Serpent-Handling Believers Serpent-Handling Believers
Thomas G. Burton
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Reviews of Serpent-Handling Believers.
The Publisher:
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.

Library Journal:
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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