Sand Mountain, snakes and being Southern

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By Hardy Jackson

A couple of weeks ago, I began re-reading Salvation on Sand Mountain, Dennis Covington’s wonderfully personal account of serpent-handling Holiness Churches, many of which were just north of here.

I was doing this because all freshmen coming into Jacksonville State University are supposed to be reading it and, in a moment of weakness, I volunteered to talk to the students about the history of Southern religion and where the Holiness movement fits in.

One day I will learn.

Growing up in a small-town, middle-class Methodist church in south Alabama, I was taught to look a little askance at the Holiness movement (“Holy Rollers,” we liked to call them) because they were loud and enthusiastic and undignified, instead of quiet, mild and proper like us.

It was not until later that I discovered that Methodists were uncomfortable around Holiness because the people who started the Holiness movement were once Methodists themselves. But back in the late 19th century, as mainstream Methodists became more and more like the church I grew up in, some of the members took issue with what they felt was a drift away from what John Wesley, our founding father, had preached and practiced.

Not to draw too fine a point on the matter, but for many it came down to the conviction that the “modern” (1900 or so) Methodist church was filled with dry bones rattling on about committees and conventions, budgets and buildings, social activities and style, while paying little attention to personal piety and sanctification. One of their songs summed it up.

Some folks jump up and down all night and d-a-n-c-e.

While others go to church to show their brand new h-a-t.

And on their face they put great gobs of p-a-i-n-t.

And then they’ve got the nerve to say they’re s-a-v-e-d.

When the mainline Methodists would not listen, Holiness folks got out. And once “out,” they did religion the way they felt the Bible said religion should be done.

Some of them decided this should include handling serpents.

Now, I am not going to get into the theological wrangling over this except to say that I can see their point. Mark 16:17-18 says that certain “signs shall follow them that believe.” (Read that again — “them that believe” — and tell me the guys who translated the Bible for King James weren’t from the South.)

And one of those signs was that “they shall take up serpents.” So, it would follow, it seems to me, that if you want a “sign” to certify belief, there it is.

The Book does not say a believer has to do it, just that he can. Ed Harrell, noted historian of the Pentecostal and Charismatic movements in America, tells the story of a Holiness preacher who, when asked about snake handling, replied that the Bible says “they shall take up serpents,” and as far as he was concerned, “they” could if they wanted to.

Of course, there are other signs of membership, of belief, of faith and faithfulness — plain dress, women’s uncut hair, no makeup, and the avoidance of “worldly” amusements are the most widely recognized. My buddy Joe swears that if you want to have a good time, go out with a “Pentecostal girl with paint.” They know how to party. Some churches are said to have gone so far as to adopt Old Testament dietary laws, though the admonition against pork has never set well with Southern congregations. But the Holiness movement is more than the sum of its external parts. It is a way of life expressed in all sorts of things, including a careful attention to “the Word,” what it says, and what it doesn’t.

Which, when I talk to these freshmen, is what I’ll tell them.

Consider what Covington writes in his introduction.

“Snake handling … didn’t originate in the hills somewhere. It started when people came down from the hills to discover they were surrounded by a hostile and spiritually dead culture. All along their border with the modern world — in places like Newport, Tennessee, and Sand Mountain, Alabama — they recoiled. They threw up defenses. When their own resources failed, they called down the Holy Ghost. They put their hands through fire. They drank poison. They took up serpents.”

They still do.

Though not discounting the spirituality of the movement, to a secular Southern historian like myself, this is why Holiness, Pentecostal and similar faiths have so much to tell us about a South, Covington points out, “that resided in the blood, a region of the heart.” Snake handlers represent one small element of a South set on defending itself against those who would change it into something they don’t want it to be. And change them in the process.

So they pick up serpents.

And if nothing else, they get your attention.

Harvey H. (Hardy) Jackson is Professor Emeritus at Jacksonville State University. He can be reached at hjackson@cableone.net.And if nothing else, they get your attention.H

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