Introduction: Beyond the Serpents
Deep in the coalfields of Southern West Virginia, there lies a small town called Jolo whose mountains are rich with precious natural resources and whose people are rich with Appalachian hospitality and friendliness. It’s not unlike most of the other towns south of Interstate 64; towns whose steep mountains and treacherous terrain keep the generic tendencies of city life from encroaching upon the land and affecting the wonderful character of the Appalachian culture. You won’t find any strip malls, office buildings, traffic lights, or McDonald’s there – mostly just mom and pop diners and the occasional small grocery store. It seems like the type of town that wouldn’t usually receive much attention from the outside world, save from the coal companies, who drool over the seemingly endless supply of coal that lies beneath these great mountains.
Surprisingly, however, this quiet and isolated little town has had its fair share of visitors, from scholars and newspaper journalists to the Discovery Channel and National Geographic Explorer. Most of these visitors have breezed in and been gone in a flash, leaving once they’ve extracted the sensational story that they were after. Some have been gracious and respectful, others not so kind. So, what is the attraction? What could possibly be so exciting in this small, isolated West Virginian town that curious people have come from as far away from Belgium to visit? The draw is actually a church – the Church of the Lord Jesus. This church is the most eminent Pentecostal Signs-Following, (or “Serpent-Handling”) church in Appalachia.
The signs followers have historically been one of the most misunderstood and misrepresented sects of Christianity. Many people in mainstream America think that the signs followers are members of a “snake-worshiping cult” or that they are “testing God” in their services. Even a great number of native Appalachians believe these stereotypes, and many have a strong aversion to the production of books, articles, or television specials about this faith because they feel that it contributes to the “hillbilly” stereotype of Appalachia. Sadly, most of the media pieces have portrayed these Christians in a not-so-flattering light, simply because the focus has been on the most sensational aspects of the worship services. The media has focused almost entirely on the snake handling, which is only a very minor part of this faith. There is an entire story that has been neglected by the media, one that looks to a much deeper level at what this religion is about and who these people are behind the snakes.
Although the exact number is not known, there are signs-following churches scattered throughout the entire Appalachian region. This faith is a sect of Pentecostal Holiness, which is known for speaking in tongues and for its intense spirit-filled worship services. What sets the “signs followers,” apart from other Pentecostal Holiness churches is that they believe in reading all parts of the King James Bible literally, including Mark16:17-18, which states:
These signs shall follow them that believe; In my name shall they 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.
Thus, as they read the passage, it is a command that they cast out devils, speak with new tongues, lay hands on the sick, and handle poisonous snakes, simply because they are believers. Furthermore, if they drink a deadly poison (such as strychnine, which frequents the services) they will not be hurt. To put it quite simply, the “serpent-handlers” are merely following the word of God literally as it is written in the Scripture. However, they believe that the way in which they follow the Scripture is not through their own power, but through the power of the Holy Spirit. These church members believe that they are “anointed” by the Holy Spirit, giving them power to enact supernatural signs.