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A case study of the intratextual model of fundamentalism: serpent handlers and Mark 16:17-20.

Studies of the contemporary serpent handlers of Appalachia have focused upon descriptions of a practice that is more maligned than understood. Our own efforts have been to document this tradition and to allow the handlers to speak for themselves within the framework of our intratextual model of religious fundamentalism (Hood, Hill, & Williamson, 2005; Hood & Williamson, 2008). While research has empirically tested and continues to test our intratextual model (Muluk & Sumaktoyo, 2010; Muluk, Sumaktoyo, & Ruth, 2013; Williamson & Hood, 2012, 2013; Williamson, Hood, Ahmad, Sadiq, & Hill, 2010), we offer the present analysis as a case study of our model. An archive of over twenty years of digitally recorded church services, interviews with handlers, and documentation of bites, recoveries, and deaths is available for scholars. (1)

In this paper, we integrate material from a variety of sources to explore how serpent handlers find meaning in a ritual that is puzzling, if not disturbing, to those outside the tradition. We will address five interrelated areas that are necessary to understand this tradition from an intratextual perspective. First, we will briefly discuss our intratextual model of fundamentalism. Second, we will briefly summarize disputes over the longer endings to Mark, focusing only upon Mark 16: 9-20 in the King James Bible, the only Bible used in the serpent handling tradition. While doing so, we will address an issue that has been used against those who handle serpents, namely that Mark 16: 17-18, the major text upon which this practice is justified, is an addendum to Mark that lacks authority, as it likely was added by an unknown scribe sometime in the second century. Third, we will explore the content of Mark 16: 9-20 with specific attention to the reference to serpents both in the text and antiquity. Finally, we will investigate within historical primitive Pentecostalism how that reliance upon an intratextual understanding of the Markan passage gave rise to the emergence and then the persistence of serpent handling as a practice that continues even today among renegade Churches of God scattered throughout the Appalachian Mountains. Our overall concern is to show from the analysis of a particular religious tradition--that is, serpent handling--how that the intratextual model may be useful as means for understanding the psychology of fundamentalism.

An Intratextual Model of Fundamentalism

Most research on religious fundamentalism has traced it roots to the late nineteenth century, when northern U.S. Baptists and Presbyterians reacted against modernist trends toward higher biblical criticism and evolution (Barr, 1977; Bruce, 2000; Sandeen, 1970). Early on, American Protestant fundamentalism was characterized in terms of allegiance to certain basic beliefs, including biblical authority, the virgin birth, the bodily resurrection of Christ, millennialism, and the like (Dollar, 1973; Hindson, 2000). Such tenets often were declared to be "fundamentals of the faith", which were to be defended against advocates for liberalism and modernism. As Beale (1986) has aptly stated, "The essence of Fundamentalism ... is the unqualified acceptance of and obedience to the Scriptures' (p. 3, emphasis original). Of critical concern to Protestant fundamentalists, then, is their insistence upon the authority of the Bible, upon which all other particulars stand or fall. From their perspective, "if any part of the Bible [the original manuscripts] can be proved to be in error, then any other part of it--including the doctrinal, theological parts--may also be in error" (Archer, 1980, p. 59). No Christian fundamentalist would disagree that the authority of the Bible is the ultimate concern.

The dedication of fundamentalists in defending their cause has given rise to an abundance of research from the interest of historians, political scientists, sociologists, and human scientists. Perhaps the most expansive work to date has been The Fundamentalism Project (Marty & Appleby, 1991-1995), which includes five massive volumes of scholarly essays that reach across disciplines, religions, and cultures to provide an analysis of the movement. Drawing from these essays, Almond, Sivan, and Appleby (1995) offered in the final volume a detailed cross-cultural description of religious fundamentalism in the form of a model, a main component of which was militancy or "fighting back." This aura of militancy or aggression has become predominant in much of contemporary research and, for many, has taken center stage as the defining feature of fundamentalism itself (Altemeyer, 1996, Altemeyer & Hunsberger, 2005; Rowett, Johnson-Shen, LaBouff, & Gonzalez, 2013).

Not all accept the popular notion that fundamentalism is necessarily militant, although it can be. We ourselves have argued elsewhere (Hood et al., 2005) that it is the centrality of the sacred text that is the foundation of religious fundamentalism, particularly for those that are monotheistic. From this perspective, the sacred text is held by believers to be divine, authoritative, inerrant, eternal, and self-interpretive; and it is the principle of intratextuality, as opposed to intertextuality, that reveals to the fundamentalist the ultimate Truth contained in the sacred text. Intra-textuality is essentially an interpretive dialogue one has with the text--and only the text--that leads to the revelation of absolute and nonnegotiable truths about the world. it is the weaving together of these absolute truths that transforms the perception of reality into a religious world within which the person functions to derive meaning and experience life. intratextuality can be contrasted with intertextuality, which derives truth through dialoging with multiple authoritative texts (e.g., a sacred text, higher textual criticism, history, the sciences, etc.). intratextuality privileges the sacred text--and only the sacred text--as the final arbitrator of truth. Thus fundamentalism may best be characterized not by militancy, but by an intratextual approach to a sacred text. if an intratextually-derived truth requires militancy in a particular situation, or if such truth is threatened, then fundamentalism may become militant--but not necessarily so (Williamson & Hood, 2013).

