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It’s hot and sticky outside before the final Sunday afternoon service, and thunderclouds are massing in the distance. Again, 35 people, including eight members of the media, have shown up. One of the visitors is a rarity: a young person. Joseph Hildebran, 23, a nuclear medicine technologist with a crew cut and wire-rim glasses, has driven about 170 miles from Morganton, N.C. Although he didn’t handle a snake that afternoon, “I would if the Spirit moved on me,” he says.
“There’s not a lot of old saints to teach people,” Hildebran adds. “Pentecostalism as we know it is changing. People are making it more modern. ... I miss the old Pentecostalism.”
Hildebran thinks the controversial practices he is interested in are moving underground, to home settings in other areas, away from the prying eyes of the media visiting Jolo. And he thinks there are other young people out there who are intrigued by those edgier traditions. “We need something that’s real, where there’s power,” he says. Snake handling “is a way that people know that Jesus is still living.
“My family thinks I am out of my mind, but they love me,” Hildebran adds. “And when they need prayer, they call me.”
Within a half-hour, Hildebran is stomping and clapping along with other worshipers. Two organs, drums and electric guitars are going at it. People dance for almost an hour. The snakes are brought out — briefly — twice. Then, several people, including a man in a three-piece suit, light the wick atop the Coke bottle and spin around while holding the flame to their hands. The singing is about “the flame in my soul.”
Afterward, the man in the suit displays his hands, which are not burned. He is 34 and from Jonesborough, Tenn., about 120 miles from Jolo. Churches near him don’t do such tests of faith, he says, “so when we’re offered it, we drive up here. You’re in a whole different frame of mind. A few minutes ago, I didn’t know if I was in West Virginia or heaven.”
But he asked that his name not be used. “People in my area, they hate snake-handling churches,” he says. “I’ve had to quit jobs because of this.”
Four hours after the service begins, the crowd adjourns to a tiny room where everyone snacks on fried chicken, coleslaw and brownies.
Wolford, as it turns out, was not there Sunday afternoon. He was tending to his own church, the House of the Lord Jesus, in Matoaka, near Bluefield.
And he’s not too sure how many times he’ll be back at the Jolo church, which, since Labor Day weekend, has shifted to Wednesday night services.
“I don’t expect it to stay open long,” he says. “Here in West Virginia, snake handling’s a thing of the past. They’ve lost interest. I’m getting the faith started in other states.” At a Baptist church in western North Carolina, he says, “there’s been crowds coming.”
Hildebran and the man from Jonesborough also report that churches in the North Carolina mountains, plus some in southeastern Kentucky, are involved in the phenomenon. Young people attend, they say. Religion professor Leonard says he, too, has heard accounts of snake handling in North Carolina, “but that’s all anecdotal.”
Though snake handling is illegal in North Carolina, Wolford believes the police won’t interfere.
“The Baptist pastor down there talked to the sheriff, who told them they know it’s in the Bible,” he says. “They said, ‘As long as people are not getting snakes thrown on them, we’re not going to interfere.’
“I know the Lord had to work that out.”
Julia Duin is a contributing writer for the Magazine. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.