The Media’s Role in the Oppression of Signs-Following Believers
The church members of the Jolo Church of the Lord Jesus come from a long line of oppression and discrimination at the hands of outsiders. The people who “discovered” Appalachia in the earlier part of the twentieth century depicted this land and its people with “an ‘otherness’ which placed the region in radical opposition to middle class America.” Widespread writings about these “different” and “strange” people flourished. Arnold Toynbee wrote in 1947 that
The modern Appalachian has…failed to hold his ground and has gone downhill in a most disconcerting fashion. In fact, the Appalachian “mountain people” today are no better than barbarians. They have relapsed into illiteracy and witchcraft. They suffer from poverty, squalor, and ill-health. They are the American counterparts of the latter-day White barbarians of the Old-Fifis, Albanians, Kurds, Pathans and Hairy Ainus; but, whereas, these latter are belated survivals of an ancient barbarism, the Appalachians present the melancholy spectacle of a people who have acquired civilization and then lost it (Toynbee, 1947).
The many accounts like this one made the Appalachians seem less than human, so the fast-talking city man was “justified” in tricking the “mountain barbarians” out of their land and valuable resources.
Descriptions like Toynbee’s have not been easily lived down by native Appalachians. Especially in the 60s and 70s, when the “War on Poverty” hit Appalachia full force, the media’s descriptions of the mountain people were not very flattering. These individuals were almost always described as poor, uneducated hillbillies who were violent by nature and suspicious of outsiders. For many years, Appalachians have been trying to recover from this negative view and, as a result, are extremely sensitive to the ways in which their culture is portrayed to mainstream America. It is for this reason that I believe many have discounted and disowned the Pentecostal Signs Followers as a part of their Appalachian culture.
The Pentecostal Signs Followers have not only suffered severe oppression at the hands of outsiders along with the rest of Appalachia; they have also had to suffer prejudice and discrimination from members of their own culture over the past twenty years. I believe that this particular form of prejudice and discrimination is one that is born out of anger at the negative way in which Appalachians have been portrayed to the American culture and the perpetuation of those stereotypes through the sensational media coverage of the Signs Following churches. Many in “mainstream Appalachia” are extremely sensitive to association of “serpent handling” with their culture. Take, for instance, this response, which is only one of many that photographer Chuck Conner and I have received over the past two years since we posted a description of our project (the documentation of the Signs-Following Church of the Lord Jesus) on the web:
…I was born in West Virginia and consider myself a relatively well-educated person, but this is one subject I refuse to learn about…This is nothing more than a cult that is concealing itself in religious half-truths. These people take one or two verses from the Bible and base their “beliefs” [on those verses]. You have to take the Bible as a whole in order to understand it. You can take a verse from here or there and “make” any theory, but it does not mean that is how it is or [is] meant to be. If God meant for us to use the serpent in our religious services or experiences, he would not have condemned the snake for its role in the Garden of Eden. That punishment is [to] be feared, not [revered]. To say that God is protecting them during their services with the snakes is a lie. The devil will use whatever he can to keep people from the real word of God. The devil is protecting them from the snakebites and letting the people falsely believe it is God. If the devil succeeds in his plan, he will allow good things to happen to people so that they will not question the authority on which the people base their beliefs. Your promoting this cult is only adding to the “respectability” of this cult. You are not working for the good of God by “educating” the masses as though this [were] a legitimate form of worship. It is not [and] never will be how God wants us to worship Him. The dictionary plainly describes the rattlesnake as poisonous, this means poison or potential death-producing. DDDUUUAAAHHH, where is your head and brains that God gave you to think and reason with?
This person is obviously very angry that we would even think of researching this sect of Christianity. I believe, however, that the deeper root of this response is a fear that writing about this religious sect will only serve to perpetuate the negative “hillbilly” stereotype of Appalachia. While the Signs-Following faith is a minority in Appalachian religions, it is one of the most commonly written about aspects of Appalachian culture in the media. And to make matters worse, the media pieces that are typically done on these churches are extremely sensational.
Signs-Following churches have been exploited by the media for nearly thirty years. Stories and pictures of them have appeared in Hustler Magazine, The National Enquirer, Jerry Springer, and countless other publications and television shows that have simply extracted a sensational and dishonest portrayal of the church members. Headlines like: “The Gospel of Death; Congregations Play With Snakes, Fire, and Even Drink Poison,” “Rattler Makes Believer Out of Snake Cultist,” “Worshippers Hold Killer Snakes and Drink Poison in Bizarre Churches,” or “Dancing With Death; Worshippers Handle Killer Snakes and Drink Poison in Churches Across America” have been splashed across tabloids and magazines, painting an extremely negative image of these believers. It is no wonder that most Appalachians cringe at the sight of yet another portrayal of the Signs Followers – it reflects negatively back upon the entire Appalachian region.
The prejudice that many Appalachians feel toward the Signs Followers is oftentimes manifested through discrimination, which is the behavioral result of the attitude of prejudice. Many individuals within the Church of the Lord Jesus have suffered discrimination in the workplace and in public. For instance, Richard Evans, a member of the Jolo church and a coal miner by trade, was bitten by a rattlesnake in a worship service a few years ago. When he called in sick to work for the bite, he was fired from his job as soon as they discovered the cause for his sick leave. Furthermore, church members tell me that on numerous occasions they have been called names to their faces or behind their backs by various people in the nearby communities. Brother Clifton Hampton stated in an interview, “This is a persecuted way wherever we walk. We’re considered less than the rest of the churches, and all we do is obey the Word of God.”
Some of the manifestations of prejudice that the Signs Followers have experienced are actually “hate crimes” by definition. The family of one church member, Jeff Hagerman, was extremely angry that he joined the faith and actually came into the church on multiple occasions to terrorize the congregation. They seized a total of fifteen poisonous snakes on two different instances and killed them, while threatening the congregation members with canes. Reverend Bob Elkins has been with the church for over fifty years and has suffered a great deal at the hands of persecutors. He states, “I’ve been whipped, I’ve been drug across the floor by the hair on my head. I still won’t change. I’ve been arrested. But I’ve got a payday coming. The prize is at the end of the race. I just have to count it all as joy because if you make it, it’s worth it.”
Not only have the Signs Followers suffered persecution and discrimination from individual citizens, but they are also discriminated against by the law; they have had their religious freedom taken from them. In every state but West Virginia, it is illegal to handle serpents in religious services. This poses a serious problem for believers: they perceive the handling of serpents to be a command from God, not a choice. Because of this belief, there have been numerous occasions in which church members have been arrested.
The media as a whole has not done Appalachia justice. While King Coal has oppressed an entire culture economically, the media has been the perpetrator of a type of spiritual oppression. Instead of focusing on the positive aspects of the Appalachian culture, like the hospitality, caring nature, individuality, creativity, and deep spirituality of the mountain people, the national media has, for the most part, focused on the “isolation,” “backwardness,” and “poverty.” If the media had not tainted mainstream America’s potential for seeing the beauty and spirit of this wonderful culture and if the Signs Followers had been more truthfully depicted in the media as the loving, kind, and deeply faithful Christians that they are, Appalachians might not be so quick to “disown” this beautiful and unique part of their culture.
© Shannon Bell, 2002