Based on the principle of intratextuality, we developed the intratextual Fundamentalism Scale (iFS) as an empirical means for assessing religious fundamentalism (Williamson, et al., 2010). it is a 5-item instrument that measures the degree to which one embraces a sacred text to be authoritative, inerrant, privileged, divine, and unchanging. The instrument has demonstrated adequate psychometric properties not only with Christian samples (Williamson & Hood, 2012, 2013; Williamson et al., 2010), but also with Muslims (Muluk & Sumaktoyo, 2010; Muluk et al., 2013; Williamson et al., 2010). Experimental and empirical research using this intratextual approach is ongoing, but in this paper, we are concerned with a case study in which the intratextual model is useful for understanding how serpent handlers, as fundamentalists, resolve problems arising from intertextual disputes with scholars concerning the longer ending of Mark, as well as with others outside their religious tradition in defending the practice of their faith.

Intertextual Ambiguities in the Gospel of Mark

The primary biblical basis for justifying the practice of serpent handling is found in the last chapter of Mark's gospel:

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. (16:17-18, King James Version)

What makes this text problematic for most intertextual biblical scholars is that it appears in a much contested part of the chapter, and there is continuing interest in the ambiguities in this portion of Mark's gospel. our use of the term ambiguity is deliberate, for it involves not only the possibility of several interpretations of a specific text, but also the possibility that a given text is itself problematic (Hood & Williamson, 2012). With respect to the Gospel of Mark, the continuing debate over its ending recently led one participant to ask, "When will the debate over the ending of Mark's gospel end? (Wallace, 2008, p. 17; emphasis in original). This echoes Magness (1986, p. 2) who noted, "over a millennium and a half, through changing theological perspectives and hermeneutical approaches, from the pens of ancient Alexandrian allegorists and modern French structuralists' discussion of the shortened ending of the shortest gospel persists." our own reading of the literature suggests that the debate is unlikely to ever end as none of the proposed views are beyond a reasonable doubt. The diversity of views is at best supported by a preponderance of the evidence which itself is framed within a set of presuppositions that can always be made problematic (Black, 2008; Hood, 2012a; Hood & Williamson, 2012). Let us then briefly look at arguments in favor of 16:9-20 being an addition to Mark that may have originally ended at 16:8.

Arguments in Favor of the Longer Ending

Kelhoffer (2000) has made a case for the longer ending being added somewhere between 120-150 CE by an unknown scribe who intended to complete Mark's Gospel in conscious imitation of the New Testament Gospels. It was a deliberate intent to "improve" Mark's original ending (Kelhoffer, 2000, p. 65). This position is not incompatible with Croy's (2003) assertion that an original ending was either lost or destroyed. It is compatible with Thomas' (1983) position that, "the prospects of Mark ending his gospel at 16.8 are simply too problematic for most scholars" (p. 407). However, Magness (1986) has suggested that the abrupt ending need not trouble scholars in that it has many parallels in Greco-Roman literature and in both the old and New Testaments. Wallace (2008) suggests that the longer ending, original to Mark, may have been deliberately omitted by scribes who did not want Christians to be either embarrassed by 16:18 or tempted to endanger themselves by taking up serpents. Interestingly, and earlier, Salmon (1894) had used the same data to argue for the longer ending's authenticity since unknown scribes would not have left in Mark words seen by some to be counterintuitive to Jesus' message. However, among less conservative scholars a consensus appears to be that, by internal, textual, and external evidences, the long ending of Mark is an addition (Bock, 2008; Elliott, 2008; Jule, 2005; Robinson, 2008). However, having concluded this by no means indicates a consensus as to why the addition or what it might mean. As Wallace (2008) has quipped with reference to George Bernard Shaw's original statement about economists, "If all exegetes were laid end to end they would not reach a conclusion" (p. 79).

Arguments in Favor of a singular Markan Gospel

Psychologists have long noted that presuppositions guide and frame one's understanding of evidence (Hood et al., 2005). Since we argue that it is unlikely to expect anything like "beyond a reasonable doubt" for various possibilities regarding the ending of Mark, the preponderance of the evidence allows ample room for continued debate.

