They Shall Take Up Serpents

 

They Shall Take Up Serpents

 

By Elton Camp

 

 

            Devotion to the many conflicting and contentious sects of Christendom was widespread in the Deep South during the first half of the 20th Century.  Alabama had a variety of religions with an abundance of meeting places, often within a few miles of one another. It was widely reported that on a particular Sunday morning, side-by-side churches opened services with gospel songs.  One sang, “Do You See Any Stars in My Crown?” while the other used, “No, Not One.”  While I doubt that this was anything more than a joke, it illustrates the animosity some groups felt for their fellows who might differ only slightly from their own belief.  Others were more liberal and held that “all roads lead to the same place,” a shaky analogy unless one is speaking of ancient Rome.   

 

New churches were formed easily.  If a group in an existing congregation decided they didn’t endorse some aspect of its doctrine or practice, disliked some of the members, or disapproved of the preacher, they’d pull out, obtain a small building, and go into business. 

 

            In most cases, no formal qualifications existed for ministers.  A few were functionally illiterate.  A seminary-educated man might even be looked at with suspicion.  The flock usually expected their leader to have experienced an emotional “call” to preach.  The congregation wanted to smell the brimstone and feel the fire of God’s wrath against sinners, themselves excepted of course. 

 

            Although the “official” religion of Milas’ family was Baptist, he didn’t forbid his children to attend meetings of other denominations. On one occasion, this led to a memorable experience for Albert.  It was one he related with excitement, even decades later. 

 

            Joshua, a teenager about Albert’s age, began to insistently urge him to attend the Saturday services of his church. 

 

            “We follow th’ Scriptures ’n a way thet nobody else does.  The rest ez afeared t’ follow th’ true teaching’ o’ th’ Lord.  Y’u should come’ ’n’ see fer yoreself.  Yu’ll b’ glad y’u did.”

 

            For a time, Albert resisted the invitation.  “They’s pore as Job’s turkey,” he thought.  All his friends went to Mt. Olive, where they met in a far nicer building than the one Joshua and his family attended.

 

            Finally, due to the boy’s persistence, his resolve faded.  “I reckon I’ll go wif y’u next time.”  

 

            The shabby structure was located well off the road in a scope of pine trees.  It’d once been a barn, but the group had improved it enough to function for religious services.

 

            Albert swallowed hard several times as he approached the building with his pal. He recalled mocking comments his brothers had made about the group. A nervous tick began to affect the muscles of his left eye.  He took a deep breath and marched on.  It was too late to back out. 

 

            A crudely hand-lettered sign read “Church of God With Signs Following.”  It listed the name of the pastor, Brother Milton Fergis, and the time of the Saturday meeting.  Albert, a dropout who never had done well in school, wasn’t able to make out more than a couple of words, but “Church” and “God” made him feel that it was going to be all right to go there. 

 

            The interior of the ramshackle building showed an attempt to make it more suitable as a place of worship.  The walls were nothing but studs with boards on the outside, but they had been lightened with whitewash.  The group had constructed a stage raised about two feet above floor level.  Hand-built benches, without backs, substituted for pews.  Behind the stage, long and short two-by-fours had been fashioned into a crude representation of a cross.  A podium was provided for the preacher’s use.  A small table with a wooden box atop stood to the right of the stage. Four windows with wavy panes had been added on the south wall to admit light and allow for ventilation in hot weather.  Albert detected a slight stench of manure, hay, and feed that remained from the building’s former use. 

 

            Members of the congregation were milling about inside when Albert arrived.  The men had short hair, wore long-sleeved shirts open at the collar, and were clad in Sunday-best pants, though they didn’t call them that since they met on what they considered the true Sabbath, sundown Friday to sundown Saturday.  Some of the older ones had beards halfway down their chests.  The women wore neither jewelry nor makeup.  Dresses were floor-length, with sleeves to their wrists.  The older ones had their hair arranged into simple buns on top of their heads.  Younger girls had long hair that flowed down their backs.  Several of the flock smiled and nodded as Albert passed.  Their friendliness made him feel welcome.

