"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 . . ." Mark 16:17
"People try to call us a cult. They've tried to compare us to Jim Jones, since all that happened," said the young snake-handling minister from Georgia. "He probably did have the spirit at one time. I know he healed a lot of people . . . ."
It has been a year since the mass suicides at Jonestown brought radical American religious sects under a new burden of suspicion. Nevertheless, among some of the faithful, pursuit of exclusively revealed truth and the one right way of life continues virtually unchanged.
Snake-handlers, perhaps the most visible of cultists associated with Protestant fundamentalism, have been in existence since just after the turn of the century.
And in ths bypassed town of about 700 residents, most of whom work in nearby Rome and Cartersville, the handling of potentially deadly snakes in religious services has affected the style and quality of life for the entire community.
Here the deadly copperhead, rattlesnake, even exotic cobra have become a totem for a tight society where religion is an emotional catharsis, a social arbiter.
"You got to know what you're doin' when you pick up snakes," said retired mill worker Carl Porter Sr., 63. His close-cropped silver hair bobbed as he leveled a gray-eyed gaze on a Saturday visitor. "You got to know the spirit's in you when you handle them." Then he settled back on the dark leatherette sofa in the living room of the large trailer he and his wife, Irene, share with their daughter and family, across the road from the tiny one-room church their preacher-son founded. "Them snakes can mean death, there's no question about that," continued Porter, hefting his fretting, 4-month-old grandchild onto a slightly-stooped, thin shoulder. "Me and my wife have been Holiness since 1945. But when we found the power of handling the snakes, I seen those who were doing it had something I didn't have."
The church was founded in 1972 by Carl Porter Jr. and a handful of friends and relatives, nearly all recent converts still in their 20s.
The preoccupation with snakes reached a peak five years ago, in what local residents now refer to as "the snake toss," a sort of Holy skirmish fought with serpents. In a donnybrook over doctrine, six men from Porter's church flung poisonous snakes onto members of the Rev. Doyle Hatfield's Calvary Holiness Church congregation of nonsnake-handlers. The resulting commotion, including shoving and slugging, led to law suits and jail sentences for the six men.
Within two years two men died of snakebites received at Saturday night services.
Still, the ranks are strong in their belief that Biblical signs have marked them as chosen people. "We take our strength and our knowledge from Mark 16, 17 and 18," explained Caroline Porter, the young preacher's softspoken wife.
"The Bible says it's one of the five signs by which his children shall be known. They will cast out devils, speak with new tongues, take up serpents," she said, pursing thin lips over sparse front teeth and brushing a few stray dark hairs back into a neat bun. "And I believe it."
There is in the church group, a certain proud toughness that would seem born of ages of trial, tradition and sacrifice. Indeed, most of the men have been bitten between 12 and 20 times and exhibit a kind of religious machismo. Women, who take a lesser role in orchestrating services, handle snakes with the same enthusiasm.
The chilly air glazed the church windows with icy lacework. Inside, Rev. Porter sweated under the glare of a single lightbulb. A gas heater stood by the back doors. He stretched his thick arms over his head and rolled out another prayer, tremolo: "Bless you, brothers and sisters. Let the spih-ritt of Jehh-suss dwell-ll in us tonight."
He moved behind the pulpit to a small, dark box and pulled out a large, writhing, rust-and-brown copperhead. Behind him, electric guitars twanged and cymbals crashed. Before him, hands clapped. Tambourines flashed in women's hands to a chorus of ". . . Let's all go down to the river, there's a man walking on the water . . . ."
Suddenly, the bullet head darted, struck the minsiter just above the left thumb. "Praise Jeh-suss. Praisse Jeh-ssus," he responded, exhorting the congregation. He draped the snake around his neck. "And the Lord said, 'Whosoever shall be-liev-eth in him shall nott-t perish but have lii-ife everlastin'."
And so went the familiar order of worship. It did not surprise the congregation that Porter would not leave to seek medical help. He was instead trying to ignore the ugly fang marks and the swelling and purplish discoloration of his hand.
For three more hours they sang, prayed and testified, "felt the spirit move in them," while many spoke in unknown tongues -- and handled more snakes.
"Brother Sam," a handsome, darkhaired, jean-clad 34-year-old poultry processor from Canton, stood before the carpenter's bench that had been carefully covered with "wood panel" wall paper to serve as altar, and thundered to the congregation. "You say we're gonna have a wienie roast . . . or a good singin', or somebody from over here's gonna speak, the church yard'll be full of people. Won't it!" he shouted, grinning menacingly while walking to stand in the middle of the congregation.
"But you say we're gonna talk about Jeh-sus, and you turn around. And where are they? I can live by the flesh like ever'body else, but if I don't live like Jeh-sus says, I'm not nothin'!"
Singing and clapping, women moved to the altar, shaking down neat hair to fall across their shoulders, kneeling and chanting, building their litanies until the words slurred into indecipherable utterances of the "tongues."
"Hallelujah! Amen!" they shouted, as they shook and jerked to the floor.
