JOLO West Virginia - For the current issue of Hennen’s Observer I decided to observe a snake handling church in action. After a few hours of basic research I found a congregation in West Virginia (one of the few states where this activity is still legal), known as “The Church of the Lord Jesus Christ with Signs Following,” located in Jolo (pronounced Joe-Low). And as luck would have it, that weekend was this church’s annual homecoming.
After making necessary plans, I traveled deep into a “holler” in southwestern WV. The landscape was beautiful but economically barren. I followed a road that mirrored the path of a set of railroad tracks which wound deeply into the belly of those mountains. About two hours later I arrived at the small roadside church which was packed for this Friday night service. It was 7:30pm.
The inside of the church was small with two sets of pews to the right and left of a central aisle that led directly to the back of the church where a small stage and altar were located. While the pew area was carpeted, there was a small wooden dance floor that separated the altar and stage from the carpet. At the foot of the altar, in plain view of those in the pews, lay five or six shallow wooden boxes with plexiglass lids that had holes drilled in them. These housed copperheads and one rattlesnake approximately four feet long. The walls of the church were a brown wood-paneling. In addition, there were perhaps five ceiling fans hanging at various points throughout the building.
The people were generally warm and inviting although most didn’t seem to notice me. The pastor, Mr. Harvey Payne, was a short man with a hesitating manner and reddish-blonde hair parted in the middle. He stood behind the altar and spoke first: “If anyone here has any kinda negativity, we want ya ta take it on outta here,” as he gestured to the door in the front of the building. “We’ve come here ta have a good time!” Many “amens” followed from the roughly thirty people gathered. “So go ahead and find ya a place ta pray,” he said.
At this point I was still standing in a pew aisle trying to find a seat when everyone scattered to all parts of the church to find their favorite prayer spot. Some rushed to the corners while others flipped around at their seats and got on their knees to pray. In the ensuing excitement I was nearly trampled by a large man wearing overalls. Then came the highly audible prayers and discordant chants of all assembled. Stunned at the foregoing, my eyes were no doubt the size of saucers as I started to question my sanity for attending in the first place.
After about five minutes, I stationed myself at the front of the church hall near the entrance but still inside when pastor Payne announced that it was time for the service to start. And then, as if a fire had been set deep in my bones, I was shocked to attention by the most electrifying rock and roll music that I had ever heard. There were electric guitars, drums, and an organ all playing old-timey material such as “He’s Alright” and “Payday.” I swore at the time that the walls and floor were quivering as they also felt the “fire.”
As if on cue, nearly half of the attendees climbed out of their pews in a frenzy and crowded the dance floor. Their stomping and dancing added to my initial concern about the structural integrity of the small building. But as it turned out, the building had seen it’s fair share of raucous worship.
The occupants of the stage were the band, the former pastor of the church; the Reverend Bob Elkins, and a few worshippers. Rev. Elkins never did stop moving as he seemingly oversaw all of the activity that took place at the gathering. As I threaded my way toward the action (but well short of the dance floor in front of the altar) I noticed one of the congregants, a heavy set man with a light blue button-shirt. He was the first to reach down, open one of the aforementioned wooden boxes, and pull out a copperhead in order to handle it.
At this point, I think it only proper to explain the rationale of these folks as to why they handle serpents and drink strychnine. According to some translations of the Bible, the book of Mark 16:17, 18 says: “Furthermore, these signs will accompany those believing: By the use of my name they will expel demons, they will speak with tongues, and with their hands they will pick up serpents, and if they drink anything deadly it will not hurt them at all. They will lay their hands upon sick persons, and these will become well.”
So as a matter of faith, this portly chap freely handled the copperhead as it twirled and snaked around his hand. This man had some odd mannerisms. Prior to his reptile seizing, if he wasn’t looking at the ceiling dazed and squinty-eyed than he was glancing at the audience with a blank expression. Now he gave the snake similar looks. Shortly thereafter, others followed his example and passed copperheads back and forth on the stage. Meanwhile, the loud and rocking music continued to excite the church members to dance, stomp their feet, and put their hands up in praise.
Not long after this a skinny man with a balding head and wearing all black clothing approached the stage to seek what I later realized was a prayer blessing. All of the stage’s occupants and many of the dancers came and laid hands upon the fellow. The frenzied beat of the music ebbed to a soft, low strumming as pastor Harvey prayed for the man. As the prayer progressed, the pastor’s petitions to his God grew louder. In perfect unison with the prayer, the band’s musical outpourings also grew louder until the tension had grown to such an extent that the air was fairly crackling with energy. Both the pastor and the band seemed to be competing to be heard. Finally, the guitars exploded like volcanoes with electric riffs that drove the assemblants into a frothy ecstasy. A second later and the worshippers resumed their previous strutting about the dance floor.
Now came the elderly Reverend Elkins. He was the one that had the honor to release the “big boy.” Holding high in the air the most pissed off of all rattlesnakes, the Reverend showed the congregation how he displayed his faith in the protecting hand of his God and had done so for most of his life. He seemed to derive a lot of pleasure and satisfaction from the activity. Next, he handed the “rattler” off to one of the apparently prominent members; a heavy-set, clean-cut man wearing spectacles and a full suit and tie, the only one so dressed as a matter of fact. He took his turn at the angry viper and then the music, which had previously been rocking away, abruptly stopped.
All that could be heard now was the angry rattling of the church’s foremost member. The heavy-set man said the following words as he maneuvered the venomous serpent from his one hand to the other and addressed those absent critics of the church: “there’s a lot of people that say we got ta have that music. No we don’t! I’ll tell ya what I gotta have, that’s God Almighty.” Many amens followed. He continued: “He said he’ll take care of us and not jus’ dat but that he’ll save us, keep us safe, and keep mercy among us. God is good. God is real. He’ll not only let us do this but he’ll let us raise the dead. Hallelujah!” He said more words like these and then handed the still audibly irritated reptile to another interesting congregant.
This gregarious man, whom I had noticed from the outset, sustained the most contorted facial expressions that I have ever seen. His face seemed to be frozen into the look of a permanent orgasm. He truly enjoyed every aspect of the service. If he wasn’t covering his face with a handkerchief with his head cocked to the heavens, crying, or shouting praise then he was grabbing a hold of that rattlesnake. He really and truly danced with that animal so full of death and suffering whereas the others merely handled. Previously, I had seen him drink strychnine from a mason jar. But not long after his time with the snake and near the end of my visit, he sang an old time gospel song as the music continued. He was exhausted and had to lean heavily upon the podium as his breath was expended and his face flushed with excitement. This was about 1.5 hours after the service had initially started. His parting words were to this effect: “Are there any more unbelievers among us? Are there any more that don’t believe on the Lord Jesus?” Even though he had obviously spent all of his energy, as had others at that point, the band which had started to slow its beat and showed signs of relenting, struck up again as the church once again erupted.
Well, I was tired from merely watching the whole ordeal. As I had lost all apprehension, I wanted to stay to see every last bit of the service, but it was late in the evening and I had many hours ahead of me to find my way out of that hollow. So I regretfully dipped out of the front door and shook a few hands in the parking lot. As I got to my car, I stopped to hear in the night air the still rocking gospel music of those mountain folk. It didn’t seem as though they would ever stop. For all I now know, they may still be worshipping, singing, and looking death in the face to this very day.