A Look Beneath the Surface - chuckrayconner

A look Beneath the Surface: Examining Serpent Handling and Industrialization in Appalachia By Miranda L. Kessel

Contents 1. Religious origins and practices

2. A visit to Jolo, West Virginia for the annual Homecoming services

3. The serpent and the miner

4. Conclusion

I. Religious origins and practices

Appalachia is sometimes referred to as “God’s country” is home to one of the richest and most diverse religious cultures in the United States. The people of Appalachia are deeply connected to their land and their faith. In Appalachia as throughout the world, religion and spirituality connects one’s daily life with surrounding environment. Deep within the hollows and down the winding back roads, one can find small churches of independent congregations, an autonomy celebrated in their respective names: Holy Tabernacle, Assembly of God, Independent Baptists, and Miracle Revival Center. Each of these churches “holds the key to its own door.”

The most widespread tradition is Holiness, one of Appalachia’s largest church traditions. The Holiness Pentecostal tradition, traces its origins to several earlier religious movements. However, there is a dispute among scholars of mountain religion; if the Holiness and Pentecostal were synonymous terms associated with one religious movement, or if they were two separate movements that merged into one. Both have origins that can be traced to Calvinistic ideology, the revivalism of the Scotch-Irish, and the worship practices of the holiness movement associated with “plain folk camp meetings” of the nineteenth-century, revelatory of old time Baptists whose intimate services took place in one room community structure or in the home.

Holiness can be described as the idea of an individual having the ability to achieve sanctification, or a holy existence; a gift from God free of the temptations of sin and evil. Pentecostals have spiritually centered church services with physically and emotionally intense worship practices synonymous with speaking in tongues, testimonials, and healing power of prayer. Pentecostals share in thunderous, participative sermons fraught with emotion. The Calvinist ideology founded by John Wesley relies on an “emphasis on grace and the Holy Spirit.” ‘Scotch-Irish revivalism was a religious tradition in the mountain churches of the nineteenth-century. These revivals took the form of great celebrations among mountain communities that brought about the concept of religion being an individual, emotional experience free from rigid customs and pageantry. The “plain folk camp meetings,” part of the Holiness movement, are associated with the yeoman farmers of the southern highlands in nineteenth-century who participated in these revivals.

Within the Pentecostal Holiness faction is a sub denomination, the Signs Followers, who believe in the literal interpretations of the Holy Bible, King James edition. The Sign Followers are commonly known as serpent handlers. As a result of a century long history of media sensationalism and persecution by more secular Christians, the Signs Followers have become the most eminent as well as the most uncommon of the Holiness churches. Signs Followers can be found all over the United States, but remain heavily dispersed throughout its region of origin in Appalachia; southwestern Virginia, southern West Virginia and eastern Kentucky and Tennessee. Understanding the dimensions of this religion requires defining common religious practices, applying them to service, and tracing its origin in relation to historical events.

The Signs Followers distinguish themselves among other Pentecostal sub denominations by their literal interpretation of Mark 16: 17-18 which states:

“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 shall drink any deadly thing, it shall not hurt them: they shall lay their hands upon the sick, and they shall recover. ”

The five signs pervade; casting evil spirits, handling serpents, speaking in unknown tongues, drinking poison, and laying hands to heal the sick and are used in their worship practices.

In order to follow these signs the worshipper must be “anointed. It was my observation that when one is anointed they temporarily lose themselves while the spirit takes over. The individual becomes overwhelmed to the point where they are no longer aware of their surroundings. Members of the congregation do not predict anointment; it is spontaneous beyond their control. The anointment can occur at anytime, even outside the walls of the church. The holiness people believe that the Lord grants them the power to carry out the five signs, and as long as they are in this truly spiritual state they will not be harmed. Anointment has sometimes resulted in injury or even death. Some worshipers believe if one is badly hurt during anointment, they were not “under the spirit of the Lord.” Others believe if death or injury results during this state, it was His will.

Reverend Bob Elkins explains anointment as “when the Lord moves on you.” According to Arnold Saylor, “When you are anointed, colors look different, people look different, sometimes you can see into the future. It is hard to describe.” Those who are anointed often say it is hard to put the sensation in to words, but “warm” or “cold” feelings are common expressions of what this experience feels like.

Communicants take up serpents or follow the signs on faith alone. Those who handle serpents by faith are more vulnerable since they are not under the power of the Lord. This practice is more controversial among believers; some feel it is too harmful. One believer commented on this very topic:

“A lot do take ‘em up by faith, and they get on the other people ‘cause they wait upon the annoitin.’ They get hurt, too. I believe that’s whole lot reason they get hurt, some of ‘em does, is handlin’ ‘em by faith. Faith’s somethin’ like that. I’d ruther for the Lord to be movin’ on me, movin’ that way for to take it up. Now that’s a sign. When the Lord moves on you direct, definitely to take up serpent, its gonna help somebody. But they been so many just took ‘em up by faith and has got bit and hurt till the people don’t know hardly what do. I’ve seed people hand ‘em, them a-strikin’ and singin’.

The most common practice of the five signs under anointment is taking up serpents. Serpent handling is illegal in every state of the union, except West Virginia. During the mid twentieth-century, the serpent handlers were made spectacle by the media, which led to public controversy and government persecution. Reverend Bob Elkins has been arrested and jailed for practicing his faith outside of West Virginia borders. When a proposed ban on the practice was before the state legislature in he was called upon to defend his beliefs. After his visit to the legislature, Governor Underwood (1956-60) assured him that this practice would never be prohibited in the mountain state.

Some believers handle serpents on faith alone, but they ordinarily handle them under anointment. The amount of serpent handling that members partake in varies from church to church. Members handle a variety of serpents but mostly those indigenous to the Appalachians, like rattlesnakes and copperheads. Male members of the congregation go on “snake hunts” to look for timber rattlers and copperheads. Once the snakes are caught, they are kept within the home and are fed dirt, water, and mice. Serpent handlers prefer to take up larger snakes. Occasionally, exotic species such as cobras and mambas are used during services. During homecoming services, members from other congregations bring snakes to swap with fellow handlers. These practices give insight into how passionate members are about the reptiles themselves.