At service's end, Porter walked out unaided.
"I never have wanted to go [die] with the bite of the serpent," said Porter the next day, resting at home from his job in the maintenance department of the Cartersville-based Union Carbide Company. He suffered from dizziness and a nagging ache in his left arm. "I think it looks real bad for someone to get bit and die."
Porter and his Holiness brethren had once more passed the test of faith.
Many common elements draw the group together: They're cabinet makers, carpenters, mill workers, laboring under the same economic restraints. Most dropped out of neighborhood rural high schools, within a 10-mile radius of Kingston, by ninth grade.
There is a sameness to their appearance: lined faces that tend to sag because of lost teeth. The men wear short, brushed-up hair. The women wear cotton print dresses, low-heeled shoes. No one wears jewelry. It is difficult to guess anyone's age.
They are third- and fourth-generation residents of the area. Though most of the clans are Holiness-virtually all are Protestant -- few of them, old or young, had ever handled snakes before the new church was founded. Most married young, about 17, and started families. And all have sought unique social definition that would set them apart from rural neighbors and color their lives.
They have become local exotica. Nellie White is the young weekend dispatcher in the chicken-coop sized Kingston police headquarters located beside the railroad tracks that run along six-or-so turn-of-the-century buildings that comprise Main Street. She is not among the snake handlers.
"They will throw snakes on you down there at that place," said White. "We leave 'em alone cause there's no law on the books against what they're doin'. But they are definitely strange."
Former Atlantan Vernon Ayers, owner of the town's only antique shop, recalls the time Billy (Stringbean) Lemming was bitten by a diamondback rattler. "He came into the drugstore that next morning and asked for some Epsom salts. I looked down, that man's hand was as black as anything," he said, wonderingly. "He had it in a sling. I asked him what happened. He said, 'I made a mistake last night. I handled the snakes, and I guess the spirit wasn't in me.'
"And do you know, that man never did go to the doctor? He finally got gangrene in that hand and lost his index finger. It's just unbelievable. But, if that's what they want to do." He shrugged.
Carl Porter Jr., 34, is stocky and strong and looks much taller than his medium height. He has a broad, round face and narrow blue eyes, like those of his mother, Irene, which seem to hint of Indian ancestry. He is soft-spoken, attractive and moves with a firm step. He represents much of the energy behind the church.
"I never had handled snakes before about '72. I seen it done though, and knew if they could do it, God is no respecter of persons," he said matter-of-factly, leaning against his white Datsun as he stood in the dusk outside the church, waiting for services.
After visiting a Virginia congregation that year, he got together with his cabinet-maker cousin Gene Sherbert and carpenter Billy Lemming, and they set to work on the white frame church. Then he gathered up his wife Caroline, their two young sons, Virgil and Steve, cousin Sherbert, and his family, and the senior Porters, and began weekly services. Other brothers and sisters joined the group.
Billy Lemming, tall, well over 6-feet-2 and extremely thin with missing upper teeth, close-cropped blond hair and clear, hazel eyes was in his early 30s, already married to his wife Doris and had a small daughter and son before they ever joined the snake-handling church.
He serves as the loosely organized church's deacon-musician. "I started picking around on guitar when my mother taught me 'Wildwood Flower' when I was about 12," he chuckled, easing into a dark vinyl sofa in his paneled living room.
"I received the Holy Ghost on May 19 in '74. I was saved and sanctified that night." A year later he was bitten on the middle finger.
"I had the spirit that night, but I think if left me about five minutes before I got bit. If it had been in me, it wouldn't have cost me my finger." He and his wife Doris believe that she was divinely cured of uterine cancer in 1973. He gave up parties "and the little drinkin' I used to do" when he got the spirit.
"When the spirit moves, I forget everything. My hands feel a tingle like they're asleep. It spreads numbness all over my body. I've been anointed so heavy I couldn't hardly stand up," he said, shaking his head, smiling.
Gene Sherbert lives in Temple, Ga., about an hour outside Kingston and has been commuting to the church with his wife and children since the beginning. He, like the rest, expresses dedication and a curious resignation toward continuing the tests of faith. It is a constant trial of the spirit. He offered some first-hand knowledge of the power of the serpents. After more than 15 bites, he said, "rattlers is still the worst. Cottonmouth is supposed to be worse, but I don't think so. Rattler's venom works on the nervous system and the blood. Cottonmouth's works just on the blood."
Although they profess no great love of snakes, it has fallen to Sherbert and Porter Sr. to do much of the snake gathering. With a hood-ended rod, they drive into the woods near the Alabama border and round up "whatever they can find." Sherbert keeps the snakes in cages on his back porch.
None of them knows or cares anything about the snakes as cultural figure, like Quetzalcoatl, feathered serpent god of ancient Mexican lore.
Most, in fact, don't know their own rural history: The South, long a stronghold of Protestantism -- Baptists, Methodists and Holiness -- also carried influences from the Piedmont, where Quakers migrated from Pennsylvania. This group emphasized the individual religious experience, with little priestly interference, as a sign of the soul's closeness to God.
