A literal interpretation of the Bible has some people handling venomous snakes as a testament of their faith.
Snake handling is the fairly obscure religious practice of holding a venomous snake / snakes as a testament of your faith in God. It stems from a literal interpretation of various Bible verses including Mark 16:18 where Jesus tells the disciples that the true believers “… will pick up snakes with their hands; and when they drink deadly poison, it will not hurt them at all; they will place their hands on sick people, and they will get well.” Practitioners of snake handling feel the Bible is inerrant and should be read plainly so, when it says you will pick up snakes, you pick up snakes.
The practice began in the early 1900s – exactly who started the practice of snake handling is debatable. One of its earliest proponents was George Hensley of Tennessee. He later created the Church of God with Signs Following, a Pentecostal Holiness church that spread around southern Appalachian states. Not every service features snake handling, but there is a box of snakes by the altar for when someone is feeling especially energized by the Lord. Signs Following churches don’t just limit their demonstrations of faith, their signs of expression, to handling snakes. Some members will also handle fire while others may drink poison such as strychnine.
Perhaps not surprisingly, people handling snakes sometimes die by snake bite. You might get by one or two times handling a snake safely without incident, but the more times you shake around with a snake the probability of getting bit gets higher. Initially some outsiders felt there must be a trick as to why the snakes weren’t biting people: the snakes were milked before hand, or they were sedated in some way, etc. Believers said it was the work of God, but then deaths started to make the news.
The 1945 death of Lewis Ford as a result of handling snakes in the Dolley Pond Church of God with Signs Following put snake handling in newspapers around the country. During his memorial service six snakes were placed in the casket, including the one that killed him. The national spotlight on this fairly bizarre rural practice stopped the popular spread of these churches. Membership began to decline partially due to poor public relations, but also due to members dying … of snake bites.
Snake handling expert, and University of Tennessee at Chattanooga psychology professor, Ralph Hood estimates that almost 100 people have died in the last 100 years as a result of snake handling. Some churches will call an ambulance if you get bit, and you have the option of choosing medical assistance or riding it out. The bites are interpreted as God’s will. As such it was God’s will that Pastor George Hensley die by snake bite – same with Pastor Jamie Coots and then years later his son Pastor Cody Coots. There are only around 100 snake handling churches left.
Added info: Besides all of the obvious problems with this practice an additional concern is the treatment of the snakes. Outside inspection of these churches have found malnourished and sick snakes. In 2013 Tennessee authorities raided the church of Pastor Andrew Hamblin, confiscating 53 mistreated ill snakes. There are a host of laws in different states that ban the handling of venomous snakes but local officials tend to not prosecute offenders.