Handling fire and drinking poison are other religious practices communicants engage in but are not as readily practiced as serpent handling. The participation and frequency of these practices varies from person-to- person and from church-to-church. Scholars on this religious movement have focused more on serpent handling, leaving little information on these other practices.

Participants of fire handling justify this religious practice by several passages in the Bible including Isaiah 43:2, “When though walkest through the fire though shalt not be burnt; neither shall the flame kindle upon thee.” Under the anointment, believers practice this by using several methods including the makeshift blowtorch on one’s body, handling or walking on hot coals, igniting kerosene on the floor and dancing on it, and placing one’s hands on a hot stove. According to Kane, “The torch consist of a rag wick placed in a soda pop or milk bottle half filled with “coal oil” (kerosene) and provides a very sooty, bright orange yellow flame which shoots approximately eight to twenty-four inches high.” Charles Church of the Jolo congregation recalls accounts of fire handling, “Barbara had the gift of fire…She used to dip her hands into a coal stove and carry out hot coals with her hands and she was never burned…Barb would actually pour kerosene on the floor and set it on fire and dance barefooted on the fire and never be burned.”

The final controversial practice of the Signs Followers is found in Mark 16:18, “…they shall drink any deadly thing, it shall not hurt them.” Strychnine is the poison of choice among followers. Strychnine is usually mixed with water and drank. Symptoms of strychnine poisoning include “tremor, twitching, and convulsion” and those who drink it report of feeling “stiff” or “numb.” Charles Church said he felt his “jaw lock up” when he drank strychnine at a service in Scrabble Creek, WV, but continued to give his sermon. Strychnine is not always present at every service. The Church of the Lord Jesus in Jolo, West Virginia places strychnine (stored in a water bottle) directly above the serpent boxes. There is no strong consensus for the number of people that have succumbed to strychnine poisoning; however it is certain that a small number of deaths have occurred. 

The first sign mentioned in the book of Mark 16: 17-18, “In my name they shall cast out devils” has had little reception when compared to other practices. There is minimal evidence or documentation on this practice, but through oral history of the church there have been several accounts. Many sects of Christians believe in demonic possession and forms of exercising these evil forces or demons. The focus on opposing forces, God and the devil; the battle of good and evil are central to this practice and the foundations of their faith.

They believe these forces play a role in their daily lives and decisions. Many things associated with sin, such as drugs or alcohol are the “works of the devil.” It is one’s responsibility to reject these forces and remain faithful to Jesus. Followers have such a strong suspicion of the devil interfering with their lives and believe that the devil will talk to them pretending to be God.

Their fear of the devil medaling with their daily lives continues to be an oral tradition. These oral traditions include the miraculous accounts of the casting out of demons and the raising of the dead. Many communicants have witnessed and participated in the casting out of evil spirits. Reverend Bob Elkins explains this with the bible verse, “Greater is He that’s in you” and says “You can feel the presence of deliverance when the devil leaves the body.” One account took place in Carson Springs, Tennessee in August of 1986 by church leader, Liston Pack. Pack accounts after he told the demon to get out, “That woman threw up the most foul thing you’ve ever seen…As soon as that happened a little creature of some sort came out of her and walked past the back door” and states after this event occurred, she was fine.

At the opposite end of the spectrum, believers have experienced numerous miraculous events by their belief of Mark 16:17-18; “They shall lay their hands upon the sick and they shall recover.” The holiness believers have reported miraculous events such as levitations, the raising of the dead, and healing the sick with prayer. Many of these accounts are told during services or by oral tradition.

Chuck Conner recalls his account of a deaf young man that was healed during a service. The young man had a friend speak for him to ask the whole congregation for their prayers. Conner says, “After fifteen to twenty-five minutes of praying and with touching and putting their hands on his ears, he claimed he could hear.”

One of the earliest accounts of these miracles performed in the mountains took place during the year of 1912 in Harlan County, Kentucky. Sherman Lawson claims he was led by the Lord to the home of Grover Blanton. Upon his arrival, he saw the body of three year old Norma Blanton being prepared for her burial. After a deep prayer, the girl who had been deceased for twenty-five hours rose from the dead. She died seventy-two years later.

Dewey Chafin and Bob Elkins both reported to have come back from the dead. Bob Elkins recalls seeing heaven when he temporarily died from a serpent bite. He owes his recovery to prayer stating, “My heart stopped. But the people kept praying and praying, and God honored their prayers, and I come back to life.” After Dewey Chafin was unconscious for forty-three minutes, due to complications from surgery, the church members prayed for him and he believes it is what prevented him being “brain dead.”

Many communicants believe they have the gift of glossolalia or speaking in tongues. Under anointment, when one is speaking in tongues they believe that God is interpreting his Word directly through them. Glossolalia is a prevalent practice among all Pentecostal denominations. This practice took place in Pentecostal churches before formation of the Signs Followers, as early as the end of the nineteenth-century.

Some participants have the “gift of tongues,” while some have the “gift of interpretation.” Speaking in tongues is cited several times throughout the Bible. Mark 16, the basis of this sub denomination states, “Thou shall speak in unknown tongues.” The Acts 2:4 says that, “And they were all filled with the Holy Ghost, and began to speak with other tongues as the spirit gave them utterance.”

There are many other religious practices taken as the literal interpretation of the Bible that are essential to understanding the body of this Appalachian religion. Like other Pentecostals, the Signs Followers reject worldly associations, project modesty, and lead a sanctified life dedicated to the Lord. Their aesthetic practices in accordance with the Bible include not wearing long sleeves or jewelry. Women do not cut their hair or wear make up and wear long skirts and men do not grow facial hair. Communicants avoid discussions on divorce and remarriage among fellow members and some go so far as to not recognize these sanctions. They also refrain from swearing and the use of alcohol or tobacco, while some even refrain from caffeine and chewing gum. Maintaining this sanctified lifestyle is challenging as many communicants often “backslide” or leave the church for varying amounts of time.

