Sunday, October 9, 2011

Salvation On Sand Mountain Snake Handling and Redemption In Southern Appalachia by Dennis Covington

This was a fascinating book to read. I have always been amazed and intrigued by those who take their faith, and their lives, into their own hands by handling deadly, poisonous serpents, trusting in God and their faith in Him to protect them. I also happen to like snakes as long as they are on tv, behind glass, or safely confined to the pages of books. My parents, who had me late in life, grew up in rural Georgia in the 1930s and 1940s and, in my father’s case at least, believed in this sort of thing; in his youth he attended a church where members would prove their faith by putting their hands on a red-hot iron pot-bellied stove without suffering burns and faith healers performed miracles at tent revivals. To this day he refuses to believe that any trickery might have been involved, whereas I, skeptic that I am with my interest in the paranormal, psychology, history, and science, am more inclined to seriously entertain that suspicion; people have been faking miracles and relics since religion began. So, for me, this was a very interesting book.

In 1992 the author of this book, Dennis Covington, went to Alabama to cover the trial of the Reverend Glen Summerford who was accused of attempting to murder his wife, Darlene, with the rattlesnakes they used in their worship services. Covington decided to attend an evening service at The Church of Jesus With Signs Following, a converted gas station/general store with a steeple on top, where Reverend Summerford used to preach before he was arrested. The men in jeans and overalls and the women in ankle-length skirts with long hair and no makeup made him welcome and after the lively hillbilly music, the pulsing thrum of electric guitars and the jingle-jangle of tambourines, and the hymn singing they got down to business—speaking in tongues, drinking strychnine from mason jars, handling fire with their bare hands, and, the snakes—rattlesnakes and copperheads mostly, though cobras were also occasionally seen at services by those “fortunate” to acquire them.

One would think this was the end of the story, that after the trial ended, Dennis would go back to the city and write his story, but he found himself drawn to the snake handlers and, welcomed to their services and hailed as “Brother Dennis” he began regularly attending their churches, even traveling with them to various parts of Georgia, Virginia, Kentucky, and Tennessee, to attend meetings, and, caught up in the ecstasy, he would eventually, when the spirit moved him, dare to take up serpents.

Despite becoming intimately involved with his story, Mr. Covington manages to deliver a sane and straightforward account of the history of snake handling and the misadventures of those who practice it, the bites, fatalities, beliefs, bickering, and controversy. It is not a preachy book that the author, who has left snake handling behind, uses to try to convert disbelievers, merely an account of his own investigation and experiences. Whether you are seriously interested in bizarre religions and strange beliefs or just vaguely curious, I highly recommend this book.

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