It is largely among the more conservative scholars the arguments for a singular Markan gospel are made and are not unreasonably acceptable by a preponderance of evidence criteria. The arguments are not as convincing as Burgon (1891/1959), whose defense of Mark leaves "not a particle of doubt" nor "an atom of suspicion" (p. 334, emphasis in original), but certainly they can be within a reasonable doubt criterion. Wallace (2008) finds the internal evidence to favor a single Markan gospel more than persuasive, and Black (2008) finds both the internal and the external evidence likewise convincing. Black's (2008) argument is especially creative in that he sees Mark as a bridge between Matthew and Luke with the longer ending added by Mark after Peter's martyrdom. Thus, from this perspective, it was Mark who completed his own gospel.

Scholars agree that, even if Mark 16: 9-20 is an addition, it was well known and in circulation by the second century at the latest (Elliot, 1993, p. 94). Its acceptance and authenticity in the ancient church was "widespread" and "impressive" (Farmer, 1974, p. 34). It was declared canonical by the Council of Trent and part of the Roman Catholic lectionary (Wall, 2003, p. 172). Likewise, conservative scholars have held that, even if added, Mark 16:9-20 can still be considered inspired, especially in terms of the role that "signs following" (3) has played within the Pentecostal tradition (Wall, 2003). Here both Thomas and Alexander (2003) and Wall (2003) make use of Gadamer's (2004, pp. 299-305) historical effect argument (Wikungsgeschichte), in which one can confer canonical status on texts based not simply on authorial intent, but their effective use and implementation within a tradition. Thus, the imperative in Mark 16:18 can be seen to both look back to Paul's experience in Malta, described in Act 16:1-6, and forward to Luke 10:19, where believers also have power to tread upon serpents (Thomas & Alexander, 2003, pp. 169-170). However, perhaps by a preponderance of the evidence, Burgon (1981/1959) has given us the best psychological framing of the case for a single Markan gospel that extends the historical-critical perspective in ways more liberal scholars are likely to find inappropriate:

I am utterly disinclined to believe--so grossly improbable does it seem--that at the end of 1800 years 995 copies out of every thousand, suppose, prove untrustworthy; and that one, two, three, or four or five which remain, whose contents until yesterday as good as unknown, will be found to have retained the secret of what the Holy Spirit originally inspired. (quoted in Hills, 1891/1959, p. 31)

Burgon's confidence is assisted by an assumption that the Bible is not simply another text to which hermeneutical principles can be objectively applied. Burgon accepts what we have discussed above as an intratextual approach (Hood et al., 2005) in which the Bible is a privileged text, unique and tautologically absolute. Burgon argues that truth is preserved by a text that is both divinely inspired and providentially preserved (Hills, 1959, p. 31). The psychological point is simply that such assumptions alter the range of acceptable evidence and clearly run counter to contemporary textual criticism that, as with much of the psychology of religion, accepts Flournoy's (1903) principle of methodological exclusion of the transcendent in any social scientific or hermeneutical explanations. However, from an intratextual perspective, such exclusion is unwarranted and makes any sacred text simply another text without a privileged status. Here we simply note that this "principle" need not be accepted uncritically. Elsewhere we have argued for a methodological agnosticism that leaves the question open and opposed to what amounts to an unwarranted methodological atheism (Hood, 2012b).

Toward an Intratextual Understanding of Mark 16:17-18

It begs the question to focus the dispute on the authenticity of the longer ending of Mark and not to ask why the specific content. In particular one can wonder why Jesus specifically utters the taking up of serpents as one of the signs. As Bock (2008, p. 303) has noted, most of what is in the longer ending of Mark is elsewhere in the New Testament, with the possible exception of serpent handling (and drinking poison, which is not our concern here). As we will see below, this was noted by the early Pentecostals associated with serpent handling. They found the story of Paul in Acts 28 relevant to the serpent handling mandated in Mark 16:8. of course, Paul only accidentally picked up a serpent while onlookers marveled at his being unharmed. In one of the most curious comments in Charlesworth's (2010) masterful study of serpent symbolism, he asserts that "The narrator does not mention that the viper bit Paul. Perhaps the viper did not bite Paul, and that is likely in terms of ophiology, given the attempt of a viper to escape the fire and find safety in an 'arm'" (p. 355). However, A. J. Tomlinson, an early defender of serpent handling (1918), writing in the Church of God Evangel, puts Paul's incident at Malta in a perspective from the longer ending of Mark:

Paul did not aim to takes his serpent up. He did not know he was about him till he was fastened on his hand, and then he shook it off as quickly as possible. Apply the same analogy, we are not to lay our hands on the sick intentionally, and when we do get our hands on them accidentally we must shake them loose as quickly as possible, as if it is dangerous to keep them there. (Tomlinson, 1918, p. 1)

While Tomlinson is making specific reference to healing, the argument applies to taking up serpents as well. Pentecostals who rejected serpent handling often cited Acts 28 in denying that the signs in Mark 16:17-18 are to be taken as mandates (see Alexander, 2006, pp. 136-137).

