These people are hard core!
When people believe they can do strange things? Have you heard of the fundamentalist churches in America where the congregations dance around worshipping God? Sure you have. But these folk are a bit different. They do it with deadly snakes.
Why do the do it? Well, it's in the Bible! The Gospel of Mark says: “And these signs shall follow them that believe. In my name shall they cast out devils, they shall speak with new tongues, they shall take up serpents, and if they drink any deadly thing it shall not hurt them. They shall lay hands on the sick and they shall recover.”
If you go here you can listen to report on this movement. These people really do believe what they believe. They prove it every week by playing around with rattlesnakes. And they get bit to prove their faith.
Now what does this prove besides that they are fools?
Does it prove that their are blessed by some deity for showing enough faith to dance around with serpents in the name of Jesus? No.
Why not. Well, there are several things. First, about a quarter of all rattlesnake bites don’t have venom. So right off from the start you have a 1 in 4 chance of just getting pricked by the fangs. I was bitten by snacks as a kid. We played with them all the time though I wouldn’t do so now. Unless the stupid thing dug in and wouldn’t let go it was barely noticeable. But those were garden snakes not something deadly. And very often when American poisonous snakes do release venom it is too small to cause much more than local irritation to the victim.
You may not know that there are some 8,000 people bitten by venomous snakes every year in the United States but only between 5 or 10 people actually die from it. Faith or not most poisonous snake bites in the US do not lead to death. Toxicity of the venom varies from bite to bite and most adults, while they can become ill as a result of the bite, won’t be killed by it. The poison usually is not enough to kill an adult human.
And if you have watched snake handlers in action, and i don’t mean the religious kind, you will see that people can pick up and hold deadly serpents and often the snakes don’t bite at all. That isn’t faith. That is the snake. And if you do get bit the chances are you will live.
And by living through the experience you become less likely to be harmed by the snake the next time you are bitten. Your body can build up immunity simply be being exposed to the poisons. For very deadly snakes, which these are not, profession herpetologists will often inject themselves with the venom in very small doses, gradually building up their immunity, and the doses to which they are exposed. Eventually they reach the point where an actual snake bite is very unlikely to kill them.
The tongues-talking praise Jesus crowd in the American Bible Belt are very sincere people. Does it protect them? No, no more so then most people bitten by poisonous snakes in America. Remember of the 8,000 bites per year about 7,995 of them survive. Those are still pretty good odds. But snake handling Christians still suffer. They still get bit and say that God never promised they wouldn’t only that they wouldn’t die. But they still die as well. Somewhere between 70 and 100 of these people are known to have died handling serpents on God’s orders.
When Evangelist Spencer Evans was bitten during a service he went to a friend’s trailer to lie down. Eventually someone called the ambulance. They fond him very near death, his arm swollen badly. The emergency technicians took him to the hospital against his will. They had to cut his arm open to relieve the pressure that had built up from the effects of the poison. It took nine days of intensive treatment to save his life. The first Sunday after his release he was in church playing with snakes again.
Of course they have an excuse: “Some people were bit, and I believe God was ready for them and their time had come.”
But if one is bitten enough times the immunity builds up and one can live. Still, however, some people suffer worse bites. They may be bitten several times within a few minutes and even with a built up immunity can die.
A lot also depends on where one is bitten. A bit on the arms or hands, for instance are less likely to kill then if bitten in the chest or neck. Many of the people who survive bites were bitten in arms or legs while many who died were bitten in the chest.
The fundamentalist minister who started this practice, George Henley, was killed by such a snake bite in 1955. But deaths or not these are dismissed. The faithful have faith regardless of evidence and in spite of it.
If they are bit and die then God wants them to come to him and all is well. If they aren’t bit that proves their faith is true. If they are bit but don’t die that proves God is with them. Bit or not bit, dead or alive they have an explanation so that no matter what happens it proves the validity of their truth.
What is troublesome is that real nutters are spreading. Like fundamentalists in general they were once a movement of just backwoods hicks and hillbillies without an education. But now you have snake handling churches like the True Holiness Believers Gathering in Lethbrdige, Canada. There is the Right Hand of Jesus With Signs Following Church in Kamloops, British Columbia, Hiway Holiness Church of God in, Forth Wayne, Indiana and the Full Gospel Jesus Church in Cleveland, Ohio.
Like fundamentalism in general this even more extreme version is moving into more and more regions of the United States and beyond.
I should note, in relation to my previous article, that these people have great emotional highs from doing this. One reporter told of what one man who did this told him: “The joy of the Lord is within you and with the spirit of the Lord you don’t fear. He said it’s a lot like being drunk, but not having a hangover the next day.” These reporters noted that even after people are bitten the emotional high the people experience reaches new heights.
Most Christians do not support this practice and will find excuses to condemn the Biblical literalism of the serpent handlers. Of course the catch all phrase “they just interpret that wrong” is often applied. But these handlers take the Bible literally, do what it says and sometimes die for their faith. How many times have we heard from Christians that dying for the faith proves the faith is true? I’ve certainly heard that argument over the years. “If it wasn’t true people wouldn’t die for it, would they?” Yet the people who said that to me would say that taking up serpents is not of God yet people are willing to die for it, aren’t they. If anything these lunatics are proving their faith by doing it every Sunday. Unlike the rest who really take no risks at all.