Other customs take place within the interior of the church. The holiness peoples “greet one another with a holy kiss” which is mentioned in the Bible in Roman 16:16, Corinthians 13: 12-13, and Peter 5:14. Men kiss men on the cheek and men kiss women on the cheek as a testament that they are all brothers and sisters of God. This is also apparent by communicants calling one another brother, sister, or elder.

During church services, leaders give unscripted sermons and testimonials. There is no need for outlining a sermon before service because when delivering a sermon, church leaders are directly guided by the words of God. Music played during church services is another way they express their religious dedication. There is no practice prior to services, no sheets music, or list of songs to be played. Communicants only play music by ear as a testament to their faith and not for pleasure.

A final component which sometimes takes place during services is the act of being “slain in the spirit.” Under anointment, communicants fall to the ground or even faint because of their intense spiritual arousal. This act is stated several times throughout the Old and New Testaments of the Bible. One example can be found in St. Matthew 6, “And when the disciples heard it, they fell on their face, and were sore afraid.”

The majority of these religious practices which still exists in their church today are all characteristic to the practices and beliefs associated with the traditions of Appalachian mountain religion. The Signs Followers encompass all of these mountain religion characteristics in their religious practices and beliefs that stem from centuries ago in the Appalachian frontier. Their belief in following the literal interpretation of the Bible extends beyond the five signs in Mark 16; they follow all scriptures and verses as literally as possible. To understand their faith, you must realize that it goes beyond taking up serpents or the drinking of poison, their faith is deeply personal and spiritual, permeates their everyday lives. They use their faith to reject the evils and overcome the challenges that are presented to them in the harsh environments in which they live. All the beliefs and practices of their religion can be applied to a modern day service.

II. A visit to Jolo for the annual Homecoming services

Jolo is located in McDowell County, home to some of America’s richest coal reserves and home to the Church of Lord Jesus, America’s most prominent serpent handling church. The Labor Day weekend marks the annual Homecoming Services at the church in Jolo, West Virginia. Sunday services on Homecoming weekend always draw a smaller crowd, as many of the visitors have already traveled back to their homes.

Shortly, before the service starts at noon, Dewey Chafin, the country’s foremost snake handler and Buddy Jewel are behind the church preparing the snakes for the service. They discuss which ones will be used for the services that day. Snakes that were used during services from the day before and those that seem too hostile are not used. Typically, the snakes are cleaned the night before services, but on this occasion it had to be done again due to the birth of several baby copperheads.

The snakes are kept in varnished cedar boxes with plexi-glass covers secured with locks. Timber rattlers and copperheads crawl freely on the ground just a few feet from where I am standing. Dewey and Buddy use clothes hangers to make sure the snakes do not wander too far from their supervision. Now separated and cleaned, the majority of the snakes including baby copperheads born just the night before are left outside in their locked cedar boxes. Dewey and Buddy put the remaining snakes in three cedar boxes to be taken inside the church and placed upon the alter.

The Church of Lord Jesus is a simple, white one room structure common throughout Appalachia. There is a small entrance in the doorway through the double doors with a ladies’ and a men’s’ restrooms to the right and left. Church goers sit dispersed throughout the room on the eight rows of green upholstered pews. Behind the alter is the stage area where musical instruments including the drums, electric piano, accordions, tambourines, and the acoustic and electric guitars await for the use during the service. No crosses or depictions of Jesus, or other common forms of iconography are displayed on the wood paneled walls. Facing the front white-washed wall is a display of a collection of photos shaped in the form of a cross, a gift from “Brother” Chuck Conner, who has been documenting the congregation for the past five years. Also, on the wall are two posters which display the handwritten church doctrine for members only. The church doctrine states:

Women are not allowed to wear: short sleeves, jewelry, or make-up (I Peter 3:3, Timothy 2:9) No gossiping (James 1:26)

No tale bearing (Proverbs 18:8)

No lying (Colossians 3:9, Revelation 21:8)

No backbiting (Romans 1:30)

No bad language or by-words (Colossians 3:8)

No tobacco users (II Corinthians 7:1; I Corinthians 3:17)

Men not allowed to have long hair, mustache, or beard (I Corinthians 11:14)

Men not allowed to wear short sleeves Women not allowed to cut hair (I Corinthians 11:15)

Wear dresses above knees (Timothy 2:9)

Reverend Bob Elkins welcomes everyone, including visitors like myself to the Church of the Lord Jesus. Thirty one people are in attendance of services that day. The services begin with an opening prayer by visiting reverend Bill Pelfrey:*

We thank god for everybody that has gathered out here today. Everybody just come forward and put everything you got into it and we could have a good blessing and we could go home blessed. We can bless one another; we can lift one another up, and encourage one another. Everybody stand up, come forward, and just pray right in.

Many come forward to pray, the majority of them men. Suddenly, the room fills with countless voices all in praying aloud at once. Within the walls of the church, during this service they freely express their personal and deep dedication to the Lord.

“Amen” and the music begins. The power of the music fills the confines of the church with the congregation clapping their hands and stomping their feet, some even dancing to the lyrics of “I praise God, I praise the Lord. Halleluiah, on my journey, I praise the Lord, I praise the Lord.” No words can describe the music played by the members such as Melissa Evans and her children, Lydia and Bob Elkins, and his wife Eileen Elkins. The music of this gospel jam band incorporates many genres, such as bluegrass, gospel, rock, and blues.

As the song gradually fades out, those in attendance greet one another with embraces, handshakes, and the holy kiss. This is my first opportunity to meet many of the members for the first time. I feel at home with their warm welcome and their receptiveness of my presence.

There are a handful of children at the service that day. The children sit in the back pews or on the laps of their mothers, situated far away from the serpent boxes. During the introduction of the Homecoming services on Friday one of the brothers of church stated:

I’d like to say that were not responsible for anybody that goes in the serpent boxes and gets bit. If you get bit and want to go to the doctor, we’ll see to it that you get to the doctor. Or if you don’t wanna go to the doctor, we’ll pray with ya until God moves one way or another. Like I say we’re not responsible for anybody that goes in and if anybody is under the age of eighteen, don’t let ‘em go into the boxes. ‘Cuz I tell ya, there’s death in them boxes children.

