Pentecostal Snake Handlers
MODERN-DAY PRACTICE BEGAN IN TENNESSEE CHURCH IN 1910
With the recent "snake handling" incident in a local church near LaFollette, the writer decided to research the actual beginnings of this practice. It seems that on one Sunday in a local church in Tennessee in 1910, George W. Hensley, or "Little George," started the practice of modern day "snake handling." He decided that since Pentecostals believed in driving out the demons, speaking in tongues, and laying hands on the sick, why not believe in taking up serpents.
He closed his sermon that Sunday by taking a large rattlesnake out of a box with his bare hands. After holding it for a few minutes he ordered the congregation to handle it or else they were "doomed to eternal hell." In an effort to avoid this eternal suffering, the members took turns coming to the front of the church to handle the snake.
Soon Hensley's fame for "handling snakes" spread throughout the Appalachian region and caught the attention of a local church that subsequently ordained Hensley into their movement. For about ten years Hensley toured around Appalachia preaching, handling snakes, and drinking poison.
Unbelievers at first, looking for entertainment, would bring the serpents to church. At one service, a stranger threw a box full of cottonmouths, rattlesnakes, and copperheads onto the floor while Hensley was preaching. The congregation, completely alarmed at the situation, ran out of the building. Hensley simply picked up the snakes and put them back into the box.
The movement, in its beginning, concluded that people who were bitten by the serpents were rejected, they being considered to be "in sin," or lacking adequate faith. It appears, according to the movement, that those that were bitten did not have the anointing, and were not being led by God to carry out His work or business. It was generally perceived, and in many places still is, that snakes should be handled only when a believer is completely under the authority of the Holy Spirit.
Hensley himself was bitten many times and refused medical treatment each time. His congregation was taught to have faith in God, and that He would heal them and not to rely on the limitations of unruly doctors. It appears that Hensley was misled for on July 24, 1955, the radical founder of the "snake handling" movement died from untreated snake bite wounds.
Soon this practice of "snake handling," in the 1940's, caught the attention of the national media and the local lawmakers, and so, the practice was banned. Between 1940 and 1950 six southern states banned the ritual of "snake handling." Those are Kentucky, 1940; Georgia, 1941; Tennessee, 1947; Virginia, 1947; North Carolina, 1949; and Alabama, 1950. Each state based their legislation on the premise that the First Amendment right to the free practice of religion was superseded by the likely danger to unlikely participants. It was ruled as a felony charge in Alabama and Georgia while the other four states ruled it as only a misdemeanor. The felony charge logistically ruled that if someone violated this law and a death occurred, then capital punishment was automatically instilled. Alabama and Georgia would later appeal their laws.
Legislature concerning the practice was quite unclear as to who would enforce these laws, such as the police, the sheriff's departments, or prosecuting attorneys. The local sheriff would assert his own judgment as to who was in actual danger during the practice. He assumed that if a bystander were in danger he or she would leave the premises, lickety-split. Another reason for law enforcement not interfering was that, as a majority, there was not enough evidence to prosecute a "snake handler." Beyond trying and convicting "snake handlers," it has not been determined yet that legal action would stop the ritual.
Most believers today contemplate that even the most devout will be bitten occasionally. Believers say God allows snake bites to punish sins in daily life, to try the faith of the victim and other worshippers, and to show His healing power.