However, if we focus upon the intentional following of the signs of Mark 16:17-18, the shift is from the authenticity of text, which is assumed for serpent handling believers, to the actual practice of taking up serpents. The emphasis is upon "They shall" as an imperative. In contrast to Miller's (2009) identification of progressive Pentecostals, who he sees as the future of a global Christianity, we have identified primitive Pentecostals (Hood & Williamson, 2012). We use the term primitive in the sense that Freud used it in Totem and Taboo: "There are men still living who, as we believe, stand very near to primitive man, far nearer than we do, and whom we therefore regard as his direct heirs and representations" (Freud, 1913, p. 1). We take this to be compatible with Wallace (2008), who ends his defense of the longer ending of Mark with a nonacademic postscript in his defense of evangelism associated with the Gospel of Mark: "It takes no special training or education. The early Christian were nobodies, ignorant fishermen. Even an educated man like Paul wasn't impressed with book learning" (p. 353). Pentecostals, especially primitive Pentecostals, assume that experience trumps a too narrow focus on authorial intent in terms of the text, and it is experience that is one of the defining differences between Pentecostals and Evangelicals (Archer, 1996). An often heard phrase is among primitive Pentecostals who handle serpents is: "Religion is better felt that told."

If the focus is upon experience, Mundkur, as an admitted "mechanistically inclined biologist" (1983, p. xiv), has persuasively argued against an exclusive symbolic interpretation of the serpent, noting that we (and some other primates) are uniquely hard-wired or can easily be conditioned to fear snakes. He attributes this to the archaic effect of the snake's undulating motion on humans and primates. Likewise, Charlesworth (2010) identifies thirty two virtually unique features of serpents, which includes their rapid movement (p. 36) but without reference to undulation. Mundkur (1983) makes the useful distinction between "snake," which simply elicits fear, and "serpent," which opens up symbolic and metaphysical possibilities that can include awe and fascination. Both scholars suggest the almost infinite range of symbolic meanings that have for some been narrowly defined and constrained, especially to the phallus in psychoanalysis and to evil in Christianity. While the cultural shaping of symbolic meanings of the serpent is highly diverse, the ambivalent fear and awe that it elicits are independent of culture (Mundkur, 1983, p.177). This makes the serpent a naturally numinous reptile, able to induce ambivalent fear and awe without explicit cultural conditioning. However, in terms of our intratextual model, it also suggests that, in areas where humans are likely to encounter serpents, the fear and awe they elicit can be appropriately expressed in religious language. The imperative to take up serpents is a direct confrontation with emotions of awe and fascination long noted to be a response to the numinous (otto, 1928).

In what has gone unnoticed by scholars of the serpent handling churches, otto (1917/1928) explicitly focused upon Mark 16 in a minimally symbolic sense. He spoke of "signs following" (p. 176) and devoted an appendix to "signs following" (Appendix VII, pp. 212-216). Here otto applauds Jesus' "exalted spiritual power over nature" (p. 176). He noted that the sign of healing is possibly a capacity that lies dormant in human nature in general (otto, 1917/1928, p. 214). This is precisely what handlers believe not only with respect to healing, but also to the handling of serpents as well. The ambivalent fear and awe that serpents elicit is otto's response to the numinous. otto reminds us of Mark 16:20: "And they went forth, and preached everywhere, the Lord working with them and confirming the word with signs following." Serpent handlers use this verse to affirm that Jesus and the apostles handled serpents. While we find no historical documentation that early Christians handled serpents, it remains an intriguing possibility (M. A. Tomlinson, 1959). Kelhoffer's (2000) study of Mark asked of the contemporary serpent handlers the relevant question: "Are there precedents in antiquity" (p. 341)?

Serpent Symbolism and Handling in Antiquity

Few scholars would deny the ubiquitous presence of serpent symbolism in antiquity. However, our concern is with the actual handling of serpents. Even assuming the longer ending of Mark to be an addition, by the middle of the second century, Mark 16:17-18 was in wide circulation (Farmer, 1974, p. 34). Likewise, as Kelhoffer has observed (2000, p. 338), it was to ordinary believers, not only to the apostles, that power to work signs and wonders was to be given. The signs would follow them that believe, and as we will note shortly, it was among the primitive Pentecostals that the signs actually emerged at the beginning of the twentieth century. But was this possibly a re-emergence? our intratextual model suggests that where the text has a plain meaning it is likely to foster some not to simply preach but to practice what the text says.

