A rattlesnake leans out from Ray McCallister’s disfigured palm. The short, aging man closes his eyes intensely and dances on one foot.
“Lord, have mercy!” someone calls, barely heard over the pounding music.
“In your name, Je -sus! Yeah, Lord!” McCallister answers.
The service is at a feverish pitch, a cacophony of shouting, wailing, weeping and electric guitars. A dozen bodies shake, dance and jerk as their owners go about the serious business of saving souls.
“You don’t know like I know,” the congregation sings.
“What He done for me!” the organ player bellows in answer.
A woman in a long flannel dress and bare feet wails like a siren as she paces the floor. Another man breaks out of the clutch of dancers in front and, jerking in spasms as the spirit enters his body, reaches down to pick up a cottonmouth.
“Praaaaaise Je -sus!” they shout to the beat of the rockabilly music.
Through it all, bored children lie on the floor under the pews, feigning sleep.
“In the ‘40s and ‘50s, they were saying these churches would not survive,” said Marshall University Prof. Kenneth Ambrose, who has been watching West Virginia’s snake-handling churches for two decades. “They said it would go away as technology came.”
But these followers of a unique faith have changed little since sociologists first dubbed them “Yesterday’s People.”
“I don’t think it will die,” Ambrose said. “It continues in the mountains. People who have moved away come back on the weekends to participate. That’s why they’ll have their weekday services late in the evening, so people who have to drive three or four hours to get there have time.”
The Jolo snake-handling church service is as much of a jump-up-and-sing-it-out, shout-it-out, cry-weep-and-wail-it-out, praise-to-the-Lord service as it ever was.
With or without snakes.
“We need a little Holy Ghost fire!” Pastor Robert Elkins exhorts his Saturday night congregation when things get a little slow.
“When you get fire you move! All right, let’s get in this thing!”
His granddaughter takes the cue, and swinging her long straight hair from side to side, sends her song up to heaven with a microphone and an electric organ:
“You may be high, you may be low; you may be rich, you may be poor; but you gotta move.
“Lord, you gotta move, Oh Lord! Hallelujah-ah-ah-ah!”
Accustomed to Poverty
Very few of the congregation could be called high or rich. These Pentecostal believers, like most of their McDowell County neighbors, have seen poverty up close, and many can call hardship a lifelong companion.
But through their faith, they believe God controls and metes out suffering, be it fire, poison and snakebite or roof fall in a coal mine. Death and pain are the same.
“There’s lots more ways of sufferin’ than snakebite,” Pastor Elkins’ wife, Barbara, reminds the congregation.
Suffering holds a high honor for these people with their serpents. On occasion, worshipers engage in even more spectacular displays of faith, downing the dilutions of lye, strychnine and battery acid known as salvation cocktails.
A finger on the hand of Dewey Chafin, one of Barbara Elkins’ sons, is withered and curled, crippled by venom.
“It just blackens the flesh and eats away at it,” Dewey said and shrugs with a smile.
Claims 102 Bites
His photo albums are filled with shots of church members lined up like soldiers, proudly displaying wounds. Other shots show believers on the sickbed, still smiling.
Dewey said he has been bitten by venomous snakes exactly 102 times. Literally a keeper of the faith, he houses in his tiny home dozens of rattlers, copperheads, diamondbacks, cottonmouths and even a Habu viper from Taiwan.
“George Hensley (the undisputed father of the faith), he got bit 360 times. I’ve read more than that; I’ve heard less than that,” Dewey said. “They say the last one, he said, ‘This one will kill me.’ ”
Dewey is not certain the story is true, but he makes it clear: In this religion, it really doesn’t matter.
“The way we believe, the way we do it, I know that God has something to do with it. ‘Cause I’ve been bit too many times. I know,” Dewey said. “It’s not in your hands.”
The snakebite is a church event. Medical attention is spurned.
“We start praying with them right away,” Dewey said. “If we know they’re hurtin’ bad, they’re serious or in danger, we try to encourage them to go home with my mom or my niece. When it comes right down to it, we all stick together.”
Barbara Elkins complains that Dewey’s shanty smells too much like snakes. It does, he admits, but what can he do?
“If I say I believe in something, I’ve got to do it,” he said. “Them that handles snakes, handles snakes.”
