Church of God with Signs Following

A collection of rural Appalachian churches who handle snakes, drink poison, and light themselves on fire

1910 - present

"And these signs will accompany those who believe: In my name, they will drive out demons; they will speak in new tongues; they will pick up snakes with their hands; and when they drink deadly poison, it will not hurt them at all; they will place their hands on sick people, and they will get well." (Mark 16:17-18)

The Church of God with Signs Following is best known for following a literal interpretation of Mark 16:17-18 (quoted above). As such, they pick up deadly snakes, drink deadly poison, and burn themselves with fire, trusting that the Holy Spirit will protect them from harm.

These churches exist almost exclusively in the Appalachian Mountains of the United States, but their practice of snake handling is illegal in nearly every state. Although the consequence is usually a relatively small fine, these churches are often located in impoverished areas and cannot afford to pay, so they are reluctant to disclose their practices to people outside the church. Their services, held multiple times throughout the week, are very charismatic, including speaking in tongues and convulsions,  and can last for hours.

Religion: Christianity

Denomination: Pentecostalism

Founder: George Went Hensley

Founded: 1910

Location: Appalachian region of the United States

Size: 1,000-5,000; 125 churches (72,069 in 1945)

Also called: Church of Lord Jesus with Signs Following (a nontrinitarian variant)

Other info:

For New York Times reporter Dennis Covington, what began as a journalistic assignment-covering the trial of an Alabama pastor convicted of attempting to murder his wife with poisonous snakes-would evolve into a headlong plunge into a bizarre, mysterious, and ultimately irresistible world of unshakable faith: the world of holiness snake handling.Set in the heart of Appalachia, Salvation on Sand Mountain is Covington's unsurpassed and chillingly captivating exploration of the nature, power, and extremity of faith-an exploration that gradually turns inward, until Covington finds himself taking up the snakes.

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Although outlawed in many states, serpent handling remains an active religious practice―and one that is far more stereotyped than understood. Ralph W. Hood, Jr. and W. Paul Williamson have spent fifteen years touring serpent-handling churches in Alabama, Georgia, Tennessee, Kentucky, North Carolina, and West Virginia, conducting scores of interviews with serpent handlers, and witnessing hundreds of serpent-handling services. In this illuminating book they present the most in-depth, comprehensive study of serpent handling to date. Them That Believe not only explores facets of this religious practice―including handling, preaching, and the near-death experiences of individuals who were bitten but survived―but also provides a rich analysis of this phenomenon from historical, social, religious, and psychological perspectives.

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Duin examines several families in Appalachia who attend churches that practice the handling of venomous snakes as part of their old-time religion. In the face of the deaths of members, they soldier on with the goal of proselytizing up and coming generations. Pastors and church members speak for themselves in her book about their work of bringing their traditions to the public—like their earlier attempt--the TV series Snake Salvation. They enlist social networking in their attempt to capture converts. Upon the death of yet another member, the life of the last Pastor standing took on a definite downward trajectory that included prison time. No matter, he remains determined to take their death-defying tradition to others.

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National Geographic interview with Jamie Coots, a pastor in Middlesboro, KY. Coots died of a snake bite about a year after this was filmed.

Snake handling documentary from 1967