Not that I’ve thought a lot about it, but I’ve always assumed that snake-handling preachers caught their own snakes. Nope. Turns out that South Carolina is the go-to place for snake-handling preachers to acquire their circus act’s co-star.
According to the Independent Mail, South Carolina is “one of the few states with virtually no restrictions on the sale of venomous serpents.” The report adds that the state has, through the years, “provided snakes that serpent-handling preachers use at Sunday services because the Palmetto State, unlike many jurisdictions, doesn’t limit the sale of venomous snakes, state officials in South Carolina, Tennessee and Kentucky say.”
While the practice of snake handling in churches isn’t common, it does have a stronghold among Pentecostal congregations deep in the Appalachians. Embracing what’s called the “holiness doctrine,” they believe that sanctification (being made more like Jesus) is a product of human striving. Sinlessness is achievable on this side of eternity if you work at it hard enough. That same warped theology undergirds the belief that with enough faith a Christian can do whatever he wants. Taken to its absurd conclusion, if a Christian has enough faith, he can stand in front of an oncoming train and escape harm. While I am unware of any sects that practice standing in front of trains to demonstrate their faith, that’s essentially what snake handlers are doing.
The practice of snake handling is built on a passage in Mark 16 that references picking up snakes and drinking poison without suffering harm. I don’t have the space to deconstruct the belief, so two notes will have to suffice: 1. When Satan tempted Jesus to throw himself off the top of the temple’s pinnacle to prove that he was the Son of God, Jesus responded by quoting Deuteronomy 6:16 that says, “Do not put the Lord your God to the test.” 2. Almost all conservative theologians believe that Mark 16:9-20 was a later addition and not part of the inspired canon. Don’t believe me? Pick up your Bible, turn to Mark 16, and take note of the disclaimer.
It should also be pointed out that the passage doesn’t say that they won’t get bitten. In fact, the part about drinking poison means that if the snake handlers really wanted to demonstrate faith, they’d let the snakes bite them.
Of course, professing Christians over the generations have misread and misinterpreted the Bible in a variety of colorful ways. Snake-handling preachers do so in a way that is potentially deadly. And they also have to get their snakes from somewhere. South Carolina is the favored place.
Growing up in the Deep South, I am quite familiar with venomous snakes, seeing how it was a rare day that I didn’t spot an eastern diamondback, cottonmouth, or copperhead. I grew up catching snakes, but my friends and I were never foolish enough to believe that the snakes we caught wouldn’t bite us if given the chance. Considering that the majority of snake-handling preachers hail from the Appalachian region that is full of venomous snakes, it seems like poor stewardship of their congregation’s tithes to buy the snakes instead of catching them.
To be fair, not all snake-handling preachers buy their snakes. Speaking to the Independent Mail, snake handler Jimmy Morrow said that he prefers to catch his own snakes, although he did tack on that he understands why others go to South Carolina to buy their snakes.
I kind of wish that I had known of this practice as a boy. Besides making money by mowing people’s lawns, I could’ve made some extra spending cash by catching and selling snakes to deluded, exegetically-challenged preachers.