The author is a contributor to The Washington Post's local faith leader network.
The death of Pastor Randall Mack Wolford from a serpent bite over this Memorial Day weekend has raised once again a familiar pattern: a serpent handler is bit, he or she succumbs to the bite, and media coverage focuses upon questioning what is arguably America's most unique form of religious expression. Obituaries of handlers (there have been 93 documented deaths since the practice came under media scrutiny in the early part of the 18th century) are often followed by calls for the obituary of the movement itself in the face of laws against the practice that have been passed in most Appalachian states where serpent handling is common.
West Virginia has never passed a law against serpent handling. There was a failed effort following the fatal bite of Columbia Hagerman in 1961 at the Jolo, West Virginia church long led by Bob and Barb Elkins, long time handlers, both of whom have now passed from natural causes. Mark's own father died from a bite in Jolo in 1983. Yet, as Mack said on many occasions in response to deaths from serpent bites, "The word is still the word."
The "word" is the King James Bible (the only acceptable Bible to handlers), and the key passage foundational for the practice, Mark 16-17-18 states, "17. And these signs shall follow them that believe; In my name shall they cast out devils; they shall speak with new tongues; 18. 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." These four imperatives (only one, drinking any deadly thing is conditional) link glossolalia (speaking in tongues), common among classic Pentecostals as initial evidence of Holy Spirit Baptism with other practices such as handling serpents. The practices are characteristic of what are best seen as signs following believers who simply have institutionalized a ritual that they view as following the plain meaning in the gospel of Mark.
It matters not that this key passage is seen by scholars as a latter addition to the Gospel of Mark, or that there is no evidence that early Christians ever handled serpents. What matters is that the emergence of the great Pentecostal denominations in the late 18th century included the demonstration of signs that followed believers willing to put into practice what the risen Christ commanded. Pentecostal groups such as the Church of God and the Church of God of Prophecy endorsed the practice well into the 20th century. Only when maiming and deaths from bites became documented by the media did these denominations gradually back away from the practice. The "renegade" Churches of God largely scattered throughout Appalachia continued the practice despite laws against handling that began with Kentucky and quickly followed in every state except West Virginia.
America may endorse religious liberty, but it applies absolutely to belief, not necessarily to practice. Courts have consistently held that if the State has a compelling interest it can legislate against a religious practice. One assumption, easily challenged, is that the State must protect believers from producing widows and orphans among "them that believe." So much so, that two states have even had laws against inducing or enticing persons to handle, meaning that one was precluded from preaching from the relevant passages in Gospel of Mark!