(Herpe)neutic: The Historical Hermeneutic of Snake-Handling Churches Pt. I
(In this first part to a three-part paper, I hiss on about the denominational and legal history of Appalachian snake-handling churches and the added ending verses of Mark 16:9-20, which contain the one and only verse snake-handling churches use to biblically justify their practice.)
It is a warm summer Sunday in southeastern Kentucky. Despite the dreary economic situation around, the attitudes of those who live there are anything but dreary. Traversing along winding roads that lead you farther into the woods, you finally come upon all that you have been looking for: a small one-room church. Near its entrance is a weather-worn sign with even more weather-worn lettering that makes out the words, “Full Gospel Tabernacle in Jesus Name, Middlesboro.” You walk into a warm room filled with anticipation for the afternoon’s holy activities. You are drawn to the energy and passion exuded by the congregants. All seems like customary Pentecostal worship, that is, until you begin to hear the hissing of eastern diamondbacks reverberating from small boxes that a few older men have just brought into the church.
Despite the rarity of the amount of snake-handling churches in Appalachia (there are only an estimated 125 churches who engage in the practice), their venomous practice still retains fame. Recent coverage in media has again brought snake-handling churches back to the fascination of Americans. Journalist reports by CNN, Vice, and others and television shows like Salvation Mountain have garnered the attention of Americans to such a captivating religious practice. Yet with many aware of snake-handling churches, few understand how a worshipper could, without any protection, dance and swing around such a deadly creature in their bare hands. For the congregants of snake-handling churches, it is a literal hermeneutic of one verse, albeit a contested one, in the Bible that has decided the deadly fate of those bitten. It is Mark 16:18, or rather a specific interpretation of Mark 16:18, that is so venomously important to the tradition of snake-handling churches. Therefore, in this paper will discuss briefly the history of snake-handling churches, the later-added verses at the end of Mark 16, the history of the interpretation of Mark 16:18, and the hermeneutical method that is used by snake-handling churches to compel them to engage in such a risky practice…