The practice of handling snakes in religious ceremonies is a deeply rooted, yet highly controversial, tradition found primarily in some branches of Christianity in the United States. This unique religious practice, often referred to as “snake handling” or “serpent handling,” has been the subject of much debate and scrutiny. In this article, we will delve into the history, beliefs, rituals, and controversies surrounding the practice of handling snakes in religious ceremonies.
A Brief History
The origins of snake handling in religious ceremonies can be traced back to the early 20th century in the Appalachian region of the United States. The practice emerged within a subset of Pentecostal Christianity known as the Holiness-Pentecostal movement. It is commonly associated with churches and denominations that emphasize a literal interpretation of certain Bible passages, particularly Mark 16:17-18, which states: “And these signs will follow those who believe: In My name they will cast out demons; they will speak with new tongues; they will take up serpents; and if they drink anything deadly, it will by no means hurt them.”
Adherents of snake handling believe that handling venomous snakes during religious services is a demonstration of faith and a test of their spiritual purity. If they are bitten and do not succumb to the venom, it is seen as a sign of divine protection and favor. Conversely, if they are bitten and die, it is often interpreted as a lack of faith or disobedience to God’s commandments.
Religious Beliefs and Rituals
The theological underpinnings of snake handling revolve around a strict interpretation of the Bible. Adherents believe that God has called them to handle snakes as a way of proving their faith. They argue that these practices are a testament to their unwavering trust in God’s protection, even in the face of mortal danger. Worship services in snake handling churches often involve a combination of charismatic worship, speaking in tongues, and, of course, snake handling.
Snake handling rituals typically unfold in the following manner:
Worship and Singing: Congregants gather for worship services that can be highly emotional and intense. They sing hymns and pray fervently, seeking a connection with the divine.
Handling of Snakes: At some point during the service, one or more venomous snakes are brought into the congregation. The snakes, which are often kept in wooden boxes, are typically rattlesnakes, copperheads, or water moccasins. The handling of these snakes is considered an act of obedience to the scriptural mandate.
Dancing and Singing with Snakes: Participants take turns holding the snakes, dancing with them, and even allowing the snakes to crawl over their bodies. The belief is that as long as they have faith, the snakes will not harm them.
Prayer for Healing: In addition to snake handling, many of these services also involve the laying on of hands for healing. Members of the congregation who are sick or in need of spiritual support may come forward to receive prayers for healing.
Testimonies of Faith: Worshipers may share testimonies of past encounters with snakes, recounting instances when they were bitten but survived as evidence of God’s protection.
Controversies Surrounding Snake Handling
The practice of handling snakes in religious ceremonies has been met with significant controversy and criticism for several reasons:
Public Safety Concerns: Handling venomous snakes poses inherent risks to both participants and bystanders. While snake handlers believe in divine protection, fatalities and serious injuries have occurred due to snake bites during these ceremonies. Critics argue that the practice endangers lives and is irresponsible.
Legal Issues: In many states, the possession and public display of venomous snakes are illegal without the proper permits. Snake handling churches have faced legal challenges and government interventions due to concerns about public safety and compliance with wildlife regulations.
Ethical Concerns: Critics argue that using live snakes in religious ceremonies amounts to animal cruelty. The snakes often experience stress and mistreatment during the services, and some have even died as a result of mishandling or neglect.
Religious Freedom vs. Public Safety: The debate over snake handling raises questions about the balance between religious freedom and public safety. While individuals have the right to practice their religion, should this practice be allowed when it poses a significant risk to participants and the wider community?
Theological Debate: Even within the broader Pentecostal and Holiness movements, there is theological disagreement about the validity of snake handling. Some Pentecostal denominations distance themselves from this practice, emphasizing a different interpretation of the Bible.
The practice of handling snakes in religious ceremonies is a complex and controversial tradition deeply ingrained in the history of a subset of Pentecostal Christianity. It is a practice rooted in a literal interpretation of certain biblical passages and a belief in divine protection. However, it is also fraught with legal, ethical, and public safety concerns.
The debate over snake handling forces society to grapple with fundamental questions about religious freedom, individual choice, and public safety. While some argue that adherents should be free to practice their faith as they see fit, others contend that the risks associated with handling venomous snakes outweigh any claims of religious liberty.
As the practice of handling snakes in religious ceremonies continues to face scrutiny and legal challenges, it remains a striking example of the complex relationship between religious beliefs, cultural traditions, and the broader concerns of society.