Exploring the history of snake handling

In this new series, “Deep Dives with Georgia”, reporter Georgia Bartolo 25 explores the history of snake handling.
Picture: A snake being handled. Serpent handling is still practiced in over one hundred churches in the Appalachian region.
Picture: A snake being handled. Serpent handling is still practiced in over one hundred churches in the Appalachian region.

From Georgia and Alabama to as far north as West Virginia, are the southern Appalachian states. A certain stigma surrounds the people who live there, some true, some made up. When these places come to mind, most think of their jumbo, sweet iced tea and biscuits. Maybe some people think of voodoo and the dark stain of slavery on our country’s history. But perhaps the most dangerous, and awe-inspiring, custom in the southern states is a religious practice known as Snake handling.

Snake handling, also sometimes known as Serpent Handling, is just what it sounds like. During service, members of these congregations will carry crates filled with venomous snakes down the aisle and let the snakes climb and crawl all over them. 

Snakes are cute, but the animal abuse is just wrong. This belief stems from a certain bible verse, Mark 16:18. In this chapter Jesus tells us that his followers will “…pick up serpents [with their hands], and if they drink any deadly thing, it will not harm them. They will lay hands on the sick, and they will recover”. 

As well as purposefully man-handling venomous snakes, these practitioners will drink poisons and touch open flames to their skin. In the minds of snake handlers, God’s grace is the only thing that can save them from death. Using modern medicine is viewed as heresy.

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Snake handling first got started in 1909 with a traveling preacher named George Hensley. By the time he died of a snake bite in 1935, there were around thirty five deaths related to his practice. Many states in the south banned the practice, excluding West Virginia. Despite this, many people still flocked to churches for this religion.

In 1990, another snake handling preacher entered the news, but for a different reason. His name was Glenn Summerford, and he was arrested for trying to kill his wife whom he believed had been seeing another member of their congregation. 

Thankfully, Glenn was sentenced to ninety nine years in prison, but many people at his church believed he was innocent. His nephew Billy Summerford carries on the tradition of snake handling today. In 2013, Jamie Coot starred in a reality tv show in hopes of gaining more support for the practice. He died of a snake bite the following February.

There are six species of snakes used during congregations; the Pygmy Rattler, Coral Snake, Copperhead, Moccasin, Timber Rattler and Diamond Back Rattler. Despite being venomous, and largely seen as dangerous creatures, these predators are actually quite docile, only biting humans if they feel truly threatened. 

Most of the time these snakes give a dry bite, meaning that there is little to no venom injected into the victim. In fact, only 0.2% of venomous snakebites result in death. Sadly, these beautiful creatures are feared by 50% of the population. When the snakes are rescued from these churches, they are often weak from the poor treatment they have been given.

The surprising history of American culture is rich with gruesome and intriguing tales. Although it is dark, snake handling is a very interesting religious practice in south Appalachia.

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  • A

    AdviserJan 26, 2024 at 6:05 pm

    Great article, Georgia! I cant wait to see which topic you choose for a deep dive next time.

  • V

    Violet BinczewskiJan 26, 2024 at 12:58 pm

    Amazing Georgia! So excited for the series!