Thomas G. Burton
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In some remote churches in East Tennessee and nearby states, Jesus'
words in the sixteenth chapter of Saint Mark are taken literally: "and
they shall take up serpents; and if they drink any deadly thing, it
shall not hurt them." Members of these churches describe themselves as
Pentecostal-Holiness, autonomous groups of Christians with strong
traditional religious views and a fundamentalist approach to biblical
interpretation. Their strong faith is based largely on personal
experience. Handling serpents and fire, laying on the hands of healing,
speaking in tongues, and drinking poison are seen as acts of Christian
obedience that demonstrate the power of the Holy Spirit. In the past
these very religious people have often been distorted by the media as
members of a "snake religion" or a "snake cult" because of their
unorthodox beliefs and practices. Thomas Burton seeks to present a
more balanced view of this generally misunderstood group in this
in-depth study of serpent handlers and their religious culture. Using
both oral history and scholarly research, Burton traces the evolution
of Christian serpent handling from its apparent beginning in East
Tennessee and explores legal and ethical issues associated with this
and other unorthodox practices, allowing participants to speak for
themselves through personal interviews. The result is both a dramatic
presentation, through vivid photography, and a thorough analytical
insight into the serpent handlers' culture.
Pentecostal churches that incorporate into their services the handling
of poisonous snakes, and sometimes also the deliberate ingestion of
strychnine, dot the South from Florida to Kentucky. In this fascinating,
sympathetic ethnography Burton traces the origins of the cult to hills
near Cleveland, Tennessee, where, in 1908, a rattlesnake appeared to one
George Went Hensley as he was praying. Hensley picked it up and was not
bitten, and thus was born his evangelical ministry based on Mark 16:
"They shall take up serpents; and if they drink any deadly thing, it
shall not hurt them." Handling snakes may symbolize a mastery of evil;
if one's faith is strong enough, then either one won't be bitten or one
won't be affected by the bite. Burton documents the occasional deaths
from such practices--as often from strychnine as venom--as well as the
media scrutiny they generate and the difficulties snake handlers have
faced in court. Burton is their defender, feeling they are deeply
misunderstood, "a strong, courageous, ethical people. . . . Some have
remarkably gentle spirits." The extended testaments from handlers and
Burton's own portraits of individuals are strange, compelling, sad, and
often quite moving. With Burton's 88 photographs of handlers in their
act of worship they make for an extraordinary account.
The Times Literary Supplement:
Thomas Burton's lucid and learned account of the phenomenon shows how
serpent-handling began over ninety years ago in the American South. . . .
Burton handles explanations gingerly, as well he might, given that such
topics easily bring academic copperheads out of their boxes. He knows
snake-handlers are easily dismissed. . . . He begins Serpent-Handling
Believers by showing sympathetic respect for the people concerned,
describing them as good people intent on holiness, . . . and in no way
crazed except by definition. . . . Sociological accounts come trippingly
off the pen, in terms of strange powers compensating for everyday
powerlessness. Burton's own stress lies quite plausibly on snake-handling
as a sanctified version of public tests associated with codes of heroic
behaviour. One fact at least is clear, though no doubt inferences from
it will vary: snake-handlers' spelling may be idiosyncratic, but they
read the King James Version easily and often.
Melding oral history with scholarly research, this remarkable book
explores the controversial practice among some Christians of handling
poisonous serpents as an act of faithful obedience. Dramatic photographs
and interviews introduce readers to some of the devoted practitioners.
Burton's respectful approach does not prevent him from asking hard
questions, however, as he analyzes the history of the practice and
accompanying ethical and legal issues. Having produced three documents
on serpent handling, Burton (English, East Tennessee State Univ.) here,
too, distills the salient issues while giving readers a glimpse of the
serpent-handlers' culture, as they understand it. Highly recommended.
--Cynthia Widmer, Downingtown, Pa.
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