Serpent handlers tell their stories to authors
Book provides account of indigenous, American Christianity

Keith Augustus Burton, Ph.D., Former Associate Professor of Religion
The Huntsville Times, Sunday, July 9, 2000

Loyal readers of the King James Version of the Bible who turn to Mark 16 in a modern translation may be surprised to learn that verses 9-20 do not appear in the earliest Greek manuscripts.

Any doubts about Mark 16:9-20 will be rejected by the subjects of "The Serpent Handlers: Three Families and Their Faith," a riveting account of an indigenous expression of fundamentalist American Christianity written by a husband-and-wife team, Fred Brown and Jeanne McDonald.

Not only do the serpent handlers recognize this passage as inspired writ, but they apparently place verses 17-18 even above the Ten Commandments as the herald them as the litmus test for genuine Christianity.

Brown and McDonald attempt to avoid the customary bias that permeates most studies on these oft-maligned Holiness Pentecostals of the Appalachians. Consequently, they have produced a work that allows the serpent handlers to express their own faith with minimal interpretation from external sources.

The result of their effort is an honest insight into the lives and struggles of a people who believe in the power of their religion.

The book's three sections focus on three influential families in snake handling circles: the Browns of Cocke-County, Tenn.; the Coots of Middlesboro, Ky.; and the Elkinses of Jolo, W. Va.

Each section commences with a brief history and demography of the areas in which the families live. After devoting a chapter to the significant personalities associated with each family, the sections climax with a graphic description of worship services where poisonous snakes become dancing partners, fire is handled, unknown tongues are spoken, sick people are healed, and poison is consumed by the believers who are under the "anointing" of the Spirit.

The obvious hero of the book is John Wayne "Punkin" Brown, a stalwart evangelist among the snake handlers. Punkin epitomizes many of the characters that contributed to the book.

Born into a snake-handling Holiness family, he backslid from the church in his youth and experienced worldly pleasure. While at rock bottom he returned to the faith of his parents, and demonstrated his faith by following the "signs" of Mark 16.

After surviving several snake bites without the help of modem medicine, and losing his wife to the venomous bite of a black timber rattler in 1995, Punkin was to die for his faith just minutes after a yellow timber rattler sunk its teeth into his hands during a 1998 revival.

To show that Punkin's fate is not typical of those who choose this extreme sport version of Christianity, the final service covered in the book is one that commemorates the life of faithful serpent handling matriarch, Barbara Robinson Elkins, who died last year at the age of 84.

With this work, Brown and McDonald allow us to enter into the pious world of an oft-misunderstood Christian sect. While neither Mark 16 nor any other Bible passage explicitly "commands" Christians to play Russian roulette in the name of the Lord, it is heartening to see people who are willing to die for their faith.

Notwithstanding, I am not sure if I could agree with the authors' conjuring the biblical Job as a paradigm for the suffering and loss that snake handling families endure. Job's calamities were not brought on by presumptuous acts.

While this book has moved me to a deeper respect for my serpent handling siblings in Christ, I prefer to reserve my faith cards for emergency situations.

 

"The Serpent Handlers: Three Families and their Faith"
By Fred Brown and Jeanne McDonald: John Blair Press, $20, 356 pages.