Kelhoffer's (2000) work offers at best equivocal results. While there are pictorial representations of Maenads and Satyrs handling serpents, there is little if any linguistic narrative discussion of handling serpents among the Dionysaic and Sabazin mystery cults. of course the Cult of Asclepius predates the classic period by over a millennium, as does that of Hermes. Here healing and message-bringing are associated with serpentine staffs, but no representations of taking up serpents with hands. Kelhoffer does suggest that the worship of snakes may have played a role in late antiquity among religions worshipping Christ and Glycon (as new manifestation of Asclepius), and in this he is supported by Charlesworth (2010) who documents many instances of the Son of Man represented as a serpent. Likewise, Campbell (1974) documents the existence of a medieval coin designed by Hieronymous on which the crucified Christ appears on one side and a serpentent-wined cross on the other. Jaffe (1964, p. 239) provides a photograph of both sides of this coin and asserts that the crucified Christ is shown as both man and as a serpent. For both Campbell and Jaffe, death and resurrection are linked with the serpent, perhaps in reference to John: 3:14-15: "And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness even so must the Son of man be lifted up: That whoever believeth in him should not perish, but have eternal life." Charlesworth (2010) has recently presented an exhaustive study of serpent symbolism relevant to the Gospel of John. However, he devotes but two short paragraphs to what he terms the "appendix" of Mark (p. 360). While he evidently did travel to Marrakech to observe Cobra serpent handling (pp. 33, 35), he evidently never explored the Christian serpent handling tradition in his own back yard, even though he acknowledges that the reference to handling serpents in Mark is "taken literally by some fundamentalists in southern sections of the united States" (p. 360). The contemporary documentation of the actual handling of serpents is empirical evidence that at least suggests it could have been practiced at various times throughout Christian history, but scholarly focus has been primarily upon serpent symbolism.

While symbolism is important, it is a far cry from the actual handling of serpents in antiquity, and it appears that it may be a task for historians to reconsider where evidence that might confirm the handling of serpents in antiquity and by early Christians might be found (Hood & Williamson, 2008). The one exception Kelhoffer (2000, p. 352) finds is by the historian Livy, who reports that serpent handling priests paralyzed the attacking Roman army and routed Marcus Fabius Ambustus in battle. However, Kelhoffer concluded that "if there were snake handlers in the ancient world", he could find from his own study "no compelling evidence to support this claim" (p. 416). our intratextual model suggests that perhaps historians might be guided by this model to seek actual evidence of handling in antiquity by Christians and others with as much effort as has been focused on serpent symbolisms. For now, we can at least turn to intratextual evidence from contemporary Christians who do handle serpents in response to what they perceive as a mandate in Mark 16:17-18, and who decidedly shy away from symbolic interpretation in favor of what they perceive as the plain meaning of the text.

Intratextual Primitive Pentecostals and the Handling of Serpents

Alexander (2006) has argued that the earliest years of the Pentecostal movement represent its "heart and soul" (p. 5). Many of the early Pentecostals were marginalized and disenfranchised, but by no means all (Wacker, 2001). However, they were linked to Wesleyan primitiveness in an effort to recapture the dynamics of the early church (Alexander, 2006, p. 28). Alexander (2006, p. 106) contend that Mark 16:9-20 became the "litmus test" for primitive Pentecostals and Thomas and Alexander (2003, p. 149) note that this same passage was unrivaled in both position and significance in early Pentecostal literature. Concerning one comparative note: From 1910 to 1919, there were 26 references to Matthew 28:18-20, 16 to Acts 1:8, and 75 to Mark 16:16-20 among the extant issues of the Evangel (Thomas & Alexander, 2003, p. 150), which then was and still is the official organ for the Church of God denomination. Furthermore, Hood and Williamson (2008, Ch. 4) have documented some of the early growth of the Church of God, linked to the increased frequency of serpent handling reports in that emerging Pentecostal denomination. While not all primitive Pentecostals endorsed serpent handling, those who failed to practice all the signs were chided by Tomlinson (cited in Alexander, 2006, p.104). Contemporary handlers identify Pentecostals who reject serpent handling (and poison drinking) but accept the other signs in Mark: 16:17-18 as "3/5th Christians."

The Church of God and the Church of God of Prophecy were among the strongest Pentecostal groups that early on supported serpent handling. They were challenged by other Pentecostal groups, such as the Pentecostal Holiness Church. Together the Church of God and the Pentecostal Holiness Church were the most prominent denominations in the southeastern united States in the early twentieth century. Alexander (2008, pp. 136-137) has identified at least twelve articles or letters in the Pentecostal Holiness Advocate critical of serpent handling. Thus, even accepting the text of Mark 9:20 leaves ample room for differences in intratextual interpretation and practice (Hood & Williamson, 2012). Those who believed in the handling of serpents soon became identified as signs-following believers. until as late as 1943, articles in support of serpent handling appeared in the Evangel. However, as we have argued elsewhere, both believers and scoffers miss-judged the risk of handling (Hood & Williamson, 2008, Ch. 10). On the one hand, believers assumed that, because they could handle, they were protected by God. As Tomlinson said, it is the power of love that allows the serpent to be conquered (cited in Alexander, 2006, p. 106). Scoffers, on the other hand, assumed there was some trick to handling as claims of tamed, defanged, and half frozen snakes became common. However, both extremes failed to appreciate a simple fact that the probability of a bite is a function of the frequency of handling (Hood, 2003). That is, as one handles more frequently, the probability of a bite increases. Thus, as the practice increased among early handlers, believers suffered more bites, leading to an increase of documented cases of maiming and death (Hood, 1998). In the face of these unpleasant realities, the emerging Pentecostal denominations that had supported serpent handling reversed course and gradually began to denounce the practice (Hood & Williamson, 2008, Ch. 4).

