Gabbard City, KY--At the pastor's invitation, a half dozen giggly teenagers leave their seats to gather around a wire cage resting beside the preacher's wooden pulpit. "Who'll be first?" asks Brother Jesse Larimore of the Hagin's Fork Road Holiness Church. "Who'll demonstrate their faith in Jesus Christ by reaching into the box and grabbing the serpent? Don't be afraid! Jesus will be with you! Now who among you will be first?"
Randy "Moon Pie" Cox, the strapping two hundred pound captain of the Fletcher County High football team, leans forward, extends his reach toward the wire cage, and then retracts his hand with a shudder. Red-faced with obvious embarrassment, the boy says, "I can't do it, Preacher! I'm sorry, but I just can't touch that ornery thing!"
"There's no shame in that, Randy," says Larimore. "Your day will come. You just need a bigger dose of good, old-fashion Paul and Silas faith. Now who is ready to reach in and take that old serpent?"
Fifteen-year-old Jolanda Faye Dutton, blushing with nervous excitement, says, "I think I can do it! I think I can reach in and grab old Jezebel! Lord Jesus help me! You don't think Jezebel will bite me, do you, Brother Larimore?"
"If you have faith, child, that old serpent's mouth will be shut tighter than a bank vault and nothing bad will happen to you!"
A moment later, the pretty high school sophomore pulls Jezebel, a three-foot iguana lizard and the object of all this commotion, from the wire cage. After a perfunctory struggle, the scaly green lizard settles calmly in Jolanda's grip. "I did it, Brother Larimore! I did it! I put my faith in Christ Jesus and I didn't get bitten by this serpent!"
Just across the state line in West Virginia, members of the Sandy Creek Independent Free Will Pentecostal Temple of God take turns passing around a dusky brown snapping turtle retrieved from an old galvanized bucket. "He's a mean one, he is," cries Rev. Harlan Coe, "but if you have the faith of a mustard seed, that rascally old turtle will be tame as a kitten! Praise God for the victory! But I warn you, brothers and sisters, not to show the devil your fear or that snapper will have a finger or two for his supper!"
Thirty years ago, snake handing services were common in the Appalachian region of Kentucky, West Virginia, and Tennessee. Based upon questionable interpretations of a passage taken from Mark's gospel account, mountain church goers expressed their measure of faith by handling dangerous, venomous snakes. "My old grandpappy was a snake handler from way back," explained Brother Larimore. "Twice he was bitten by a timber rattler, once by an eastern diamondback, and once by a copperhead and never did he show even the slightest notion of illness--most of the time, that is!" The practice of snake handling, however, has all but disappeared in many parts of rural Kentucky and West Virginia. Adverse publicity and stereotypical notoriety forced many local communities into passing bans outlawing snake handling church services; snake handling, as a sacrament, seemed out of step and out of touch in a modern age of reasoning. Recently, however, a number of rural churches are showing an interest in restoring their faith ties with the past. "The old ways were better," said Rev. Coe, "and we want to bring back that old time religion. We're seeing genuine revival in the handling of deadly serpents."
Since when did iguanas and snapping turtles qualify as deadly serpents? Bishop Oval Renfro of the Mountain Holiness Tabernacle explained, "You've got to walk before you can run. Snake handling is a lost art and very few of us remember how it is done, so before we grab adders and vipers, we had better practice on lizards and turtles." Brother Larimore agrees. "Last year, half of my deacons were too squeamish to handle earth worms and night crawlers. Now I've got them picking up newts, lizards, toads, tortoises, and even salamanders. This is strictly an exercise of faith. In a year or two, I suppose our congregation will be handling garter snakes. I do not wish to speculate beyond that, but the day may come when the deadly pit viper once again takes his rightful place inside the church."
In the meantime, the Hagin's Fork Road Holiness Church iguana will continue testing the faith of the faithful as their resident deadly serpent.
Dr. Michael Blunk is a staff writer for an apologetics ministry and serves full time as a chaplain with Wayside Christian Mission. You may contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org