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Snake handling is a practice found within isolated churches, mostly in Appalachia, many of which go by the name Church Of God With Signs Following', or some variant thereof. Snake handlers reach into a box containing venomous snakes during the worship service and handle them as a sign of their "faith."
The practice comes from a literal reading of the Bible passage Mark 16:17-18: 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… (King James version).
A related justification of the practice is found in Acts 28:1-6, particularly verses 5 and 6, which state: And he shook off the beast into the fire, and felt no harm. Howbeit they looked when he should have swollen, or fallen down dead suddenly: but after they had looked a great while, and saw no harm come to him, they changed their minds, and said that he was a god.
Types of Christians
About half of the snake handling sects found in Appalachia subscribe to a trinitarian theology and are off-shoots of a Pentecostal denomination, the Church of God (Cleveland, Tennessee), where the practice began under Church of God minister George W. Hensley, and which expelled Hensley and other snake-handlers from its membership c. 1922. The other half subscribe to "Oneness" Pentecostalism, baptize in the name of Jesus only, and seem to have a fondness for the teachings of William Branham (who wasn't known to handle snakes himself but was otherwise close to them theologically).
The practice has been outlawed in many states (including Kentucky, where most of the practitioners live). However, most attempts at prosecution arise when children are subjected to the practice or are in danger of being orphaned due to it. In Kentucky, several people die each year, despite their faith (or lack thereof, as their fellow believers would probably explain it). In Tennessee in 2008 there was a major sting operation against snake handlers resulting in the arrest of a few score of them and the confiscation of much contraband. The practice is, however, legal in West Virginia, where the Church of the Lord Jesus in Jolo (McDowell County) practices right out in the open and welcomes visitors.
Endangering human lives in other ways
In accordance with the same passage from the Gospel of Mark, snake handling churches also follow some other dubious practices: drinking poisonous concoctions usually containing strychnine (a substance used as rat poison), playing with fire, and sticking their hands into live electrical sockets (where they got that from in the Bible is anyone's guess).
King James Only
Interestingly, these verses are believed by most reputable scholars not to have been part of the original text of Mark, and so many modern Bible translations exclude them. As a result, snake-handling sects tend to also follow a King James Only belief.
Fatalities within snake-handling sects
- July 1955, Florida — George Went Hensley, founder of the Church of Jesus With Signs Following, possibly the first snake handling church, was bitten on the wrist by a snake draped around his neck. He died several days later.
- August 1960, Georgia — Lloyd B. Hill is killed by a rattlesnake in an illegal snake-handling ceremony. Clergy involved are arrested.
- November 1973, Kentucky — 72-year-old Shirley Wagers is killed by snakebite at the Pentecostal Holiness Church. 
- August 1985, Tennessee — Charles Herman Prince of the Apostolic Church of God gets attacked by a rattlesnake after drinking strychnine. He refuses medical attention and dies 36 hours later.
- October 1999 and 1995 Alabama and Kentucky — John Wayne "Punkin'" Brown was bitten on the hand by a yellow timber rattler during a worship service. Having suffered previous snake bites he preached for fifteen minutes then suddenly fell over dead. His wife, Melinda Brown, met a similar fate several years prior. His five children were subsequently turned over to the custody of their grandparents, who also run a similar snake church in Tennessee. 
- April 2004, Virginia — Reverend Dwayne Long of the Arthurs Chapel Church in Rose Hill was killed by a rattlesnake during Easter services.
- May 2012, West Virginia — Pastor Mark Wolford sat near a recently-handled Timber Rattler and received a fatal bite to the leg. His father was also a pastor and died from snake bites 39 years earlier.
- February 2014, Kentucky — Jamie Coots, well known Middlesboro preacher, died after being bitten by a snake during a Saturday evening church service.
Animal welfare issues
Snakes used in handling rituals rarely bite, but the main reason for this is no miracle. According to herpetologists,[note 1] the snakes are often kept in overcrowded conditions, with little food or water. Snakes mistreated in this way are more passive, and when they do bite, the venom is less potent. However, despite it being safer for the handlers, it is abusive to the snakes.
- "Sorry, Homer. I was born a snake handler and I'll die a snake handler." – Moe Szyslak, The Simpsons
- Foxfire 7 by Elliot Wigginton and his students, 1982, Anchor books, ISBN 0-385-15243-4
- Salvation on Sand Mountain by Dennis Covington, 1995, Addison-Wesley, ISBN 978-0140254587
Both of these books contain somewhat sympathetic, or at least non-judgmental, looks at the practice.
- People who studies amphibians and reptiles. And no, they have nothing to do with herpes generally.
- Portsmouth Times, Nov, 5, 1973
- Mojave Daily Miner, Aug 20, 1985
- Serpent Experts Try To Demystify Pentecostal Snake Handling