America never was America to me.
There are those who would portray America as an offshoot of the former theologies of the Protestant mainline churches. Everybody came from nuclear families where Puritan decency and hard-work were the dominating forces in life. Church consisted of semons and hymns; God was a benovolent if distant figure who showed his disposition towards belivers through the “blessings” he shed upon or withheld from them. In other words, God is the painter and viewer of a Norman Rockwell painting. If we have deviated from that, it is because we have broken from a pristine past where everyone knew his place and appreciated Christianity as the foundation of all civilization.
If that is one’s vision of America, it is not the vision shown by Dennis Covington in his book, Salvation on Sand Mountain: Snake Handling and Redemption in Southern Appalachia. That which conservative white intellectuals portray as the norm of “white Protestantism” was never really normative. The idea of a tightly-wound, buttoned-up congregation of decent Puritans who devoted themselves chastely to commerce has nothing to do with the reality of American religiosity. Covington writes of hard-drinking “bush Baptists” who would preach and sing well into the night and then brawl and drink until morning. The snake handling churches spead throughout Appalachia are the extreme version of this religion. Like popular Protestantism today, blessings here were thought to be immediate and tanglible, often to the point of putting oneself in life-endangering situations.
Covington wrote out of Birmingham, Alabama, but his book seems to be a pilgrimage to find the roots of his family in the snake handling churches up in the hills. The more immediate impetus for his arrival in snake handling churches was to write an article for the New York Times concerning the attempted murder committed by a preacher of his wife involving his poisonous snakes. From there, Covington goes native, even to the point of handling snakes himself, but the draw and ideas of the modern world catch up with him, and he feels he can no longer continue his interaction with these churches. He leaves over the inherent sexism of their traditional world view. In the process, however, he gets a real insider view of how they think and function, and always treats his subjects with respect and consideration.
The first major thing you come away with from Covington’s story is that American religion’s roots are not sober and intellectual, but rather ecstatic and shamanistic. The revivals of the 18th and 19th centuries were not “conversions” in the bourgeois sense of the word, but were characterized by “movements of the Spirit”, speaking in tongues, and other signs and wonders. For those trying to eek out an existence in the hills and frontiers of the nation, it was this religion that gave solace, not the sober religion of Puritanism (if it ever existed). Although snake handling only began at the beginning of last century, and though it never had a majority of adherents proportional to the population, it was nevertheless the final stage in long evolution of American ecstatic religiosity, one that continues to this day in the Pentecostal and other evangelical churches, as we have shown previously.
According to Covington, snake handling is all about faith: one has faith that one will not get bit, just as it says in the Gospel of Mark. Also according to the Gospel, believers will drink poison to prove their faith in God. To call a doctor when things go badly is seen as being on par with apostasy. If a person dies from being bit or poisoning, it is regarded as having died “in the Lord”. More often than not, the families that Covington encountered in the early 1990’s all had family members who had died as a result of snake bites. Many had been bitten and suffered no ills effects from it.
Faith was not all there was to it, however. “Walking in the Lord” was also seen as being necessary to successfully drink poison or handle rattlesnakes. To do so in a less-than-devout state would be tantamount to suicide. One member of the church when asked if a certain woman partook of a bottle of strychnine said:
When she was really living right, she drank the poison.
Some accuse Catholics of attributing superhuman powers to holy people. Obviously, this is not an exclusively Catholic trait.
What is also notable about the book is that the author describes his own experience of snake handling. He was raised a Methodist, and only gradually came into the confidence of the snake handling brethren to the point of being called, “Brother Dennis”. Finally, he became so involved in the ceremony that he took a rattlesnake in his own hands. He explains the experience as being an ecstatic one:
Everything else disappeared , Carl, the congregation, Jim – all gone, all faded to white. And I could not hear the earsplitting music. The air was silent and still and filled with that strong even light. And I realized that I, too, was fading into the white… The snake would be the last to go, and all I could see was the way its scales shimmered one last time in the light…
This “white darkness” was the same one seen by Maya Deren when she was mounted by the Haitian lwa, Erzulie. It did not last as long as Deren’s experience, but it involved a similar altered state of consciousness. The grotesque serpent is the catalyst of the trance, an almost sacramental precisely because it is grotesque. It is the snake handler’s locus of the sacred.
In another place, Covington speaks of another woman’s experience of taking up serpents:
Handlers talk about receiving the Holy Ghost. But when the Holy Ghost is fully come upon someone like Gracie McAllister, the expression on her face reads exactly the opposite- as though someone, or something, were being violently taken away from her.
Along with the loud music and dancing, this sort of reminded me of the dervishes twirling with the dhkir on their lips and minds (“no God but God”). Such is also the experience of the “horse” being mounted by the lwa in a Voudoun ceremony. The main inspiration of the religiosity of the snake handler has nothing to do with the morality and theological conveniences of this world, but rather the interference of the divine into the “normal” human order.
Christians in general, and American Christians in particular, like to take pride in how uniquely sober and sensible their religiosity is. But scratch the surface, and take into account the history of American religious eccentricity, and one will see the same forces at work in our own day that have always been at work, Even though there are few snake handlers left, contemporary American Protestantism deep down is just as concerned with signs and wonders: miraculous healings, gold teeth appearing miraculously in the mouths of believers, and faith healing. Though not in the mainstream, all of this continues to be the subtext of American religiosity.