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Friday, January 25, 2013

A Little Church In North Carolina--My Favorite Places In Appalachia

For the past several years, I have put a great deal of thought into what I am about to write here.  Although I have written more than fifty pages of a first draft of a book about this place, these people, and the various myths, beliefs, and lies that surround them, I have chosen to never complete that book or to publish a single page about them.  But the people involved in this piece, the place I speak of, and the events I have seen there and, sometimes, participated in will forever remain a part of my psyche and served to change me and make me a better human being.  Several months ago, a blogger friend of mine whose wonderful blog can be found at Wayfarin' Stranger wrote a brief piece about these people which prompted several e-mail exchanges between us.  He also suggested that I consider writing about this place and these people on this blog and that we could cross link our pieces about them.  I never gave him a definitive answer and in my busy life never got around to making a final decision about this piece.  I have finally decided to write about them and it is my sincere hope that it is the correct decision. 

The place to which I refer is a little serpent handling church located somewhere in North Carolina.  The writing will also be influenced by nearly a dozen other such churches I have attended in Tennessee, West Virginia, Kentucky, and Indiana.  I will not give any specifics about the location of this church, the names of its people, or directions on how to find such churches. I will not post any photographs of any of these people or their churches.  I have not attended this church in several years and may well never attend it again.  But it will always be in my heart and on my mind. I want to make absolutely clear that this is written with deep, heartfelt love and respect for these people.  It is my hope that this writing can help dispel some of the misunderstandings, myths, and lies which have been propagated about them.  It is my even greater hope that they will not be harmed by this writing and will understand my motives in writing it. 

In 2004, I read Dennis Covington's self-serving and defamatory book "Salvation On Sand Mountain" which is generally the first book anyone finds in a Google search about serpent handlers.  I knew enough about my homeland and its people to know that the book was highly inaccurate at best and a conglomeration of deliberate lies at worst.  But it did prompt me to do further reading on the subject and the next book I found was "The Serpent Handlers: Three Families And Their Faith" by Fred Brown and Jeanne McDonald.  Ever since that day, it has been the book I recommend to anyone who requests information about these people.  It is everything that the Covington book is not.  The Brown/McDonald book is a masterpiece.  It is honest, accurate, caring, informative and well worth reading by anyone who considers herself to be a student of either Appalachia, culture, or religion.  From that time forward, I sought out every written word I could find on the topic and began to seek contacts among the serpent handlers of Appalachia. 

I was eventually lucky enough to make contact with a large number of serpent handling believers and attended my first serpent handling service in September of 2004 at this little church in North Carolina.  It was their annual homecoming service and was attended by more than a hundred people from a dozen or so states all over Appalachia and the area of the Great Migration.  I was able to see serpents handled, fire handled, speaking in tongues, and many other practices which generally occur only in Holiness or Pentecostal churches.  I learned a great deal on that trip, met several believers who became my friends, and attended services at another church in Tennessee.  What I have always said to the uninitiated about that first weekend among serpent handlers is that I believe that no one can see serpent handling practiced for the first time without having their beliefs about the subject change in some way.  Not everyone who sees a service comes away with a positive impression.  Not everyone comes away believing it is a legitimate religious practice. Most importantly, not everyone comes away with the same negative opinions with which they arrived.  But everyone who actually sees a serpent handling service comes away with more accurate information and some easily discernible change in their previously held concepts.  I was better informed, somewhat enlightened and most importantly knew that I had been correct in my first impressions of Dennis Covington's book. I came away with absolutely no doubt that serpent handling is a legitimate religious practice.   I also came away with understanding and respect for these often maligned people and their beliefs. 