Intratextual Renegade Churches of God and Contemporary Handling

It is from the plain understanding and an intratextual interpretation of Mark 16 that primitive Pentecostals believe in and practice the taking up of serpents. It is helpful here to remember that speaking, often identified as most characteristic of Pentecostals, was never endorsed by more than fifty percent of Pentecostal groups, and many never demanded that all believers experience tongues-speaking (see Wacker, 2001, Ch. 2). Much fewer would continue to endorse the handling of serpents. However, then as now, three main arguments emerged to explain the persistence of those who would defend serpent handling even as others abandoned the practice in the face of maiming and death. These arguments have never been formalized by the serpent handling churches, even among those who have a more centralized dogma. However, few of these fiercely independent churches would oppose any single argument provided below.

First, owing to the discovery of codex Washingtonius, many Pentecostals responded with a strident defense against the assault on the authenticity of the later endings of the gospel of Mark (Thomas & Alexander, 2003, pp. 157-161). A. J. Tomlinson, who as general overseer of the Church of God, headed the emerging Pentecostal denomination most supportive of serpent handling and noted that no Bible houses were publishing the King James Bible with Mark 9-20 omitted and quipped that, if anyone bought a Bible with these verses omitted, it would immediately be returned (Thomas & Alexander, 2003, pp. 157-158).

Adding to this scholarly defense for the latter ending of Mark was its important intratextual interpretation for defending the practice of the signs. M. A. Tomlinson (1906-1995), the younger son of A. J. Tomlinson (1865-1943), succeeded his father as general overseer in 1943 and led the Church of God of Prophecy that had splintered from the original Church of God some 20 years earlier. In 1945, he was editor of the White Wing Messenger, the denomination's official publication, and most likely wrote the lead article which was entitled "Signs Following Believers." The opening paragraph boldly states from an intratextual perspective that: "of course all the Bible is important, but when we think what the signs meant to the early Church, then I feel they are of vast importance in these last days" (Tomlinson, 1945, p. 1). In continuing, Tomlinson called attention to the fact that all the five signs were important, had been practiced by the disciples of Jesus, and were to follow those who believed in Christ in the present day. Stressing the validity and effects of serpent handling in particular, he went on to affirm what his father had asserted with respect to Paul's experience reported in Act 28 and noted above:

Some people will accept the new tongues, casting out devils and laying hands on the sick, but they want to make the clause that refers to the serpent read like the one about the deadly thing, but the Scripture still reads "they shall take up serpents." It doesn't say if we pick up a serpent accidentally, it won't hurt us ... We do not make a show of taking up serpents, but if they are brought to us and God's power is present to manifest this sign that follows believers, then we give God the glory for it. (Tomlinson, 1945, pp. 1, 4, emphasis added)

Some fourteen years later, Tomlinson (1959) again applied intratextual reasoning to these verses in defense of the signs:
   That these signs shall follow believers
   and the preaching of the Word is
   clearly set forth in the Scriptures. If
   one is to eliminate this point of doctrine,
   he might as well eliminate the
   Scriptures which teach justification,
   regeneration, sanctification, divine
   healing or any of the others. (p. 2)

Concerning the lack of biblical accounts for some signs, Tomlinson (1959) admitted that:

Paul's experience with the serpent is the only such incident recorded in the New Testament, and there is no direct reference to anyone drinking any deadly thing and failing to suffer harm from it. However, this cannot be taken as an indication that these signs were not also prevalent along with the ministry of the apostles in the early Church. The Scripture definitely states that after the ascension of Jesus the disciples went everywhere--throughout the known world--preaching the Word and the Lord worked with them confirming the Word with signs following believers. Since this record follows so closely in the Scripture the words of Jesus with regard to the signs that would follow, it leaves little doubt that all of the signs mentioned were in evidence in the early Church. (Tomlinson, 1945, pp. 2, 14, emphasis added)

Contemporary serpent handlers intratextually reason the same and provide the counter argument for those who demand more compelling historical evidence for handling in antiquity and among early Christians that likely cannot be definitively answered within the limits of historical-critical investigation (Kelhoffer, 2000, p. 415).

