Snake Handling


The term snake handling refers to a practice in a few rural fundamentalist Christian churches in the United States. The purpose of the practice is to demonstrate the practitioners' adherence to certain Biblical "signs," of which snake handling is one. A few leaders and parishioners pick up captive poisonous snakes from a container during emotional worship services. The snakes are held for a while, as the person moves about praying and sometimes vocalizing. Those who handle the poisonous snakes are usually not bitten, and those who are bitten usually survive. Children are not allowed to handle snakes.

The practice of snake handling is based on two verses in the New Testament (quoted from the King James Bible):

Mark 16:18 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.

Luke 10:19 Behold, I give unto you power to tread on serpents and scorpions, and over all the power of the enemy: and nothing shall by any means hurt you.

There is nothing remarkable about handling snakes and surviving. With observation and practice a person can learn to keep one move ahead of the snake and not be bitten. Holding the snake close to the head limits its ability to strike. Not all poisonous snakes are equally likely to bite. Snakes that are hot, hungry or feel threatened are more likely to bite, so keeping the snakes cool, well-fed, and calm prevents bites. Some species of poisonous snakes are slower to attempt to strike than others. A snake handled since hatching may grow used to being picked up.

If the snake bites, it may not inject a lethal amount of poison. If the bitten person is healthy and lies down and remains calm,the spread of the poison may be contained to an area around the fang incisions with painful swelling, but not death. One bite can be endured better than several bites. A bite in the limbs is less deadly than a bite in the trunk or head. First aid may also assist the bitten person.

Some snake handlers have died of snake bites, including George Went Hensley, founder of the Church of Jesus With Signs Following, a snake handling group. Hensley died July 25, 1955 (See link below).


  1. Serpent Handlers - from the Religious Movements Homepage created by Colin Smith
  2. Joe Nickell, Looking for a Miracle. (Buffalo: Prometheus Books, 1993) pp. 116-121.
  3. David Covington, Salvation on Sand Mountain: Snake Handling and Redemption in Southern Appalachia. (Addison-Wesley, 1995).