Barbara’s daughter, Columbia, died of snakebite in church in October, 1961. At 23, she left behind a young child, Lydia. In the resulting furor, the West Virginia Legislature threatened to bar the religious risk-takers from their faith.
“I’m letting God fight my battle,” Barbara Elkins was quoted then. “You think I’m going to let some of these little judges and lawyers make me back up on my salvation? No!”
West Virginia’s sole attempt to outlaw ritual handling of deadly snakes failed when one of the principal opponents, after investigating, wound up writing a book supporting the snake handlers.
The tide did not turn in other states, however, and Virginia, Tennessee and Kentucky passed laws against serpent handling in church.
Tennessee is where this brand of religious snake handling started, in the summer of 1909 at George Hensley’s the Dolley Pond Church of God With Signs Following. The state has fought hardest against the faith, winning support for its anti-serpent laws from the U.S. Supreme Court.
But Tennessee lost the war when church members decided that it was an honor to be arrested in the name of the Lord.
“It seems that when persecution appears, the church becomes stronger,” Ambrose said.
Pastor Elkins said the critics, for the most part, simply leave him alone.
“Society doesn’t have much to do with people like us that try to live right,” he said.
The gawkers, now mostly reporters, still make the treacherous drive along winding, twisting, West Virginia 83 into the heart of the coal fields to watch the Jolo services.
The snake handlers tolerate them the way the snakes tolerate the handlers, doing their quiet best to go about their business amid commotion.
“We’re tired,” Elkins simply said of the television cameras and steamy grocery store tabloid accounts.
The snake handlers have been shaking these secluded Appalachian hills for seven decades. They have moved out of the primitive brush harbors of summer revivals and into whitewashed lumber houses of God, unnamed save for the inevitable “Jesus” painted on a plank above the door.
Some, like Jolo, do not have even that. There is not even a cross in the front of the Jolo church.
Academicians argue over theories, explaining the death-defying religious acts as manifestations of everything from inhibited sexuality to a supposed fatalism inherent in Appalachia.
Nathan Gerrard, a sociologist at what is now the University of Charleston, once went so far as to say that such fatalism resulted in squalid living conditions, illegitimate births, incest, “quitting of jobs in order to go hunting or fishing . . . and other kinds of behavior incomprehensible from a middle-class point of view.”
The snake handlers’ demanding religious views offered the flip side to that fatalistic extremism “in the feeling that one’s destiny is in God’s hands,” Gerrard wrote.
The snake handlers are aware of these less than flattering theories, but they shrug them off. A single paragraph in the 16th chapter of the book of Mark tells them all they need to know. In it, Jesus tells his disciples:
And these signs shall follow them that believe: In my name shall they cast out devils; they shall speak with new tongues;
They shall take up serpents; and if they drink any deadly thing, it shall not hurt them; they shall lay hands on the sick, and they shall recover.
If it is in the Bible, the snake handlers say, it must be so.
Beyond complying with Scripture, each snake-handling church is free to write its own rules for the road to heaven. Certain aspects of modern society--short hair and makeup for women, long hair for men, liquor and tobacco for anyone--are banned by most Holiness churches. But other vices of the technological age have been accepted.
Electric guitars and amplifiers, for instance, send the snake handlers’ rocking music heavenward. And the religious services are now replayed on Dewey Chafin’s home video recorder.
A sign at the front of the Jolo church warns “No Backbiting,” so members get it all up front.
“This is just church talk,” Barbara Elkins cautions reporters during her sermon. Tonight she is admonishing two church members. They don’t seem to mind hearing their personal lives berated in public.
Church members are serious about what they believe, and no feelings or secrets are spared on the severe road to salvation.
“Saving the individual is more important,” Ambrose said.
“I’ve seen it where the assistant pastor hopped all over the minister for spending too much time building his own house and neglecting the church. And the pastor said, ‘Tell it like it is, brother. I deserve it.’ ”
It is all in the name of faith, Dewey Chafin said.
“We’re justified by faith. We’re saved by faith. We got to take this Bible like it is. And we live by faith.
“I’ll probably die with snakes, but that won’t stop me from doing it.”
The snake handlers certainly don’t believe their faith will vanish. They’re perplexed when one of their own gives up the snakes.
A whole congregation in southern West Virginia did just that recently, McCallister said.
“They said they had graduated above that (serpent handling),” he said one evening as he mounts the steps into his own church, where the music already has started.
“How can you graduate from the Lord?”