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The Snake Handlers

Salvation on Sand Mountain

By Dennis Covington

Publisher: Addison-Wesley

Pages: 240

Price: $20

Review Author: David Hartman

The Rev. David Hartman is the Minister of the Harrodsburg Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in Harrodsburg, Kentucky.

In October 1991 Glenn Summerford, pastor of The Church of Jesus with Signs Following, in Scottsboro, Alabama, got drunk. He beat up his wife, Darlene, put a gun to her head, forced her to stick her hand in a cage full of rattlesnakes, drove her around while her hand ballooned and blackened, and then compelled her to write a suicide note to their son. After dictating the note — “Daddy’s asleep,” it said, “he don’t know what I’m doing” — Summerford dragged her back out to the snake cages, made her stick her hand in again, and, after a canebrake rattler bit her for the second time, kicked her back into the house. There he poured himself another drink turned on the television, and waited for her to die. But he passed out first, and she staggered out to the kitchen and called her sister, who called an ambulance. Darlene was saved; Glenn was tried for attempted murder and sentenced to 99 years. What can one say about such a man, except that he must be unspeakably cruel and evil? But he had his defenders among his parishioners. Darlene, it was pointed out in the trial, had handled snakes in worship herself, and even carried pictures of her favorite rattlers in her purse. “It just makes you feel different,” she told a reporter. “It’s just knowing you got power over them snakes.” The reporter was Dennis Covington, a former war correspondent in El Salvador and a professor at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, who was covering the trial for The New York Times. In the end, Covington did more than report on the trial. He delved deeply into the lives and faith of the snake handlers. Within months, he had become one himself.

It is impossible to fathom the phenomenon of snake handling without taking into account the culture of southern Appalachia. The South, devastated by the Civil War and perpetuating its own misery through the baleful Jim Crow culture, only returned to economic vibrancy about the time post-World War II Germany and Japan did. The homogenization of America, propelled by freeways, suburbs, fast-food outlets, and cable television, has encompassed Dixie, too, transforming much of what H.L. Mencken dismissed as “the Sahara of the Bozart” into a kind of McSouth. But a number of folks, particularly in southern Appalachia, have maintained their own peculiar culture. “Borderlanders,” David Hackett Fischer dubs them in his seminal work Albion’s Seed, the descendants of poor Scotch-Irish Protestants who migrated to America in the mid-18th century for economic reasons and eventually settled in the mountains of what was then the western frontier. The terrain of southern Appalachia is vastly different from the stark grandeur of the Rockies, or the ordered beauty of the Shenandoah Valley with its long blue ridges. Southern Appalachia is a jumble of knobs and crevices, deciduous wilderness and rock. It is less America’s Switzerland than it is America’s Montenegro, inaccessible and disorienting. It is the ideal terrain to perpetuate the culture and religion of a people already fierce and clannish, a breeding ground for feuds and warriors. Its exemplar is not the noble Cavalier Robert E. Lee, but the mystical, angular Stonewall Jackson, born and raised in what is now West Virginia. This land — these people — constitute the terrain and heritage of the snake handlers. They also constitute Dennis Covington’s cultural patrimony.

Covington was drawn to the snake handling services as a reporter, but was eventually swept up in the spiritual ecstasy that encompassed them. It was the ecstasy that drew him again and again, the power of “the Holy Ghost” sweeping its participants into glossolalia and into a profound trust that Jesus was speaking literally when He told His disciples that those who believe in His name “shall take up serpents, and if they drink any deadly thing, it shall not hurt them…” (Mk. 16:18).

Of course, biblical scholars would point out that this, part of the “longer ending” of Mark is not found in the oldest manuscripts; but biblical scholarship would find an unreceptive audience among these people. In spiritual ecstasy, they drape themselves with rattlers and drink strychnine. Some die. Many suffer. An astounding number do not. They trust the Holy Ghost. And Covington, who described himself as “open to mystery,” became an ecstatic, too. “This thing is real!” he cried out one night to the avuncular Brother Carl Porter, who had become a kind of spiritual mentor. And then, Covington took the next step. He did so not only out of spiritual longing, but out of a cultural longing as well: “I don’t know when it happened, but sometime during the spring of 1993, the idea must have started taking shape that in order to conquer the metaphorical snake that was my cultural legacy” — the “poverty, ignorance, racism and defeat” of his people’s heritage — “I’d have to take up the thing itself.”