The second argument for serpent handling centers on the late appearance of the practice as a religious behavior and its relation to the text. It is unlikely that serpent handling originated with any one person (Hood, 2005; Hood & Williamson, 2008). Serpent handling likely emerged independently in many regions of Appalachia. All that is required for the practice to emerge is an environment in which serpents are plentiful and a community of believers who accept and believe the plain intratextual meaning of Mark 16:18. Wacker (2001) has documented what we also have confirmed; the practice of handling emerged most strongly in geographical areas where non-religious handling of serpents was a common folk practice. The cultural support for non-religious handling merged with the religious justification of handling found in the longer ending of Mark. It is because of this cultural phenomenon that many contemporary Appalachians who do not practice religious serpent-handling themselves still support those who do (Williamson & Hood, in press).

However, it is also true that one man, George Went Hensley, is as close to the St. Paul of serpent handling as one can find. His influence was immense, modeling the practice of handling serpents as he preached across the Appalachian Mountains until his death by a serpent bite in a religious service in Florida in 1955. Hensley may not have been the first person in modern times to handle serpents, but he clearly was the one most focused upon by newspapers and thus the handlers, both of which have supplied scholars with the best documented data. However, the documented paper trail of serpent handlers must be balanced by oral histories of participants in this tradition who have had little notoriety or notice in various public media. As we have argued elsewhere, there are two histories of the contemporary serpent handling tradition that have yet to be fully integrated (Hood, 2005). Hensley's story is one of the best documented. As he was later to tell a reporter from the Chattanooga News Free Press, it was on White oak Mountain, near Chattanooga, Tennessee, when he was first confronted by a rattlesnake (Collins, 1947). He was there seeking solace and meditating on the gospel of Mark when the fortuitous presence of the serpent caught his attention; and without much forethought, he impulsively grabbed the rattlesnake and to his amazement was unharmed. Hensley descended the mountain to launch by example a religious practice that would hold tremendous meaning for those who believed the intratextual meaning of Mark 16:18. And as noted above, he would late in his career suffer a lethal bite.

The final argument in defense of serpent handling is based upon its persistence into the early twenty-first century with what we have called the renegade Churches of God (Hood & Williamson, 2008). These churches are generally small, often with only 15 to 25 members. They typically have some version of Church of God in their name, such as pastor Jimmy Morrow's Edwina Church of God in Jesus' Name (Hood, 2005). These renegade churches are scattered primarily across Appalachia with no formal accounting as to their exact number or membership totals. Today, there are likely less than a hundred churches in all of Appalachia. However, serpent handling churches have been identified as far north as Canada and on both coasts of the united States. Many churches are hard to locate as they protect themselves from the enforcement of laws that ban the practice in most of the states where handlers have been active. West Virginia is the only Appalachian state that has never had a law prohibiting serpent handling, due to the influence and prestige of the once powerful Jolo, West Virginia, church and its late pastors, Bob and Barbara Elkins. It was the Elkinses who argued against an attempt by the West Virginia state legislature to pass a law against handling following the serpent-bite death of their daughter, Columbia Hagerman, in 1961 (Williamson & Hood, in press). Despite continuing sanctions in most states where they exist, the renegade Churches of God persist in living out what they perceive as a spiritual mandate based upon an intratextual interpretation of Mark 16:17-18 (Hood & Williamson, 2008).

When the Spirit Maims and Kills

Believers handle a variety of poisonous serpents indigenous to the Appalachian region. Water moccasins and a variety of copperhead and rattlesnakes are most common. However, handlers also trade and acquire other exotic poisonous serpents such as cobras and coral snakes. until recently, there has been little scientific knowledge about the probability of serpent bites when individuals voluntarily take up serpents. But as we noted above, serpents can both be handled successfully and also can maim and kill.

The renegade Churches of God that continue the practice have developed a variety of reasons, based largely upon intratextual biblical interpretations, for the failure to handle successfully (Williamson & Hood, in press). Most handlers simply accept that bites are God's will, and as long as one has handled in obedience to God, bites and even death can be an assurance of salvation. Handlers who experience bites may seek medical attention if they desire, but typically they simple rely upon prayer and await God's will to be done. Many powerful serpent handling families have children or grandchildren who continue the practice that killed a parent or grandparent. They note that the gospel of Mark simply says that they shall take up serpents--not that they shall not be bitten. Most churches have members who have been bitten and maimed. Fred Brown and Jeanne McDonald (2000) have allowed serpent handling families to tell their own stories, including their reaction to bites that have maimed and led to the death of loved ones within the family. our archive contains numerous interviews of handlers who discuss their near death experiences from serpent bites and some whose actual death from serpent bites are documented on film.