After another song is played, an elder from the church stands at the podium and says “Everybody get into prayer, if we don’t get a blessing, then it’s our fault.” Beside the altar, seven people stand in a huddle laying their hands on a member who is bent over with their back to the crowd, while they are all deep in prayer. After several minutes of intense prayer and touching, the males stand up with a look of newness and relief after this intensely spiritual exercise of faith.

The messages from the testimonies and the sermons are conveyed in the songs sang by the congregation. The lyrics for this particular song complimented his message:

I came to get my blessing,

Ain’t nobody gonna stop me,

I have come to stake my claim,

I came to get my blessing in Jesus name,

You can sit there if you want to,

Ain’t nobody gonna make you move,

I came here to get my blessing, how ‘bout you?

I came to get my blessing in Jesus name,

I didn’t come for the visit,

I didn’t come for the signin’

I came to get my blessing in Jesus name,

I came to get my blessing,

No, I’m not gonna be the same,

Ain’t nobody gonna stop me,

I have come to stake my claim,

I came to get my blessing in Jesus name.

The music and the messages combine to get the attendants to participate and to become enthusiastic. Bill gets the crowd more involved by his motivating messages:

“You say brother why thank Him ahead of time because I’m praying from the heart. My God, somebody oughtta jump hallelujah, Lord have mercy. Come on now; are ya scared to worship God? We’ve been coming here for a number of years, Amen. Always had some wonderful services. And God has changed us, I said God has changed us. Now, Lord have mercy! Can anybody else stand to their feet? Can ya stand to your feet? From the privilege, yes it’s a privilege of being in his house. Can anybody raise their hand? Praise the Lord! Lord have mercy. God have mercy. The Bible will tell ya, he lives on the praises of his people. So when ya come to church, what do you come for? Do you wanna see how much grayer Brother Bob got since last year? Or did you come to worship God?”

His motivating message sweeps the crowd to their feet and some reply with “Amen,” “You tell ‘em brother,” “Praise Jesus,” and “Thank you Lord.” These responses are heard countless times throughout the service. Bill Pelfrey finishes his message by saying, “Somebody ought to raise their hand, and you can help us sing, Hallelujah.” It is as if he is interrupted by some unseen force when he begins speaking unknown tongues, “ha la mu shaka ko lo lo ha, no shay lo he ho ba tam lad had, talla la mab sh la ma ha ha lo lmo sha ha tah gran te o” Pelfrey goes back to delivering his fiery sermon, as is if nothing happened.

A sporadic peck on the piano and the inconsistent strum on the guitar, gradually turns into a song. One song fades into another, as one sermon or testimonial fades into another. During the powerful sermons, heart filled messages, and soul filled music, I could hear the hiss and rattle of the serpents as they crawl in their protective boxes. With the power of the music and the many prayers, under the anointment of the Holy Ghost, Junior Church reaches into the serpent box as he delivers his testimonial. Standing in front of the alter, he handles a timber rattler three and half to four feet long in his right hand and a copperhead in his left hand as he sways he body slowly back and forth. After a few minutes, he puts the rattler back in the box.

I began to observe how pivotal the five signs of Mark are during their services as well as other literal interpretations of biblical scriptures. Besides the practices of the signs, I witness that day which included laying the hands on sick, taking up serpents, and speaking in tongues; they made references to them throughout their service in message and in song. One such song was included lyrics about taking up serpents.

I’ve been praisin’ the Lord for along time, a long time, a long time

I’ve been handlin’ serpents for a long time, a long time, a long time

I’ve been preachin’ the word for a long time, a long time, a long time

Another testimonial commented on tongues and the practices of the signs:

You either want it, or you don’t want it, work it out with tears. If He chose you, you can do the word, if you ain’t been chosen, you can’t do the word. I know what he can do, I know what he had done, and I know what he will do. People, they’re talking about tongues, if you ain’t talking in tongues, it’s the Spirit!

You’re tongue is ushering the word, Spirit ushering the word. You don’t know what you’re saying a lot of the times, but the Spirit does ‘cuz the spirit ushers the word. If it was just you, ya know what you’re talking about, wouldn’t ya, the tongues ushers the word!

With the helping hands of Buddy Jewel and his wife, Ruby, Reverend Bob Elkins stands at the podium. With the constant flow of an oxygen tube and what he would attribute to his faith, Bob has found the strength to speak in the church he formed fifty-five years ago. This is the first time in several days that Reverend Bob has felt well enough to stand on his own. Now retired, a former mine foreman, Reverend Bob is dying of black lung. His strength in God far outweighs the weakness heard in his voice as says to congregation, “This is the most breath I’ve had in several days to talk. Amen. And I praise Him for it. I praise him for everything he means to me, for every blessing he ever give me.”

During his message, a sporadic peck on the electric piano and the inconsistent strums of the guitar turn into another song. The vibrations of the drums and stomping and clapping from those sitting on pews can be felt deep within the hearts of everyone. As Esther Parsley sings from the depths of her soul, you can hear the pain in her voice as she sings, “I don’t know what you come to do, but I come to praise the Lord.” Reverend Bob puts it best by saying to the congregation, “Just get up here and do your thing.”

Suddenly, Reverend Elkins stands up while attached to his oxygen tank and dances under the anointment of the Holy Ghost. Some stop, watching in amazement while others pause in worry. Most go about praying and dancing to the music, for they know the Holy Spirit is guiding him in his every step. Their belief and their faith is so strong that it goes beyond one’s self and beyond anyone’s explanation.

After the final messages and testimonials are delivered, I can sense that the well being and spirits have been uplifted. Reverend Elkins delivers the blessing of the homecoming dinner. Slowly, everyone exits the church through the side door. Adjacent to the church is the kitchen where the homecoming meal is served.

They extended their generosity to me by insisting that I stay for their dinner. As a code of rural custom, I knew it would be rude if I refused. I apologized to Melisa Evans for showing up to their dinner empty handed. An abundance of every popular potluck dish imaginable sits at several tables. These dishes include baked ham, fried chicken, green beans, coleslaw, potato and macaroni salad, baked beans, biscuits, rolls, and a variety of pies, cakes, and other desserts. Many people stood on the roadside beside the church, visiting with one another as they ate.

