McVicar, “Take Away the Serpents from Us”

McVicar, Michael J. 2013. “Take Away the Serpents from Us”: The Sign of Serpent Handling and the Development of Southern Pentecostalism.  Journal of Southern Religion 15.

Excerpt: This essay reassesses serpent handling’s place in the history of the early holiness-pentecostal movement.8 It explores the problem the five signs enumerated in the Gospel of Mark 16:15–18—speaking in tongues, healing the sick, casting out demons, handling snakes, and drinking poison—posed for pentecostals in the South during the first half of the twentieth century. 9 Close readings of early twentieth-century printed sources from the holiness-pentecostal and secular presses indicate that authors and audiences viewed serpent handling as a new, innovative, and threatening religious practice. The arguments documented in these sources suggest that the identification of serpent handling as a specific practice limited to a small religious subgroup helped establish the boundaries of what today are generally recognized as legitimate pentecostal worship in the United States. Ultimately, these processes of socio-symbolic differentiation inside pentecostalism paralleled the legal construction of snake handlers as criminals whose bodies and behavior required regulation through ecclesiastic and state disciplinary mechanisms.