In the early portion of the tradition, children were allowed to handle serpents. While there is no documented death of a child from a serpent bite, some children suffered serious bites and received wide publicity in the press and nationally distributed magazines. Today children are prohibited from handling. Handlers must be at some age of consent (usually 18 years old). However, the point is largely moot as one is seeking an age of consent for what is, in most states where it is practiced, an illegal activity. In several Appalachian states, appeals of convictions to state supreme courts have resulted in support of the lower courts' verdict. In addition, even without specific laws banning the handling of serpents, some states and counties have laws they can use to punish handlers, from public nuisance to reckless endangerment to wildlife environmental protection statutes. Because it is rooted in an intratextual understanding of a sacred text, however, it is likely that serpent handling will outlive the obituary that scholars have proclaimed for this tradition.

While persons can certainly agree to disagree on the meaningfulness of serpent handing, they cannot deny the serpent handlers' struggle with their Bible to intratextually understand what it is that their God demands of them. As we have tried to demonstrate, serpent handlers have their reasons and justification for what can best be described as a high risk religious ritual. Yet for the handlers, the risk is not one of bodily death. More than one handler has unwittingly repeated what Tomlinson (1959) once said: "It is better to obey God and die than disobey Him and live" (p. 20). The serpent is both a sign and a symbol of the effort to be receptive to and directed by the Holy Spirit. If 18 century "rattlesnake gazing" was as common in North America as one authority on poplar religion asserts, it was likely due to the folk understanding of the biblical story of Eve and the attribution of supernatural powers to the serpent (Lippy, 1994, p. 79). In this respect, it makes us wonder how much more powerful an appreciation for the supernatural powers of the serpent is likely to be--especially for those who handle the serpent with a mixture of fear and fascination that otto (1917/1928) notes is the non-rational response to the holy, and that Mundkur (1983) asserts is the permanent embedded potential of the serpent to elicit the numinous. As long as people read the King James Bible, there will be some who will take the plain intratextual meaning of Mark 16:17-18 to heart. Even more assured is that, in small isolated churches scattered throughout Appalachia, there will be preachers who model the practice of handling serpents for others to emulate. Both in the King James Bible and in practice, there are able prompts for the taking up of serpents. As Barb Elkins said to us at after one of the services in Jolo, "If you do not believe in handling, simply pray for those who do."


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Ralph W. Hood, Jr.

University of Tennessee at Chattanooga

W. Paul Williamson

Henderson State University


(1.) The Hood-Williamson Research Archives for the Holiness Serpent Handling Sects of Appalachia is described online at UTC Lupton Library: University Archives (Special Collections).

(2.) We are aware of various endings to Mark. Thomas and Alexander (2003, p. 161) note that the manuscript tradition offers at least six different endings. However, the longer ending of Mark 9:20 in the King James Bible is the only concern of serpent handlers and is accepted as authoritative.

(3.) The words "signs following" relate to Pentecostal-oriented sects and denominations who embrace and practice at least three of the five signs in Mark 16:17-18: casting out devils, speaking in tongues, and laying hands on the sick for divine healing. The term is borrowed directly from verse 20 of the same chapter: "And they [believers] went forth, and preached every where [sic], the Lord working with them, and confirming the word with signs following. Amen" (emphasis ours).

(4.) our archive has footage of handlers walking upon serpents, something many have thought to be impossible, or if possible, likely to be lethal to the serpent. Neither of these assumptions is correct.

(5.) our focus in this article is only upon handling serpents. Serpent handlers intratextually interpret the drinking of poison to be conditional--that is, "if they drink any deadly thing ...". All who drink poison handle serpents, but many serpent handlers do not drink poison. Documentation of deaths from poison-drinking is in Hood and Williamson (2008, p. 246).

An earlier version of this paper was presented at the Annual Meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature, St. Andrews, Scotland, July, 2013.

Ralph W. Hood, Jr., Ph.D., is professor of psychology at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. He is past editor of the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion and past co-editor of the Archive for the Psychology of Religion and the International Journal for the Psychology of Religion. He is past president of APA Division 36 (Society for the Psychology of Religion and Spirituality) and a recipient of several of its awards. Hood has several interests in the psychology of religion, including mysticism.

W. Paul Williamson, Ph.D., is professor of psychology at Henderson State University (AR). He is past editor of the APA Division 36 (Society for the Psychology of Religion and Spirituality) Newsletter and a recipient of the division's Margaret Gorman's Early Career Award and Distinguished Service Award. Williamson has several interests in the psychology of religion, including spiritual transformation.

Correspondence regarding this article should be addressed to Ralph W. Hood Jr., University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, Department of Psychology, 615 McCallie Ave., Chattanooga, Tennessee 374052598;
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Author:Hood, Ralph W., Jr.; Williamson, W. Paul
Publication:Journal of Psychology and Christianity
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Date:Mar 22, 2014
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