 

            “Who’s thet grinnin’ like a mule eatin’ briars?” Albert asked as he looked toward a well-dressed man standing near the stage.  The man walked in his direction. 

 

            “Hit’s th’ preacher,” the other boy whispered urgently. “Show som’ respect ’n’ watch whut y’u say.”

 

            “Welcome, son,” said Fergis effusively.  “We’s so pleased t’ have ye wif us.  We believe ’n ever’ word o’ th’ Bible.  Do ye believe ’n th’ anointin’ o’ th’ holy ghost?  Air ye saved?”

 

            Albert, unsure how he should reply since he wasn’t a member of their church, simply answered “Yes,” but without conviction. 

 

            The meeting commenced with the congregation standing as it sang a well-known gospel song, “A Mighty Fortress.”  It lacked musical accompaniment.  The flock sang with vigor, a few badly off-key.  Then came an extended, fervent prayer by Fergis.  The sermon itself initially sounded familiar to Albert.  The minister spoke of the saving grace of God through Jesus Christ and the need for repentance for sin.  He emphasized strict obedience to everything in the Bible. 

 

            As he proceeded, the man lapsed into occasional sentences spoken in a tongue.  Taken aback, Albert, unable to understand a word, glanced about.  If others shared his confusion, it didn’t show on their faces. An old sister near the back of the meeting room began to sob loudly and then to speak incomprehensively in a frenzied manner. 

 

            “Brang her o’ th’ front ’n’ let her testify fer th’ Lawd,” Fergis instructed. 

 

            The woman stood on the stage and continued to spout gibberish.  As she grew increasingly excited, she began to swing both arms in wide circles.  Abruptly, she stopped, commenced to cry harder, blew her nose loudly, and then calmly returned to her seat. 

 

            “Praize th’ Lawd fer yore faith ’n’ gifts, sister,” Fergis called out.  The congregation responded with “Amens.”

 

            “Now, I want all ye, ’specially our youn’ visitor, t’ listen as I read from th’ Gospel o’ Mark,” the preacher said.  He opened his large, black Bible to the last chapter of the book.  An expectant hush fell over the group.  They knew what was coming. 

 

            “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.”

 

            The preacher stared up toward Heaven and slight movement of his lips suggested that he was praying.  The congregation sat in reverent silence, most with their Bibles open on their laps.  After about five minutes, he turned with a jerk toward the box resting on the table to his right.  He yanked open the lid, thrust in his hand, and pulled out a three-foot long timber rattlesnake.  The reptile twisted wildly in his hand, curled its tail around his arm, and moved its triangular head menacingly toward his face. Its forked tongue flicked in and out of its mouth.  Its lidless eyes showed vertical slits for pupils.

 

            Taken by surprise, Albert was stunned.  Oh, how he hated and feared snakes.  He wished with all his heart that he hadn’t let Joshua talk him into coming.  Now he was trapped without any acceptable way to escape.  He briefly considered making a wild dash for the door, but didn’t want to risk people laughing at him. 

 

            “They shall take up serpents ’n hit shall not hurt ’em,” Fergis paraphrased.  He draped the snake around his neck as it continued to writhe.  His display of belief emboldened a man in his early thirties to jump to his feet and call out loudly in an unknown tongue.  He began to dance erratically, bringing first one knee and then the other, upward with a fast motion.  He approached the stage. 

 

            “Brother, air ye ’n th’ spirit?” Fergis demanded.  “Do ye believe?” 

 

            “I am, I do,” he affirmed.  His eyes were glazed, his mouth partly open, and his breath came in hard gasps and sudden spurts. 

 

            He stepped onto the stage, reached into the box and extracted a copper head.  The man handled it with careless abandon.  The snake attempted to escape his grasp, but didn’t bite.  The believer continued to prance about and call out, partly in English and partly in unrecognizable sounds. 

