published Sunday, October 13th, 2013

Cook: They shall take up serpents


WHO: Dr. Ralph Hood of the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga

WHAT: Meeting of the Chattanooga Area Historical Association

WHEN: Monday at 6 p.m.

WHERE: EPB Building downtown

We ought to outlaw motorcycle riding. Followed by hang gliding, whitewater kayaking and sky diving. Ban smoking, too.

Let's criminalize all dangerous activities in Tennessee, because, like your mother always said: somebody could get hurt.


Holy heck no. We're adults with God-given brains, and can choose to behave in high-risk ways, especially here in the land of the free. Want to ride a Harley while smoking a Marlboro on your way to kayak the Ocoee? Be my guest. All totally legal.

Which is why serpent handling should be also.

"It is an offense for a person to display, exhibit, handle, or use a poisonous or dangerous snake or reptile," reads Tennessee Code 39-17-101.

But all across Appalachia this morning -- in churches closer to Chattanooga than you may realize -- men and women will rise up out of their unadorned pews, after receiving what they say is the anointing of the Holy Spirit, and walk to the front of the church, put their hands into a wooden box, and pick up death.

Cottonmouth. Rattlesnake. Copperhead.

And in a rural whirling dervish, handlers drape those serpents over their necks and around their wrists like jewelry, as the church band plays. Handlers speak in tongues as, inches away, serpents flicker theirs in this beautiful, frightening, trance-like display of religious faith: when God is with us, even serpents can't harm us.

"There is a cultural bias in the Western world that a religious ritual cannot entail risk. But when you think of early Christians, they were martyrs for their faith. It was a risk for them to gather together," said Dr. Ralph Hood, who teaches courses in psychology and religion at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga.

Monday night, Hood will speak to the Chattanooga Area Historical Association. Arguably the world's leading expert on serpent handling, Hood has visited hundreds of churches, documented more than 200 hours of footage for UTC's archives, and, to use academic language, is one cool dude.

Picture the best teacher you've ever had, then double it. That's Hood.

"It's not a bizarre kind of thing," he said of serpent handling. "It's actually one of the unique forms of American religious expression."

At the end of the Gospel of Mark, the resurrected Christ appears to his friends, instructing them on the certain signs by which they can recognize fellow believers. They'll be able to cast out devils, Christ says. Speak in tongues. Drink deadly poison.

"They shall take up serpents," the verse reads.

This is not symbolism or metaphoric, hyperbolic language; the verse reads like a grocery list. If you believe in Christ, then do this. Do that. Handlers are simply being obedient to Biblical instruction.

Even if it's against the law. Even if it kills them.

As one West Virginia matriarch told Hood: "The only difference between your religion and mine is that when I go to church, I don't know if I'm going to come out alive."

Through Hood's archives, I've seen footage of handlers removing their shoes as a serpent is stretched out on the floor before them. Believers walk like a tightrope across the serpent, making manifest the verse from Luke: I give unto you power to tread on serpents.

We may cringe at this, but we are also intrigued by it. Serpent handling is an antidote to religious hypocrisy; its power comes from its sincerity. The litmus test of religious faith is found in the question: do you believe enough to put your neck on the line? The serpent handling church says, resounding, yes.

And there is no reason it should remain illegal in Tennessee.

"A legal avenue exists to have the Tennessee Supreme Court revisit the issue," said local attorney Chris Jones.

Jones recently defended Kentucky pastor Jamie Coots, who was stopped near Knoxville while officers seized three rattlesnakes and two copperheads -- each securely locked in boxes -- from his backseat. Coots, currently starring in the National Geographic series "Snake Salvation," could have challenged the confiscation as a violation of the commerce clause (Coots legally bought the snakes in Alabama and was driving through Tennessee to Kentucky), but did not.

"But what I have found so far, is that serpent preachers remain reluctant to challenge any law, in fear of being frustrated by the authorities in the interim," Jones said.

Contemporary serpent handling spread through the early 20th century South, thanks to George Went Hensley, whom Hood in his book "Them That Believe" calls "the St. Paul of serpent handling." Hensley, a Pentecostal, was praying in the woods near White Oak Mountain, when he saw a rattlesnake on the forest floor.

He picked it up, and handled it. Emerging off the mountain, Hensley, who would later live in Chattanooga, began his evangelical career of using serpents as a path to salvation.

Today, handling continues in every Appalachian state, said Hood, who cautions against stereotyping handlers.

"While some don't have college educations, others do. While some are driving coal trucks and working in coal mines, others are managers at Wal-Mart and registered nurses," he said. "The notion in some sense they are less intelligent is not true."

For handlers, the greatest risk of all is not the serpent before them.

"It's to lose their soul," said Hood. "You're asking them to give up the most important thing, which is their salvation."

Contact David Cook at or 423-757-6329. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter at DavidCookTFP.

about David Cook...

David Cook is the award-winning city columnist for the Times Free Press, working in the same building where he began his post-college career as a sportswriter for the Chattanooga Free Press. Cook, who graduated from Red Bank High, holds a master's degree in Peace and Justice Studies from Prescott College and an English degree from the University of Tennessee at Knoxville. For 12 years, he was a teacher at the middle, high school and university ...

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RShultz210 said...