During the dinner, I had an opportunity to speak more with Dewey Chafin and Melissa and her sons. During my conversation with Dewey, he recalled the many interviews he’s given including one with Geraldo Rivera, commenting, “He’s alright, I guess.” Dewey went on to say that he did not mind giving interviews most of the time. As the afternoon progressed, I said my goodbyes. Like those present in church that day, I left Jolo blessed to and in better spirits to have had the opportunity to meet such sincere and holy people.

III. The serpent and the miner

As I made way back to the opposite side of the state, I began to analyze my experiences that day. I questioned what aspects of Appalachian culture and history were related to this small white church in southern West Virginia. I began to wonder if there was a link to be made between McDowell’s County’s home to America’s richest coal veins and most prominent serpent handling church. From my analysis of my first hand experience at Jolo and from sifting through all the available resources on serpent handling and Appalachian studies, I was able to make several connections between the mountain religious tradition of serpent handling and the industrialization of Appalachia and the emergence of the southern coal miner. The two are parallel movements in Appalachian history.

Many attribute the origin of serpent handling to George Went Hensley in the summer of 1909 or 1910 on White Oak Mountain in eastern Tennessee. Oral history indicates that after a vision Hensley received, he asked his wife, Manda to read Mark 16 from the Bible. He later climbed to a mountain where a received the call to pick up a rattlesnake, he did, and consequently was not bitten. After several moves throughout central Appalachia, Hensley led great revivals preaching the signs of Mark and a sanctified lifestyle. Hensley struggled with drinking; at one point he backslid and even sold moonshine. He dedicated much of his life to preaching throughout the South, he was constantly absent from his wife and children. His preaching did not provide him with the necessary financial means to support his family, and his wife, ultimately left him.

The actual origins of this practice lie in the mountains of southern West Virginia and southwestern Virginia where George Went Hensley grew up. Hensley was born in southern West Virginia and during the late 1890’s he and his family moved to neighboring Wise County, Virginia. As a boy, Hensley took part in the “great coal mine revivals” led by prophet, Nancy Kleinieck who preached the literal interpretation of Mark 16 and took up serpents under anointment of the Holy Spirit. Great numbers of people attended these outdoor revivals in the hills and mountains of this particular region.

This explains why Hensley receives little recognition for brining this movement to life. Within the church, Hensley is not memorialized as the leader or originator of the Signs Followers; however, he is recognized for spreading this religion across Appalachia and founding several churches. Hensley’s influence is evident in the doctrine of Jolo’s church and many others, as he preached others to lead a holy existence devoid of worldliness.

When these great outdoor revivals were taking place, the interior of the mountains were beginning to be extracted of its rich coal veins. This would forever change the environment and the lives of its inhabitants. The industrialization caused a sudden social and economic transition for these mountain natives. Prior to the social upheaval, there came a wave of land surveyors and prospectors scanning the region for its rich coal deposits beneath the rugged terrain. These capitalists blinded by their own economic interests, ignored trespasses in their pursuit for coal. With little or no convincing, they talked native farmers into selling their land and mineral rights for as little as fifty cents to five dollars an acre.

These frontier farms required the year around maintenance of a large family. Each family member, regardless of age had daily chores that were central to its success and well being of the family. Chores were sometimes stratified by gender. The males worked primarily outside the home, while the females maintained the hearth and home. Duties on the mountain farm entailed raising crops like wheat, corn, beans and livestock including cows, hogs and sheep, tending gardens and orchards, and the making of various products which maintained clothing, shelter, and food, such as wool, yarn, soap, butter, lard, and honey. Men would upkeep the farm by clearing land, piling rocks, and building fences. Females were also accustomed to hard life on the farm; they would engage in physical labor while rearing their children in large families generated by yearly births offset by high infant mortality rates.

Farmers lived season to season by means of spring’s plowing, summers growing prepared for autumn’s harvest and the lone months of winter. They would prepare for the hardships of winter during the fall months when subsistence depending on curing meat, hunting wild game, canning vegetables, and chopping wood. Appalachian farmers produced wheat, corn, beans, tobacco, sweet oats, butter, wool, flax, beeswax, and maple sugar. These products were instrumental in establishing links to exterior market with such exports as ginseng, furs, beeswax, furs, honey, and even moonshine which were exchanged in barter for molasses, coffee, and sugar.

Life on the mountain farm was one of hard work and gave the farmer and his family a sense of satisfaction and meaning. Everyone worked together to contribute to the production of the farm. The surrounding community, made up of kin and yeoman farmers, supported one another’s agricultural pursuits including building homes and barns, harvesting crops, and butchering livestock. In this community people were not distinguished by wealth or class, but by kinship, personality, and one’s skills and talents. Farm work was crucial to an individual’s status and identity within the community.

Subsistence farming satisfied immediate needs when crops were lost or livestock plagued, kin and neighbors often supported one another. The isolation of Appalachian living gave birth to a keen sense of nature, a dependency which led to folk lore, home remedies, and grand superstitions. They derived further meaning in their spiritual beliefs originating from the Old World and frontier conditions. Sunday was a day of rest that relieved them of their daily duties on the farm. Most importantly,

Sunday was a day dedicated to religious observances. Circuit preachers would deliver sermons at rural churches once a month marking them as a special occasion within the community.

Church served as a social epicenter. Preachers maintained the social order of the community, acting as moral leaders and if necessary he would call out those for reckless or immoral behavior. Young people would meet in church and often form courtships. During the summer months, homecoming services and outdoor revivals were momentous social occasions that drew large crowds. Life on the Appalachian frontier was a place where God and land intertwined. Verna Mae Sloan states, “…you seem close to Him, one with nature, when you plant the tiny seeds in faith that they will grow.”

Their agrarian lifestyle was interrupted in the late nineteenth-century by introduction of industrialization brought by outside interests, who were seeking to rape Appalachia, hollowing out the mountains of its coal and ridding the landscape of its pristine virgin forests. A subsistence lifestyle became harder to maintain. Farmers sold their land and worked for other farms or sought public work. The frontier economy, which was primarily barter based was transforming into a cash based economy. As more rural farm land fell into the hands of capitalists, the less people were able to maintain long established kinship system.

