serpent handling

serpent handling
   One biblical text rarely acted upon is Mark 16:18, where as part of the Great Commission to the church, Jesus notes that one of the signs of his apostles will be, "They will take up serpents and if they drink any deadly thing, it shall not hurt them." In the early Pentecostal movement, however, a few began to do just that. The rebirth of the practice has been traced to George Hensley (d. 1955), an independent Pentecostal preacher in rural eastern Tennessee. During an outdoor sermon, some people released rattlesnakes. Hensley was reported to have picked up the snakes while continuing to preach.
   Soon afterward, Ambrose J. Tomlinson (1865-1943), head of the Church of God (Cleveland,Tennessee) invited Hensley to the annual meeting of the church, thus introducing the practice of handling snakes (and subsequently drinking poisons) into the movement. By 1914, the practice had spread throughout the CHURCH OF God, though only a very few people actually handled snakes.
   During the 1920s, partly in response to public controversy, the Church of God withdrew its support for snake handling, and the practice was limited to some independent churches located in the Appalachian Mountains. It was carried into the Midwest and Gulf Coast states by Appalachian Pentecostals who moved away from their mountain homes in the last decades of the 20th century.
   In the 1940s, snake handling saw some resurgence through the ministry of Raymond Harris and Tom Harden, who started the Dolly Pond Church of God with signs Following in rural eastern Tennessee outside of Chattanooga. The death of a Dolly Pond church member in 1945 led to the banning of the practice in Tennessee in 1947 and North Carolina in 1948. The practice was again in the news in 1971 after three people died from snake bites and strychnine poisoning. Though the practice can still be found, and periodically new books and feature articles appear about it, its acceptance remains limited to a very small community.
   See also Pentecostalism.
   Further reading:
   ■ Fred Brown and Jeanne McDonald, The Serpent Handlers: Three Families and their Faith (Winston-Salem, N.C.: John F Blair, 2000)
   ■ Thomas Burton, Serpent Handling Believers (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1993)
   ■ Dennis Covington, Salvation on Sand Mountain: Snake Handling and Religion in Southern Appalachia (New York: Penguin Books, 1995)
   ■ David L. Kimbrough, Taking up the Serpents: Snake Handling Believers of Eastern Kentucky (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1995)
   ■ Weston LaBarre, They Take up Serpents (New York: Schocken Books, 1969).

Encyclopedia of Protestantism. . 2005.

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