Church historian Bill Leonard never expected to become friends with the late Brother Arnold Saylor, let alone grow to appreciate his theological insights.
Leonard is a scholar. Saylor was an illiterate country preacher who -- until he died of old age in 1991 -- would take rattlesnakes with him into the pulpit. Both men were surprised to learn that they wrestled with similar mysteries.
"Serpent handlers may be very, very weird, but they're not crazy," said Leonard, who was recently named dean of the new divinity school at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, N.C. "What people like Arnold Saylor can teach us is that we need to take second or third looks at some really important issues about the Bible and religious experience."
Millions of Americans say the Bible contains no errors of any kind. "Amen," say the snake handlers. Others complain that too many people view the Bible through the lens of safe, middle-class conformity and miss its radical message. Snake handlers agree.
Millions of Americans say that miracles happen, especially when believers have been "anointed" by God's Holy Spirit. "Preach on," say snake handlers. Polls show that millions of spiritual seekers yearn for ecstatic, world-spinning experiences of divine revelation. "Been there, done that," say snake handlers.
The bottom line: Snake handlers say they have biblical reasons for engaging in rites that bring them closer to God. They wonder why others settle for less riveting forms of faith, said Leonard, during a lecture series on Appalachian religion.
"What if every time you went to church you knew it could kill you? That would pick up the old Sunday service a bit, wouldn't it?", he said. "For these folks, taking up serpents is a kind of sacrament that helps them face life-and-death issues. But if this sacrament brings life, it also can bring death. ... It becomes the ultimate religious ritual, the ultimate religious experience."
The practice of handling snakes in worship began in 1909, when a Baptist named George Hensley joined a Pentecostal fellowship near Cleveland, Tenn. The result was a fiery revivalism that combined a rock-ribbed view of the Bible with a Pentecostal emphasis on signs and wonders. Hensley died of a snake bite in 1955.
Writers have always been fascinated by snake handlers despite the fact that, at any point in time, only 2,000 or so people have practiced these rites and as few as 75 worshippers have died. Some of the tackier media coverage attempts to use snake handlers as symbols of the South or of fundamentalist Protestants, in general. Others try to find complex psychological explanations for why these people do what they do.
Snake handlers themselves merely quote the end of the Gospel of Mark, where Jesus is recorded as telling his disciples: "And these signs shall follow them that believe; in my name they shall cast out devils; they shall speak with new tongues; they shall take up serpents; and if they drink any deadly thing, it shall not hurt them; they shall lay hands on the sick, and they shall recover."
True believers note that the verse says believers "shall" take up serpents -- not "may."
"This becomes an ultimate test for the total truthfulness of the Word of God, a kind of slippery slope," said Leonard. "If handling serpents isn't true ... then none of the Bible is true. It's right there in the book, so they believe it. They can't understand why other people don't believe it."
Meanwhile, churches battles rage on. Many preach that miracles continue to happen. Others disagree. Some interpret every verse of the Bible literally, both as science and history. Others insist that biblical injunctions about peace and justice are "divinely inspired," while passages about sexual morality are out of date.
"What the serpent handlers keep saying to us -- whether we want to listen or not -- is that we all tend to emphasize the parts of the Bible that make us feel comfortable," said Leonard. "We try to make it a tame book. Whatever the serpent handlers teach us, they can teach us that the Bible cannot be domesticated."