Other precepts were laid down: literal infallibility of the Scripture as well as its literal interpretation. Consequently, strict rules of conduct evolved: no dancing, drinking, cosmetics or other worldly ways. No other law before God's.
Then came George Hensley, the short, powerfully built man from rural Grasshopper Valley, Tenn., who founded the American snake-handling cult in 1909 and spread it, for the next 50 years, through Tennessee, into Harlan County, Ky., into northeast Georgia, Florida, Virginia and West Virginia. All this before he died at 70, victim of a rattlesnake bite on the wrist during prayer meeting at Lester's Shed near Altha, Fla.
Porter's group in Georgia enjoyed a year of serene -- though tentative -- worship. There were homecomings under a little wooden shelter on church grounds with the visiting Clyde Ricker family, from Hot Springs, N.C., known in the realm as handlers of the giant Indian cobra. Rev. Alfred Ball, from Carson Springs, Tenn., held prayer meetings with them. Porter's group traveled to Jolo, the coal-mining region of southern West Virginia, for services, in that peculiar, free-form, fundamentalist practice of widespread visitation.
Then, in August 1975, Porters junior and senior, Sherbert, Lemming, Clyde Ricker, a visitor from Chattanooga and a couple of other men attended services at Doyle Hatfield's nonsnake-handlers Calvary Holiness Church.
"And he said he wasn't afraid of no serpents, in or out of the spirit," Porter Jr. told the Bartow County Superior Court jury later. "So, we went out to the car and brought in a few." When Ricker tried to stand to give testimony, Porter said, he was told to sit down.
Hatfield claimed they were there "to disturb my service," and that his sister, Mrs. Jo Anne Dye, was bitten when one of the men picked up "a mess of snakes" and "flung them at us and started everybody a-hollerin'." They pressed charges. The men deny any guilt.
Most defendants testified that they handled snakes during their own woship and insisted that copperhead snakes are not "deadly."
Mrs. Dye testified that she got into the battle when her mother rushed up to assist Hatfield and she reached out to defend her.
The younger Porter testified that the trouble started when Hatfield "got to pushing on me," trying to get him to leave the church. "I might have hit him, I won't say I didn't," said Porter. However, his father testified, "I did not see nobody hit nobody with no serpent." They were found guilty of assault with a deadly weapon -- snakes.
Supposedly, the two churches differ over theological matters. Calvary Holiness preaches the doctrine of the Trinity, while Porter's church belives that "Jesus (alone) is God."
Privately, though, Porter admits some feelings of personal animosity toward Hatfield. "Ever since I took up the snakes, Hatfield hadn't wanted anything to do with me. Before that," he said, "we were pretty good friends."
After the trial, the men did a few months of straight time, then went into work-release programs, working day jobs on county road with nights free. "And it was hard going after that," said Lemming, who eventually had to take a night-shift job at a Cartersville carpet mill so his wife and children could eat.
Porter lost his job at Union Carbide. His wife supported them all with her production job at the yarn mill in Cartersville. And the church fell to visiting preachers and the 16 or so who stayed to hold weekly meetings. They painted over the windows to insure their privacy.
Eventually, the men finished their jail terms and began to pull the congregation together again. But in 1977, 52-year-old Berlin Barbee of Chattanooga, renowned for his handling of snakes all over the South for 25 years, was bitten in Porter's church by a five-and-a-half foot diamonback rattler and died the next morning.
Finally, in June 1978, churchman Leon Johnson, a strapping, vigorous man, despite the wooden leg that gave him a slight limp, was bitten one Saturday night and died the next day.
"That was a sad day for us," minister Porter said. "We hated to lose him.
He was some snake-handling man. But it was God's will. It was just his time. Don't none of us know when it'll be our time."
More than that, however, "it affected people. Lots of them left. Some went back to their old churches. Some probably quit altogether." Where 50 or more would show up for weekly services, the number dropped to 15.
But it hadn't changed anything in their beliefs, asserts his son. He has since found a job as an overland truck driver for Sand Mountain Farmer's Coop, hauling carpeting to California and bringing fresh produce back. He expects to make $25,000 this year, a new income high. He has a new car and his family is comfortable in a three-bedroom, modern home in a manicured community that sits just under the shadow of the giant cooling towers of Plant Bowen, a massive power-generating plant.
Lemming has a new job on a long-term housing project. He still loves to play his guitar, "but some of the notes are hard now." Porter says people are coming back.
One night a few weeks ago the room was packed for services. The Rev. Junior McCormick, visiting from Carrollton, picked up huge bundles of writhing snakes, holding them to his heart, his lips. He took off his shoes and walked among the snakes as they crawled on the floor.
A contractor and his bookeeper wife and children from Atlanta were among the prospects that night.Asked if she planned to handle snakes, the woman touched her glasses, smiled and said, "Well, I try to live right, but I've never been saved. And I'm scared to death of snakes. But I know this: If the power gets in me, I'll be handling them right along with the rest of them."