish for in a serpent-handling church. You want to see the snakes taken out, but at the same time you don’t. The more the snakes are taken out, the more the odds begin to work against the handlers. As an observer, you are in a moral quandary, responsible in an acute way for the wishes you make.”

The way it works is that preachers or congregation members who feel moved by the spirit, “anointed”, can take up the snakes or drink poisons during the service. Only if they feel the spirit moves them. When they’re bitten, they say they misinterpreted the feeling and the spirit hadn’t encouraged them as they’d thought. Dangerous human error. One congregant explains that after being bitten twice, “‘I decided I’d just handle fire and drink strychnine that night.’ Good idea, I thought. It always pays to be on the safe side.”

This reporting from inside the churches, the participants in their own words, was riveting and magnetic. But I found myself wishing the book was only about them, that Covington had used his admirable journalistic skills to be a camera and show this strange world without adding himself and his issues.

I understand that a journalist’s background and personal interests are often what draws them strongly to a story, place or event, and sometimes that’s to wonderful effect. But there’s a fine line between telling the story and meaningfully connecting it to one’s own experience, and a writer inserting themselves too deeply, making it all about them. For me, it crossed that line.

Covington’s feelings about religion are complicated, which seems to be why he was susceptible to the heady emotion and overwhelming effect of the Holiness churches. “I knew that I had a need to experience ecstatic worship, an addiction to danger, and a predictable middle age urge to find out who my people were.” He’s an adrenaline junkie who got sucked in during a vulnerable personal time. But this doesn’t compel the way the beliefs and history and behavior of the longtime believers did.

He writes in the afterword of his obsession taking over: began to think of them [the handlers] as genuine Christian mystics out of a heritage so revolutionary, deep, and otherworldly that the established church had no alternative but to deny it. I even started praying that I would be anointed to handle serpents myself. And about that time, I forgot I was supposed to be writing a book.”

His editor warned him of being too close to his subject and reined him in, but the end result was still a little heavy on the personal side for me.

Still, Covington makes intelligent and thoughtful observations on religious fervor, passion, and personal development, and those were wonderfully valuable reads. He frames the Pentecostal Holiness churches well too, and here his own experiences serve well: [A death] confirmed a suspicion of mine that madness and religion were a hair’s breadth away. My beliefs about the nature of God and man have changed over the years, but that one never has.”

And I loved this line, about the importance of acknowledging and understanding your roots but being wise enough to know when you need to pull them up and plant seeds elsewhere: “Knowing where you come from is one thing, but it’s suicide to stay there.”

Salvation on Sand Mountain:
Snake-Handling and Redemption in Southern Appalachia
by Dennis Covington

published 1995

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