In a span of just a few decades, the industrial transformation of Appalachia was complete. Railroads ran through even the most desolate areas, every acre of forests was emptied of its legacy of virgin timber, and bituminous coal was being pulled from the mountains at a staggering rate. Former farmers found themselves taking on another occupation which required similar physical work, long hours and dangerous conditions. Overnight, the mountaineer farmer became a coal miner no longer depending on the harvests of the crops he created, but depended on the low wages and script from the mine company which employed him.

Life in the company town proved to be harder than life on the frontier farm. Coal operators established unincorporated company towns built around the mines to shelter the many workers needed to operate coal production. The towns were built as quickly and cost efficiently as possible. The miners typically lived in small Jinny Lind structures which were identical in appearance and built very close to one another. Mine operators, foreman, and office employees often lived in large well-built homes located on hills above the company town. The company store was essential to the company town and functioned three ways; it supplied work equipment and all the goods of a general store, became a place for socializing, and ran the miners into debt peonage from the use of script and its overly inflated prices. A school, church, post office, and even a community building and doctors office made up the company town. All workers from sheriffs and teachers to the town preacher were all on the company payroll. Everything within the confines of the town was owned and operated by the company.

As mining established permanence in Appalachia, the conditions of miners and their families worsened. The longer the companies operated in the mountains, the more power and authority they had both privately and publicly in the lives of the workers. Corruption and exploitation metastasized throughout Appalachia, especially after the peak of industrialization. During the industrial transformation of 1890-1920, there was little or no regulation of the living and working conditions in the mines.

West Virginia miners made twenty dollars less than the national average in 1909 enduring the highest miner death rates in the United States as well as a death rate of mine accidents that was five times higher than that of any European country. Miners risked their lives daily, facing such dangers as suffocation from poisonous gases, explosions, cave-ins, and shaft floods.

More West Virginia miners lived company in towns than in any other state (94 %.) He and his family were subjected to filthy and unsanitary living conditions. Women constantly battled coal soot which infested every part of their homes. There was no running water and no sewage or drainage systems, all sewage ran into nearby streams, often the same place where many people washed their clothes. Illness and disease ran as rampant through the company town as the coal dust did. The homes which miners typically paid six to eight dollars for per month were not maintained by the company. John L. Lewis described the dilapidated homes, “Old, unpainted board and batten houses – batten going or gone, and boards fast following, roofs broken, porches staggering, steps sagging, a riot of rubbish, and a medley of odors – such are features of the worst camps.”

After script, rent, electric, coal, medical care, and work supplies were deducted from the pay check there was often no money left to give the miner on pay day. Sometimes unoccupied homes and even the building of a new church were deducted. The company further infringed the rights of miners by monitoring vote ballots and censoring mail. The company did everything within its means to prevent unionization. If a miner was even thought to support unionization, he and his family were immediately thrown out of their homes and he was blacklisted from other mines.

The living and working conditions and control the company exerted over the lives of miners, completely stripped them of their identity. The native miner and his family had nothing to cling to. Some resorted to family and spiritual faith, while many resorted to such sinful behaviors as drinking, gambling, and prostitution. Many serpent handlers, when asked about their childhood, recall the poor living conditions of the company towns and the physical abuse of their alcoholic fathers who worked in the mines.

Serpent handlers endured these conditions throughout their lifetimes. The plight of the miner became increasingly difficult in the early twentieth-century. Holiness revivals and taking up serpents spread throughout the central Appalachian coalfields. It greatly appealed to coalminers who lived in areas where oppressive industrialization was the most intense. Many scholars who have researched the serpent handlers make some acknowledgement of the dichotomy that exists between the miner and the serpent handler and how the holiness movement spread in the coal camps during this time. Newsweek in 1945 made a negative recognition of this by describing the holiness people as a “weird cult among miners and farmers.”

Holiness grew during the most difficult times in the coalfields during the 1920’s and 30’s, before unionization. There was a call to the return of values when they rejected sinful behaviors surrounding them and held tightly to their faith. Spirituality is most intensified due to the conditions in the outlying environment. Parker Saylor, a Signs Following preacher of eastern Kentucky states, “My people just prayed harder, there wasn’t anything else to help them. (The church) that’s all they had.” He recalls his mother, a devout believer in holiness leading prayer meetings at their home in the company town they lived in during the 1920’s.

Reverend Bob Elkins who established his church in Jolo in the 1950’s spent forty-two years working beneath the earth as a supervisor. That was the same year of some of the largest coal production in state history as well as a year when mining accidents were reported almost daily in the Welch newspaper. The office of the State Mines Department optimistically reports that one fatality occurs for every 850,000 tons of coal mined, but more miners were killed that year in West Virginia the previous.

Elkins broke his back in mining accident and at seventy-nine years old, he is succumbing to black lung, respiratory disease resulting in prolonged inhalation of coal dust. His wife, the late Barbara Elkins lived in a company town with her former husband who was an abusive alcoholic. Her son Dewey Chafin worked as a miner and was also injured in a mining accident. Parker Saylor of Kentucky took up preaching the same time he became employed in the mines. George Went Hensley also worked in the mines during his lifetime.

Serpent handling appealed to the miners and their families due to the symbolic elements and its cultural characteristics derived from mountain religious practices in the nineteenth-century. Mary Lee Daughtery explains this symbolism:

The symbolism of the serpent is found in almost all cultures and religions everywhere in all ages. It suggests the opposition of good and evil, sickness and health, life and death, mortality and immortality, chaos and wisdom. Because the serpent lives in the ground but often is found in trees, it conveys the notion of transcendence, a creature that lives between earth and heaven. And because it sheds it skin, it seems to know the secret of eternal life.

This symbolism is dichotomous to the work of the miner. His work environment is underneath the earth’s surface where he must face dangerous conditions and make life and death decisions. Serpent handling was a religious practice that linked the spiritual world with the material world.

In Christianity, the serpent is a sign of evil descended from hell. Miners associate the capitalist transients as the devil and evil. Kimbrough also attributes the symbolism of the serpent as an “intermediary in the contest with the evil capitalists who operated coal mines and had destroyed mountain society with their worldly ways” and also states that “snake handling represents a form of super natural retaliation.”

