A common theme in this column is a study of idiots who laugh at death. Okay, truth to tell, this is the first column I’ve ever written about it but there’s a chance I might do it again someday.
Appalachia stretches from southern New York through 13 states southwest down to Mississippi. There are the mountains, but the region is more defined as an area bounded by severe poverty, among the worst in the U.S. Nonetheless, that’s still little excuse for swinging a rattlesnake around in the air. It seems there’s this fanatical religious streak slithering through many a backwoods Tennessee hollow where you too often find a wild-haired preacher with a deadly snake draped around his neck running around and screaming for Jesus to save him.
Throughout Appalachia (and now spreading outward) there are about 15,000 members divided into congregations of 30 or less. During and after snake-handling ceremonies, the preachers and the devoted glory in the spiritual ecstasy of not getting bit. They celebrate their unwavering faith in the Lord who has protected them. They feel part of something bigger than the crushing poverty that engulfs their lives.
The Lord simply will not help you if your faith wavers, even ever so slightly. That 6-foot cottonmouth six inches from your face can sense wavering faith like God’s seismograph. One wrong quiver and your nose is toast. Recoiling from your failure, the rest of the congregants are not going to help you, because that would interfere with the diminishing odds that utter faith can still prop you back upright.
For a week now, I’ve tried to walk a mile in the moccasins of John Wayne Punkin Brown, evangelical preacher and avid snake handler from Parrottsville, Tenn., which is, incidentally, just a couple of hollows east of Dollywood. But I can’t because he died of snakebite in 1998. Punkin began preaching at 16 and over the next 18 years got bitten 22 times by a variety of venomous snakes until he was finally nailed by a 3-foot yellow timber rattler at the altar of the Old Rockhouse Holiness Church.
Odds are, Punkin was home-schooled, but nonetheless should have known better if for no other reason than his 27 year-old wife and mother of their five children, Melinda, died of snakebite three years earlier at a Kentucky revival.
Just last year, the Pentecostal world was deprived of Mack Wolford, a florid West Virginia pastor who celebrated his 44th birthday with an “old-fashioned homecoming,” where folks could stumble around shouting in tongues while passing deadly snakes back and forth with the neighbors. Sure enough Mack got bit on his birthday and will not see 45. He should have known better, his dad, also a Pentecostal preacher died of snakebite in 1983. The real question is why more of them are not bitten.
Religious snake handlers cite their authority in the final chapter of the gospel of Mark, specifically Mark 16:17-18 that says believers can take up serpents and drink poison. However, most scholars agree Mark’s original gospel ended with verse 8 and that verses 9-20 are stupid and added by a bored scribe a hundred years later.
Scientists who have bothered to look at the situation say the preachers do not feed or water the snakes, only handling them when they are too lethargic, exhausted or sick to bite as they normally would.
Adherents (survivors) of snake-handling, claim it is God’s existence confirmed; detractors claim it is confirmation of man’s idiocy.