Originally created 06/29/96

Taking up serpents



EPHESUS, Ga. -Spencer Evans was consumed in the Spirit when the snake struck.

The 4-foot timber rattler sank its fangs into the 23-year-old preacher's left wrist as he rejoiced in God.

Mr. Evans said he was 20 minutes into his tent revival he felt the Spirit "move on him." He leaned over, reached into a handmade wooden box and brought out the rattlesnake. The congregants were still on their feet, their arms waving to and fro in celebration of the Lord, their boots damp from the dank North Georgia air.

The next few seconds were a blur. Mr. Evans never saw the snake strike, but he remembers the feeling.

"It hit my wrist. It was like a baseball popped me. I was preachin', just comin' to the end of my message - it was dark out - and I wasn't watchin' it."

Within the Holiness faith is a minority of churches whose members handle snakes and "serpents." Mr. Evans is one of an estimated 100 snake-handlers at some 35 churches and numerous converted gas stations and dwellings scattered throughout Alabama, Georgia, Tennessee, West Virginia, Kentucky and Indiana. The majority of these handlers firmly believe scripture instructs them not only to handle snakes but to drink strychnine and handle fire.

Two hours after Mr. Evans was bitten by the rattler, Franklin County EMS technician Mike Smith got the call. When he and his partner arrived, they found Mr. Evans in the bathroom of a friend's trailer adjacent to the 16-by-33-foot tent where he had been preaching to a crowd of 25.

Nauseated and slumped over the toilet, Mr. Evans told the EMTs that he wanted to stay and let the Holy Spirt take over.

Mr. Smith could see the venom was well on its way to killing the preacher.

"He was already in shock. He was sweaty, clammy and nauseous. He had been vomiting, and his left arm had already grown black up to his elbow. No pulse could be found in his extremities and when we finally got his blood pressure, it was 56/0 - normal is around 140/80. He had no diastolic pressure."

Mr. Smith knew if Mr. Evans stayed in the trailer, he would be dead in two to three hours.

After that night, his tent stood empty for nine days as doctors at Tanner Medical Center in Carrollton worked feverishly to undo the swelling that had immobilized his left arm and was now gradually making its way up through his shoulder, neck and face.

"He really pumped it in me - I should have died in 20-30 minutes," said Mr. Evans. "I was feeling some dizziness, like something stabbed me in the stomach. I told the EMT I didn't want to go, and he just said, `Yeah, you're goin.'??"

Mr. Evans spent his 24th birthday, June 9, in the hospital. Doctors the previous days had to split his arm to relieve the extensive swelling. He visited the operating room three times where they "cut my arm and laid it open, cleaned and sewed me up," he says.

The week after his release, June 15, Mr. Evans rejoined his friends for services at a Holiness church in Kingston, Ga. - the Church of the Lord Jesus Christ. Again, he was moved by the Holy Spirit, anointed and handled snakes.

"I done took 'em up. I still believe it's right. The Bible didn't say they wouldn't bite," he says emphatically.

Nowhere else in the world are there congregations identical to these tucked neatly away in the pockets and hollows of the Appalachians. In the broadest terms, these congregations are fundamentalist, meaning scripture is interpreted literally. They recognize only the King James version of the Bible and consider themselves fiercely independent of mainstream Christian denominations.

Though similar to the Pentecostals in that they also speak in tongues, these churches do not recognize earthly authority and belong to no global denomination or governing body. Preachers "rise" or are "called upon" to preach as they did at the turn of the century. There are no "official" ordinations or seminaries.

Regular snake-handlers - those who handle at every service, two to three times a week - are commonly preachers. Most who drink strychnine and handle fire also handle snakes. Many who handle snakes do not handle fire or drink strychnine. Also, members in general feel it is not an imperative of the Lord's faith to handle snakes; handling snakes is not a test of faith but a mandate from God.

Few historians dispute that a roving preacher by the name of George Hensley founded the Holiness Church 80 years ago. Originally a member of the Church of God based in Cleveland, Tenn., Mr. Hensley parted ways with the Church of God in the early 1920s, when it stopped embracing serpent-handling.

Mark 16:18 of the King James Bible reads:

"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."

For the approximately 2,000 congregants who attend snake-handling churches, this passage and others taken literally (Luke 10:19) are cornerstones of their faith. From these stones spring fervent and steadfast beliefs governing dress, speech, civic loyalty and civil rights, marriage, and the right to pray, as outlined by God.

Faith is at times put in balance with death. Seventy-seven serpent-related deaths have been documented since the 1920s - less than one a year. In the event of a bite, medical attention is always offered, but it's usually refused.

Snake-handling is outlawed in every Appalachian state except West Virginia. In Georgia, under the laws of endangerment, it remains a misdemeanor to handle snakes without a permit, but the law is loosely enforced.

States west of the Rocky Mountains have no laws governing snake-handling.

In the years after the Civil War, a series of events set up the conditions that allowed for the creation of Hensley's Holiness churches.

"Vast amounts of coal and timber were discovered in remote areas of eastern Kentucky, on land where families had already established deep roots and homesteads," said David Kimbrough, an Appalachian folklore expert who has a doctorate in American history. "Some families were run off their land and became subsistence farmers deep in the hills as sons and husbands went to work in the coal mines."

Methodist preachers or "circuit riders" riding from coal camps to broken-down homes were some of the first to preach to these Often destitute, these families needed to see something demonstrative, such as the healing powers of the laying on of hands. Ministers preached the miraculous and summoned the Holy Spirit to empower, bolstering moral strength through participation.

"At the turn of the century, there was a merging of traditions based upon a reaction against Modernism. A fundamentalist movement emerged to go back and examine the text (the Bible) and interpret it literally," said Ralph Hood, professor of psychology at University of Tennessee and recipient of the coveted William James psychology award. "The Pentecostal church was saying, `You need to find and feel those experiences and know (your faith) through emotion.' Their focus was on the experience. Holiness churches, whose roots stem from the Church of God, wanted an all-consuming experience, as manifested in a transformation of life."

Today, this transformation is symbolized not only by speaking in tongues but also in appearance. Women ordinarily wear long dresses and their hair uncut. Neither makeup nor jewelry is commonly worn. Use of tobacco and donning mustaches or beards is forbidden for men. Equally shunned is gossip, lying and back-stabbing.

Most Holiness members will openly admit theirs is not a church for mainstreamers. To qualify, you must be devout and a warrior for Christ. You come to church prepared to wage spiritual warfare against the devil.

Mr. Evans is such a warrior.

Today, his only financial support comes from his wife. It will be three months before any movement will come back to his arm. He has lost his job at a local textile mill and has no insurance.

He promises to make good on his debt as he cites the King James Bible, the book of Job, and says, "Job was perfect, and he lost everything. He trusted in the Lord. You're going to go through things on this Earth, and when it's all over and said and done with, it will be worth it all."

"When I got bit, I was kinda afraid of passing over to the other side, or staying alive. God is so powerful. God told us to fear him. He said, `The beginning of wisdom is to fear the Lord.' He knows every serpent I ever took up and why I got bit. God had control over his mouth - God knows why."