Additionally, I came away from that first weekend with them with a deep seated desire to know more about them and a hope to write a book about them which could counter the many misconceptions and myths.  I began to spend a great deal of time visiting serpent handling churches in several states.  Yes, there are serpent handlers in several states.  They are not as widespread as they were thirty or forty years ago; but, there are serpent handling believers who actively practice their faith in every state in Central or Southern Appalachia and most of the Midwestern states which were affected by the Great Migration. I have personally attended services in the five states I mentioned earlier.  I have seen several dozen believers take up serpents, handle fire, speak in tongues, lay hands on the sick, and fall out in the spirit.  The one practice which is often spoken of with regard to these people that I have not seen is drinking poison.  But I have met several people who have drunk poison in the past and know even more who are related to those who have done this.  All these practices have a Biblical basis, primarily from the sixteenth chapter of the Gospel of Mark.  Some of them are also seen in the Book of Acts and the other Gospels.  Serpent handling is mentioned in one other place, the 28th Chapter of the Book of Acts.  It is my belief that the Biblical basis for these practices is at least as solidly founded as many other more conventional religious practices such as the washing of feet by believers.  It is also my belief that the handling of serpents, as it is practiced in most of these churches, constitutes a sacrament just as legitimate as baptism or the administration of last rites. 

At this point, I think it is appropriate that I should state that I am not a particularly religious person.  I definitely believe in a benevolent God and I am intelligent enough to know that I have no idea what that God thinks, believes, prefers, or wants me to do other than a common sense list of do's and don'ts such as 1) do practice charity; and 2) don't harm others.  I also have strongly held beliefs about the separation of church and state and I quickly shake the dust of any place off my feet when its inhabitants begin telling me they have absolute answers about right and wrong.  I have never felt the need to shake the dust of any serpent handling church off my feet.  I have never felt that these people wanted to control me, demean me, or protect me from the error of my ways.  I have universally received respect, non-judgmental love, and acceptance from these people.  I will firmly state that no such church I have ever attended was a cult or cult-like.  The great majority of serpent handling believers I have known have simply been good, honest, hard working, God fearing Appalachians just like their non-serpent handling neighbors with that one exception of practicing a minority interpretation of the Bible.  At no time have I ever felt endangered while I was in their presence.  They absolutely will not force or try to coerce anyone into handling serpents.  As funny as the well known Windy Bagwell comedy routine is, it does not represent any of these people accurately and it has done a great deal of harm to them over the years just as has the Covington book. 

It seems appropriate to list several of the contradictions to the common myths about these people which I found in their presence:
  1. They are not members of a cult.
  2. The serpents they handle are real and, to my knowledge, never have their fangs removed.
  3. These people are Christians just as much as any other Methodist, Baptist, or Episcopalian in their vicinity.
  4. They will not force anyone to handle a serpent nor will they try to force any other belief or practice on anyone.
  5. They are rational, intelligent members of their community.  They are not mentally ill.
  6. They are not exhibitionists and do not seek publicity with a few individual exceptions.
  7. They are practicing what they believe to be a directive from the God they worship and they are not the children of Satan.
 At times in this little church in North Carolina, I have heard stories of the deaths of friends and family members due to serpent bite or the ingestion of poison.  I have seen the walls literally vibrate from the music, dancing, and enthusiastic worship.  I have heard personal stories from believers who have survived untreated serpent bites. I have seen cynics and doubters changer their minds in the presence of these people.  I have sat in that church on one occasion and counted 28 attendees and more than 20 of those people I knew to have lost at least one relative due to the practice.  And in the face of all this, I have never seen doubt in these people's eyes about the correctness of their beliefs and practices.  I often ask people who believe the common myths about serpent handlers if they can name five of their acquaintances who are willing to die for any particular belief they may hold.  Rarely are any of these people able to give me five such names.  I always respond that I have known dozens of serpent handling believers who have clearly demonstrated in my presence a willingness to die, if that should be their fate, for their particular interpretation of the scriptures. 

They are a unique, honest, God-loving and God-fearing group of people.  Whether they are absolutely right or wrong matters little to me.  My respect for their unshakeable beliefs keeps them in my mind at times when I am nowhere near them.  I think of them often and I am often reminded of an e-mail I received from a college professor who had studied them at length in which he said "I wish I could be in a spirit filled service with them again."  I know at least a half dozen doctoral level professionals who have attended such services and hold the same feelings for these people.  That little church in North Carolina will always be one of my favorite places in Appalachia. 

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