It is to Covington’s enormous credit that the people about whom he writes so exquisitely are never objects, but always subjects: the old prophetess, Aunt Daisy; the compelling preacher Brother Charles McGlocklin, who found faith after being shot in the belly with a load of buckshot, and his beautiful wife, Aline, a kind of redneck Teresa of Avila; the sad and lonely figure of Elvis Presley Saylor, ostracized by his people as “the Wicked One” and “the god Baal in the flesh” because he had divorced and remarried. And of course, there is the chief subject, the convert, Covington himself.

There are all kinds of caveats one can raise: that Covington is an adrenaline junkie, and his venture into snake handling is just El Salvador with a spiritual patina; that he violated the Prime Directive of journalism, which is objectivity; that he is a Southern sentimentalist obsessed with his roots; that he has become that necessary accessory to all cults, the approachable apologist; that, as Nietzsche observed, if you stare into the abyss long enough, the abyss begins to stare back. (It would be easier to hold these caveats if Covington himself weren’t so ruthlessly self-critical, so starkly frank about his own motives and shortcomings.)

Moreover, these people are hardly orthodox Christians. They refer to themselves as “Jesus Onlys” and call Trinitarians “three-God people.” Their doctrinal forebears aren’t the Apostles of the Succession, but sectarians like the Montanists, the inflammatory charismatics (Tertullian was their most notable convert) whom bishops like Irenaeus strived to still. (Truth be told, it was also the charismatics who attracted the greatest attention when the Roman authorities were inclined to persecute.)

Still, one is haunted by Jesus’ admonition that “the Spirit blows where it will….” And maybe the snake handlers have other antecedents besides the Montanists. “Can Jesus be preached in the whole world without ecclesiasticism?” asked Frederich Naumann, a 20th-century charismatic. “Can molten gold be carried from place to place in anything but crucibles of iron and steel?” Modern snake handlers, deliberate in their disorganization, lack such crucibles. But then, so did most Christian monasteries which, before St. Benedict imposed his rules, tended to be hotbeds of charismatic fervor. And there is a haunting connection between those primitive monasteries and churches like the Church of Jesus with Signs Following, tucked away as they are in abandoned gas stations, on the edge of crumbling mill towns, in hilltop brush arbors, and in deep hollers at the end of gravel roads. The primitive monasteries were frequently sited in gosh-awful places, too, like deserts or on the top of mountains. But the monks didn’t go there just to get away from the world. They also went there to confront the devil on his territory, as Jesus did when He went into the wilderness. “Acedia” — spiritual sloth — was known as “the devil of the noonday sun.” Maybe these cracker mystics are out there in gosh-awful places confronting the devil on our behalf. Or maybe such freewheeling speculation violates the Prime Directive of book reviewers.

“Feeling after God,” says Covington, “is dangerous business. And Christianity without passion, danger, and mystery may not really be Christianity at all.” I’m not sure that’s true. But there is still something dauntless about these people needlessly exposing themselves to bizarre injury and death, the very poverty of whose lives seems to compel a religion that, at least in terms of its ecstatic dimensions, seems opulent.

In the end, Covington walked away. “I’d always hated this about churches,” he says, reflecting on the exclusion of Elvis Presley Saylor. At a nighttime service, Covington was invited to preach by his mentor, Brother Carl Porter, who, moments before, had inexplicably denounced a woman photographer who accompanied Covington on many of his visits. In response, Covington chose as his text John 20:17-18, where the resurrected Jesus tells Mary Magdalene to proclaim to the disciples what had transpired, which made her, in effect, the first Christian evangelist. When Covington pointed this out, the congregation’s reaction was stony. Brother Carl told Covington he was “not in the Word.” The ferocious Punkin Brown howled that what Covington had said was “false prophecy, boys, of the ungodly, the unholy, the profane.” But over to the side, Aunt Daisy, the ancient and revered prophetess, was laying her hands on Covington’s wife.

This is the most haunting book I have ever read. Its subject matter is strange, mesmerizing, and fearsome. But then, as the snake handlers of Sand Mountain might say, so is the Holy Ghost.

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