Sorry Mr. Cook, but I can give you some very simple reasons why the handling of dangerous reptiles should remain illegal in Tennessee and the very least of them is the ordinance you quoted from Tennessee Code Annotated. Cottonmouths, Rattlesnakes, Copperheads, and Coral Snakes are all deadly. The action of their venom cannot be reversed by God. It will destroy nerves, muscle tissue of almost every type, blood cells, and, without treatment, a bite victim suffers one of two disastrous results, death or serious, usually permanent, injury. And there is a law against it that comes from a source which is much more powerful than any nation on Earth. The Gospel of ST. Luke the 4th chapter, the 12th verse: And Jesus answering said unto him(Satan), It is said, Thou shalt not tempt the Lord thy God.
Despite your description of Jesus words to his disciples at the end of Mark it is practically a certainty that Jesus was indeed speaking in metaphors to his disciples at the end of Mark in His appearance to them. He meant his message to them to be powerful and metaphor and hyperbole was the surest way of impressing the power of what he was saying upon them. He did not speak to Satin in St. Luke in metaphor but in direct challenge, reminding him of the direct Word of God. I do not take lightly the notion of restrictions upon the way of Worship of any sect of the Church, but these people are mistakenly demonstrating their Faith by handling a creature that God Himself declared "Shall bruise the heel" of man. Anyone who has studied Genesis should know this practice is not only dangerous, but inappropriate.

October 13, 2013 at 4:51 p.m.
lmoncrief said...

I'm not a Tennessean but the law should be upheld in that only professionals in the areas of science and tourism should be allowed to safely handle poisonous reptiles. Luke 12:4 does give adequate theological and societal reasons for not handling deadly snakes. The texts mentioned from Mark 16:17-18 were assignments given to the early, original Apostles in establishing the Church/Kingdom of God. They were not meant as a commandment for testing a person's faith or as evidence of their faith. This miraculous, intervention of natural law ceased to exist after the Apostolic age. The language of the text in Luke 16:17-18 however was not meant to be understood as "metaphor, hyperbole", or symbolic. Acts 28:1-6 is evidence of this intervention of natural law as referred to in Luke 16:17-18 by the Apostle Paul.

October 14, 2013 at 11:23 a.m.
papa54 said...

A mr. cook pointed out there are more ways than one to get killed or die in any kind of accident but what seems to fly over everyones heads except for a few is that in this Nation we as Americans have a right in the constitution for to a pursuit of happiness and are not to be judged by race, creed or religeous beliefs.Bt some where along the line> Tenn In its all knowing knowledge seems very reluctant to allow everyone to practice their relationship with God.

to the ignorant persns above who made their statements, one of whom was not even a tennessean (whom should hve no voice in this issue at all) and especially Mr. RShultzwho posted his quote from the Bible should also know that >>> Jas 1:13 Let no man say when he is tempted, I am tempted of God: for God cannot be tempted with evil, neither tempteth he any man:<<<

That verse should hush his concerns. but you see each has a right to express their opinions because the Constitution gives them that right. Speaking from the serpents handler point of view should also be accepted. But being the poor uneducated people that everyone thinks we are, the state feels it should guide us in what to believe. what next, will they stop the Babtist from submerging people under the water in fear they might "Drown" someone.

or maybe tell the holiness churches to stop speaking in an unknown tongue , as it might be a code to an enemy. Or tell the churches their music is to loud and causing deafness in its members.

I Declare that the state fears the serpent handling practice in churches that believe in all the signs and offices of the ministry along with the works of miracles. The healing of the sick..

The state fear it so much so that they pass a law that was appealed in 1943 again in 1973 and the state will not leave us to practice our faith in the freedoms given to all other Faiths.

Where is our freedom ? From a man made persecution. and yes I have believed in absolute Church Freedom in this land of the free.

October 14, 2013 at 1:04 p.m.
RShultz210 said...

To Mr. Papa54:

I re-quote your excerpt from James:"to the ignorant persns above who made their statements, one of whom was not even a tennessean (whom should hve no voice in this issue at all) and especially Mr. RShultzwho posted his quote from the Bible should also know that >>> Jas 1:13 Let no man say when he is tempted, I am tempted of God: for God cannot be tempted with evil, neither tempteth he any man:<<<" Your quote is completely irrelevant. The practice these people follow has NOTHING WHATSOEVER to do with God tempting man as you seem to think. It has EVERYTHING to do with Man tempting God, which is inappropriate as I stated. It is not that I do not believe that God can save the life of a person bitten by one of these creatures. I certainly believe He can. I simply believe that He will not. Simply because these people choose a way to demonstrate their faith that they believe will force God to act is an AFFRONT to God. Jesus knew this when he told Satan "Thou shalt NOT tempt the Lord thy God" Jesus knew as well that God WOULD protect Him, but would be displeased at the way he chose to answer Satan. And, incidentally, I do NOT believe that you who choose this way of Worship are "the poor uneducated people that everyone thinks" you are, although the spelling mistakes in your post do not help your cause in that respect. I think you are intelligent enough to try the ad hominem attack you just made to try to make ME look as though I believe you are ignorant farmers that I am picking on or something, and I am here to tell you it WON'T WORK! Scripturally and logically both, I am on firmer ground because your understanding of my argument is exactly backward.

October 14, 2013 at 1:58 p.m.
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