Snake handlers, strychnine drinkers, and the hills

One of my classes at the university is basically a sociology class covering rural life in America, with particular emphasis on the Appalachian region. Today we watched a short film recorded sometime in the late 60’s about snake-handling churches. In such establishments, the worshipers chant, sing, and speak in tongues as loudly and enthusiastically as they can. Some of the patrons make their way up to the front of the service and begin dancing. What struck me about the film was how ‘tribal’ some of the singing and dancing was, in that it seemed more like I was watching a Discovery Channel special on indigenous peoples instead of a film about a protestant church.

I’m an agnostic, for the record, but the fervor with which people pursue this kind of religion fascinates me. Some of these churchgoers get worked into a frenzied state and begin literally begin convulsing on the floor. Hey, it’s more fun than napping for an hour and half, right?

Another thing that struck me as interesting: The preacher goes on a long tirade about how all people are equal regardless of skin color, nationality or the way they choose to live their life. Not exactly the kind of sermon you find in many back-country churches, especially considering the time period. I’ve noticed that this type of thinking seems to occur very often in religions that worship by inducting an ecstatic state. I wonder if anyone has ever researched the similarities between this kind of church and phenomena such as Kundalini Yoga or Tantric Buddhism etc.

Anyway, you can see the film online here if you would like.

The Kentucky artist and musician John Haywood did an excellent painting of a snake-handling church service called “Wrasslin’ With the Devil”, which you can see here


~ by ethmgallagher on March 24, 2009.

3 Responses to “Snake handlers, strychnine drinkers, and the hills”

  1. My husband did a painting on this topic. Wrasslin’ with the Devil. You’ve got to admire them following their convictions.

  2. I like that painting a lot, give your husband my compliments (both on his music and his art). I read his bio and laughed when I saw “Born in a holler”. I miss hearing people use that word.

  3. […] Snake handlers, strychnine drinkers, and the hills […]

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