Photos of snake handlers and faith healers of the 1940s

Snake Faith1

"They shall take up serpents; and if they drink any deadly thing, it shall not hurt them."

"Snake Handlers, Faith Healers of the 1940s" (


  1. I read once (somewhere on that apparently the reason they got away with this for so long is that a healthy adult has a reasonable chance of surviving some varieties of venomous snake bites.

    1. Snake handling isn’t a particularly common christianity variant, so the absolute numbers are low; but more than a few who’ve tried it also simply didn’t get away with it. The survival of the practice almost certainly depends on the fact that any religion presently extant is necessarily pretty good at maintaining adherents despite situations not going to plan in all kinds of unpleasant ways(y hello thar, problem of evil…)

      If one plans on going into a snake handling ministry cynically, of course(the Appalacian job market of the 1940s makes this seem pretty sensible, actually), North America definitely does have a variety of snakes, some substantially less dangerous than others, so go ahead and pick whatever will wow the crowd with the lowest chance of killing you. Remember also that snakes don’t magically refill after each strike, it can take them a fair while to synthesize new venom. If milked properly before the show, they’ll be biting dry and humans can acquire immune resistance to modest volumes of venoms(complete immunity is hard, because some snakes inject a substantial volume of venom, compared to the practical volume of the correct antibody a human can maintain, and some venoms begin attacking nearby tissue immediately, causing alarming wounds before circulation has properly mixed the venom and the antibodies; but with a suitably chosen snake, delivering a mostly dry bite, mop-up is entirely doable).

      I leave the question of the breakdown between the sincere and lucky and the cynical showmen to the sociologists of religion…

    2. Roughly a third of all venomous snake bites are so-called “dry bites.” In addition, the species matters. If your local signs-following church is messing about with copperheads and timber rattlesnakes, your odds are better than with cottonmouths and diamondbacks because of the species’ temperament; also, copperhead venom isn’t nearly as lethal, nor does it come in vast quantities, and you will almost certainly survive (though it’ll hurt like hell and you may not keep all your fingers).

  2. There was a snake church down the road from my house. The local paramedics found it to be a real nuisance, since they were called to treat snakebites weekly.

  3. I always figured these people learned how to handle snakes safely and also that the snakes became tamer with each handling.

    Don’t see how it’s that much different from snake charming in India. 

    1. In countries like India and Morocco, your average “snake charmer” just sews the snake’s mouth shut.  The snake eventually starves to death but it looks impressive for the tourists.

  4. You know who else isn’t around much anymore? Christian Scientists. People who believe you don’t need medicine and you can pray away diseases. Not so many of them left any more. Can’t imagine why that is.

    1. I looked that up as best I could. Apparently, their mailing list in 2009 was less than half of what it was in 1996. That’s some efficient attrition.

  5. Well, as we see here, snake handlers are one of the religious groups who it is still ok to be prejudiced against. Thomas Burton’s books on snake handlers are great, should anyone be interested in a good read from someone who looks at these folks with a sympathetic eye.

  6.  The essential thing in CS is not to give something more power than it already has. But some take it over the top resulting in tragedies that reach the news. The real reason for the church diminishing is that there’s no doctrine about an afterlife. Christianity is all about pie in the sky and CS was never into it.
    Also it came into being when medical care was far from a sure thing. Not getting treated and getting treated were about the same thing. Medicine has improved.

  7. I spent a lot of time in North Carolina and lived 20 years ago in the woods in Madison County, the place profiled (in a fictional 100 years ago setting) in the movie Songcatcher. Once, our cats dragged in a baby copperhead, alive and writhing and now loose in the house.

     Roommate called our landlord, who promptly came over with a guy from his construction crew (who was from an even more remote mountain county). The construction laborer was a member of a snake handling church, and he promptly removed the sarpent from our living room.

  8. The snake in that picture is a boa. Which is less dangerous than handling a hamster. Seriously. I have been bit far more by those blind little buggers hamsters than snakes. And I’ve handled both extensively. Not just a fake healer…

    1. Sorry, the snake in the picture is definitely a copperhead. That said, copperhead venom isn’t particularly strong compared with other snakes; I’ve read that even cats have survived copperhead bites.

  9. Wish they would leave the snakes alone and drink bleach instead, making the same scriptural point.

    1. The scripture could have been more dramatic by suggesting scorpions, the brown recluse, or any number of spiders with cytotoxic venom… though it’s not as easy to game flesh-destroying toxins, and necrotic ulcers wouldn’t be the best means of charming new converts.

    2. I try that argument on the pushier “born again” types but they have been inoculated against it:  “It is wrong to test God that way.”  I’ve even offered to buy the bleach.

  10. A one of my favorite classic Saturday Night Live skits, from the September 2, 1976 episode  hosted by Norman Lear

    “Lear himself discusses his very personal relationship with Writer #456 (writer Tom Schiller), who discusses the new sitcom pitch with him. “The Snakehandling O’Sheas” features a union organizer father (Belushi), his boss/wife (Curtin), a nun for a daughter (Newman), and gay state trooper of a son (Aykroyd). Also, they’re all practicing snake handlers. This is a clever sketch and I also enjoyed how it didn’t turn Aykroyd into a stereotypical lispy gay character. .” from blog, Hot Off The Press.

    “The Snakehandling O’Sheas” jingle:

    Pop is a hardhat
    Mom’s an exec.
    Sis is a nun
    And Junior is gay.

    We all live in Pittsburgh
    Oh, that’s a cliche.
    What else can we say?
    But we’ll be okay.

    Because we’re snakehandlers (Snakehandling O’Sheas)
    We handle snakes.
    Snakehandlers (Snakehandling O’Sheas)
    Junior is gay.
    Snakehandlers (Snakehandling O’Sheas)..”

  11. All fundamentalist Christians claim to take the Bible absolutely literally, but only the snake-handlers walk it like they talk it.

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