 

            The woman, who had testified earlier, rushed forward and joined them on stage.  She took a cottonmouth in one hand and a diamond-back rattler in the other, spoke in unknown words and began to jump up and down.  Suddenly she fell to the floor on her back, kicked her legs several times, and became still and silent. 

 

            Albert wondered if she had died, but nobody in the congregation seemed to be concerned. The snakes she had held slithered across the stage, but Fergis quickly scooped them up and returned them to the box.  He slapped the lid securely in place. 

 

            “I ain’t gonna do thet.  Nobody kin make me,” Albert whispered urgently to Joshua.  “I purt ne’r druther die then t’ pick up a snake.”

 

            “Nobody’ll try t’ force y’u. Only them thet feel they’s anointed ever do hit.  I ain’t never tried hit, but I may sometimes.” 

 

            The service turned from the snakes to more familiar preaching.  Albert began to relax somewhat, although he kept a wary eye on the box of serpents still at the front of the church.  Toward the end of the service, Fergis again returned to the sixteenth chapter of Mark where he emphasized the drinking of poison.  He fumbled in his left side pocket and produced a small, clear bottle.

 

            “This here’s strychnine,” he asserted.  “Ez long ez I has faith, hit can’t possibly hurt me.”

 

            The man removed the cap from the vial, placed it to his lips, and drank about half of its contents.  He calmly restored the cap, returned the bottle to his pocket, and continued with his sermon.  Fergis seemed to suffer no ill effects from the powerful poison.  Albert wondered if it truly contained what the preacher had said, but thought it best to keep his doubts to himself. 

 

            The congregation sang a final song, “I’ll Fly Away.” The pastor concluded the service with another long prayer of praise and thanksgiving.  Albert had enough.  Never would he return to that church, he vowed silently. 

 

            Handling snakes as a part of worship was by no means unique to Alabama.  It wasn’t widespread then, nor is it now.  Historians note that a Church of God minister by the name of George Hensley had, in the early1900s, introduced snake handling into the Pentecostal church headquartered at Cleveland, Tennessee.  After a period of years, the religion repudiated the practice.  Hensley responded by establishing a separate church.  He survived to 1955 when he was seventy years old.  The man died the next day after being bitten by a snake at a church meeting in Florida.   Authorities, although knowing the circumstances, listed the cause of his death as “suicide.”  The minister had survived numerous other snakebites over the years. 

 

            Snake handling churches in North Alabama didn’t recognize Hensley as their founder.  On Sand Mountain, James Miller came to the same conclusions as Hensley, but appeared never to have heard of him.  Miller was most active in the area around Scottsboro, but his followers spread his beliefs.  The church Albert visited traced its origins to his teachings.

 

            Neither man was aware that the verses in Mark on which they founded their ministries are considered by Bible scholars to be later additions to the Gospel.  Modern translations note them as not having the authority of true Scripture.  Yet, they are a part of the 1611 King James Translation that many hold to be the “original” Bible.  Such persons credulously believe that Jesus and his followers, nearly two thousand years ago, spoke, not in Aramaic or Hebrew, but in archaic English and that the 400-year-old translation is the very book that existed at that time.  No argument can persuade them otherwise. 

 

            There have been a number of deaths from snakebites during religious services.  Those cases are attributed to lack of faith or failure to follow the leading of the spirit.  The church tends to be secretive, but it’s estimated that fewer than one hundred people have actually died over the years. Those bitten refuse medical treatment and depend on Divine power to save them. 

 

            Even among fundamentalists, snake handling is generally looked upon with disfavor.  It tends to give credence to the idea that the South is filled with ignorant people.  In reality, only a few thousand of the millions living in eleven Southern states currently adhere to the belief.  Its practice is now illegal in Alabama and all other Southern states except West Virginia.  Prosecutions are rare. 

 


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Synopsis
About religous snake handling in fundamentalist churches. A short story.
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