Serpent handling and the holiness movement carried over many of the religious components and values from pre-industrial era. Individualism, traditionalism, fatalism, and the emphasis placed on community and kinship are characteristics associated with the people of Appalachia. The holiness movement in the coalfields encompasses these characteristics that hark back to their former identity. They maintained their individualism by rejecting outside forces such as the capitalists coal operators, missionaries, and even union representatives who all attempted to change their cultural identity. Appalachians are represented as being suspicious of strangers with roots from a long history of exploitation from outsiders.

They are also known for being fatalistic, but perhaps this outlook could also be translated into realistic. They were faced with great uncertainty in their harsh environments before and after industrialization. These conditions were so harsh that surviving was a daily struggle, so the hope for a better life after the present gave them the faith to exist in these conditions.

Holiness provided them with the means to form individualism and preserve some elements of their former cultural identity amongst all the outside forces who worked against them. The power of Signs Following and the holiness religion revived a sense of community and order established by revivals and services that in its earlier days took place in schools and storefronts. Participating in spiritually intense revivals and the value placed on the family, brought them closer together. These values were passed onto future generations from through church attendance and oral traditions. One example would include the first time one takes up serpents or when males are old enough to come to forward and give testimonials. Family was a way to preserve the future of the church and their cultural values. This clenching for tradition and the former way of life is also evident in the church doctrine which rejects worldly perspectives.

The church became a refuge were they could release and express their emotions and daily struggles from the exploitive, oppressive environments in which they lived. These emotionally intense sermons provided one with the opportunity to have an individual emotional catharsis where they are supported by others with healing touch and prayer. A jubilant atmosphere within the interior of the church gives them the opportunity to express themselves in a unique way. Their love for Jesus by the many components of a service such as shouting “Amen”, singing hymns, playing music, dancing and practicing the signs of Mark under the anointment of the Holy Ghost gives them spiritual expression and emotional release. The church is a refuge where they can escape the stresses of their daily lives and it serves as a sanctuary of shared spiritual and emotional experiences.

IV. Conclusion

Scholars on regional history and religion often do not acknowledge serpent handlers as an important part of the religious and cultural diversity that makes up Appalachia. Serpent handlers share a common history and struggle that has allowed them to form their own unique religion identity in the harsh environment of the coalfields and mountains. This shared history originates from the religious traditions they formed in rural isolation of pre-industrial era. With the rapid onset of industrialization, capitalists brought exploitation, substandard living conditions that interrupted their way of life; which in effect, made them cling to traditions and values they formed from living on the Appalachian frontier.

Capitalist outsiders and rapid industrialization, took everything away but the exercise of their faith. As the mine industry dwindled in the mid-twentieth century, out migration patterns depopulated the region. They went to work in the factories of Michigan, Indiana, and Ohio and the serpent handlers took their beliefs with them and established holiness churches. Within Appalachia, Signs Following churches are still present and thriving today in southwestern Virginia, southern West Virginia, and eastern Tennessee and Kentucky where coal still dominates the region and its pasts where great strides in industrialization took place.

Some feel that serpent handling compensates for poverty, ignorance, and isolation. The majority of modern day serpent handlers live above the poverty line. All the members of the Jolo congregation are employed or retired and none are assisted by welfare. Calling them poor is a relative term coined by a middle class perspective from many journalists who come to witness the “tests of their faith.” Ignorant and educated are other terms coined by these same perspectives that do not take into account the importance of native intelligence. Serpent handling grew when this region was the most populated and connected to the outside world, since it was first settled by whites.

This Signs Following sub denomination is a spiritual reflection carved out of the environment and regional history of the Appalachian Mountains. They are simply practicing the literal interpretation of the Bible. Many characteristics of their services are rooted from the religious traditions formed on the frontier such as highly emotional sermons with outbursts of shouting and praise, sudden religious conversions, and calling out the sinful behaviors of others as means of social control, among many other things. They are an important part of the larger picture that makes up the beautiful landscape and culture of Appalachia. The beauty of this religion lies in their firm belief and faith, in all of its components and practices.

For an outsider perspective to analyze or tests its validity is completely trivial and unnecessary to understanding this rich, complex religion, and its holy people. The survival of this church will persist as long as these cultural characteristics and shared history and are present in their environment as they have been for more than a century. The church is their refuge from their everyday struggle of existence where they share a common identity rooted from their faith which provides them with strength and comfort and hope for a better life, after this one. Serpent handling’s future may be lost to twenty-first century trends of cultural diffusion and globalization, or modern forces may very well strengthen their resolve against these influences, as they did more than a century ago.

Works Cited

1] McCauley, Deborah Vansau “Religion,” in High Mountains Rising, Appalachia in time and place, p.180. Ed. by Richard A. Straw & H. Tyler Blethen. Chicago: Univ. of Illinois Press, 2004.

[1] McCauley, Deborah Vansau. Appalachian Mountain Religion: a history, p.259. Chicago: Univ. of Illinois Press, 1995.

Holiness movement. (2005). Encyclopædia Britannica. Retrieved October 23, 2005, from Encyclopædia Britannica Online http://search.eb.com/eb/article-9040784

Pentecostals. (2005). Britannica Student Encyclopedia. Retrieved December 9, 2005, from Encyclopædia Britannica Online http://search.eb.com/ebi/article-9276352

[1] McCauley, “Religion,” p. 184-186

[1] Holiness movement. (2005). Encyclopædia Britannica. Retrieved October 23, 2005, from Encyclopædia Britannica Online http://search.eb.com/eb/article-9040784

[1] Wood, William W. Culture and personality aspects of the Pentecostal Holiness religion, p 45. Nevada: Hague Mouton & Co., 1965

 [1] McCauley, “Religion,” p. 186

[1] McCauley, Appalachian Mountain Religion: a history, p.265.

[1] The Holy Bible, King James Version [1]

5 Sept. 2005 Jolo Homecoming Services

[1]Kimbrough, David L. Taking up Serpents: Snake Handlers of Eastern Kentucky, p. 25. Chapel Hill, Univ. of North Carolina Press, 1995

[1] Kane, Steven Micheal. Snake Handlers of Southern Appalachia, p.119. Princeton University. University Microfilms Int., 1979

[1] Jolo Homecoming Service, 5 September 2005

[1] Conner, Chuck. Interview Oct. 30, 2005

[1] Jolo Homecoming Service, 5 September 2005

[1] Kane, Snake Handlers of Southern Appalachia, p. 44

[1] Kane, Steven Micheal. Aspects of Holy Ghosts Religion, p. 22. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press., 1973.

17 Brown, Fred and McDonald, Jeanne. The Serpent Handlers, Three Families and their Faith, p. 321. Winston-Salem, NC: John F. Blair, Publisher, 2000.

[1] The Holy Bible, King James edition

[1] Interview, Chuck Conner, 30 Oct. 2005

[1] Kane, Aspects of Holy Ghosts Religion, p. 16

[1] Jolo Homecoming Services

1] Kane Aspects of Holy Ghosts Religion, p. 33-34

[1] Jolo Homecoming Services, Sunday 4 September 2005

[1] Brown, Fred and McDonald, Jeanne, p. 35

[1] Kimbrough, p. 164 [

1] Interview Charles Conner Oct. 30, 2005

[1] Kimbrough, p.81

[1] Brown, Fred and McDonald, Jeanne, p.253

[1] Ibid, p. 285

[1] Kimbrough, p. 78

[1] Morrow, Jimmy & Hood, Ralph W. Handling Serpents, Pastor Jimmy’s Narrative History of His Appalachian Jesus Name Tradition, p. 7-11. Macon, GA: Mercer Univ. Press, 2005.

[1] Ibid, p. 33 [

1] Chuck Conner. Photo, “Slain in the Spirit,” 2000-2005

[1] Interview Chuck Conner, Oct. 30, 2005

[1] Bell, Shannon, “January 15, 2000: Our first visit,” http://www.chuckconner.com/beyondtheserpents/essays2.htm, 2000. [accessed 29 August 2005].

[1] Jolo Homecoming Services, 2 September 2005, recorded by Chuck Conner, transcribed by Miranda L. Kessel

[1] Burton, Thomas. Serpent Handling Believers, p.46-47.. Knoxville, TN: Univ. of Tennessee, 1993.

[1] Morrow, Jimmy & Hood, Ralph W. Handling Serpents, Pastor Jimmy’s Narrative History of His Appalachian Jesus Name Tradition, p1-7. Macon, GA: Mercer Univ. Press, 2005.

[1] Interview Dr. Ronald Lewis, 1 December 2005

[1] Callahan, Richard J. Working with religion : industrialization and resistance in the eastern Kentucky coal fields, p. 77. Univ. of California: Ann Arbor, MI: Mircofilms International, 2002.

[1] Moore, Tygrel G. “Economic Development in Appalachian Kentucky, 1800-1860.” Appalachian Frontiers: Settlement, Society, and Development in the Pre Industrial Era, Table 13.1 p 226. Ed. Robert D. Mitchell. Univ. of Kentucky Press, 1991. 41 Ibid, p.223 42 Ibid, p.264

[1] Callahan, p. 77

[1] Callahan, p.51

[1] Ibid

[1] Thomas, Bruce Jerry. Coal Country: The Southern Smokeless Coal Industry and its Effects on Are Development, 1872-1910, p.281. Chapel Hill, NC: University Microfilms, 1972.

[1] Callahan , p.117

{1] Cushman, James E. Beyond Survival (Revitalizing the Small Church)p35-41. Parsons, WV: McClain Printing Co. Parsons, WV, 1981.

[1] Thomas, “Table VI,” p.200.

[1]Corbin, David Allan. Life, Work, Rebellion, in the Coal Fields, The Southern West Virginia Miners,p1880-1922, p10. Chicago: Univ. Illinois Press, 1981.

[1] Ibid , p. 23.

[1] Ibid, p. 35.

[1] Lewis, John L. The Miners Fight for American Standards, p.172. Indianopolis, IN: Bell Pub. Co, 1925.

[1] Thomas, p. 28.1

[1] Callahan, 112.

[1] Daugherty, Mountain Holiness, p.150, Kimbrough, p. 13, Callahan ,179

[1] Burton, p. 35.

[1] Kimbrough 91-93.

[1] Ibid.

[1] Brown, Fred and McDonald, Jeanne, p. 25.9 [

1] Unknown “”Journey’s End,” jobless miner writes of plight,” Welch Daily News, Saturday evening, 27 May 1950.

[1] Charleston Associated Press, “Miners dig 850,000 tons of coal per fatality,” Welch Daily News, Friday Evening, 4 January 1952. Charleston Associated Press, “Coal production in state in 1951 may be third largest ever,” Welch Daily News, 20 December 1951.

[1] Brown, Fred and McDonald, Jeanne, p, 288. [1] Kimbrough, p.57. [1] Brown, Fred and McDonald, Jeanne, p, 53.


Primary Sources

Accounts, interviews, photos, and recordings

Jolo Homecoming Service, 4 September 2005

Interview Dewey Chafin 4 September 2005

Interview Charles Conner 30 October 2005

Interview Ronald Lewis, 1 December 2005

Jolo Homecoming Services, 2 September 2005, recorded by Chuck Conner, transcribed by Miranda L. Kessel

Chuck Conner. Photo, “Slain in the Spirit,” 2000-2005

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Charleston Associated Press, “Miners dig 850,000 tons of coal per fatality,” Welch Daily News, Friday Evening, 4 January 1952.

Charleston Associated Press, “Coal production in state in 1951 may be third largest ever,” Welch Daily News, 20 December 1951.

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Brown, Fred and McDonald, Jeanne. The Serpent Handlers, Three Families and their Faith, p. 231-341. Winston-Salem, NC: John F. Blair, Publisher, 2000.

Daughtery, Mary Lee “Mountain Holiness” in Christianity in Appalachia, Profiles in Regional Pluralism. Ed. Bill J. Leonard. Knoxville, TN. Univ. of Tennessee Press, 1999.

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