For a brief time, less than two months, Charles Prince brought services involving snake handling to Haywood County in 1985, an effort cut short by his death from a rattlesnake bite. His effort focused attention on a practice centered in Appalachia, that of Christians handling snakes under what they believe is the guidance of God’s Spirit.
While the known history of serpent handling in Haywood has been brief, this county is surrounded by it, has been for more than a century, with churches in neighboring counties participating in the practice.
Near Del Rio, Tennessee, Jimmy Morrow is pastor at Edwina Church of God in Jesus Name, a serpent-handling church. (Believers prefer “serpents” to “snakes,” in line with the use of the word in the Bible.) In 2003, Morrow wrote a history of the tradition, titled Handling Serpents, with Ralph Hood, Jr., offering vivid insights into the practice.
Some historians trace the serpent-handling movement to George Went Hensley, who handled snakes in the Church of God Holiness, in the early 1900s. Morrow, however, claims the practice can be found at least as far back as the 1890s, in the coal mines of the Virginia mountains. There, he said, a woman named Nancy Younger Kleiniek began handling serpents during revivals.
“As the Lord Jesus moved upon her, she would hold open-air meetings in the mountains of Tennessee, Kentucky, both Carolinas, and Virginia,” he wrote. Her movement became known as the Jesus’ Name Churches.
Driven by Mark 16
What compels a Christian to take up poisonous snakes — or drink poison, or dance with fire — as part of worship?
The short answer lies in a literal interpretation of the Bible, particularly two passages:
In Luke 10:19, Jesus says to his disciples, “Behold, I give unto you power to tread on serpents and scorpions, and over all the power of the enemy; and nothing shall by any means hurt you.” The most quoted passage, Mark 16:17-18, declares, “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.”
“The five signs of Mark 16:18 came again to God’s people as evidence and testimony which furnish proof of the mighty power of God,” Morrow wrote. “… These signs were given to his followers to confirm and to strengthen their faith. They would preach the gospel of the Lord Jesus, (and) Christ would confirm his word by the signs following believers.”
Why don’t more Christian churches handle serpents? Most view these passages in one or both of two ways: Either Jesus gave this power to his early disciples to demonstrate their authority, or serpents and scorpions are symbolic of the evil that Christians face and are assured of conquering. Those who worship “by the signs,” however, take these passages as literal commands.
Those who handle snakes declare they do so in the power of God, with the prompting of the Holy Spirit. They know their lives may be forfeit. Morrow’s history lists about 30 believers who have died after being bitten, usually by rattlesnakes, and usually after refusing medical help.
Sometimes, those who are bitten get sick but recover. Sometimes they feel little effect. This may be because snakes do not always release their venom when they strike, or may have released it in a previous strike. Scientists also say the condition of the snakes — and some are kept in poor conditions though others are often caught shortly before a service and later released — will also diminish their power to strike and injure.
Those who handle snakes believe, however, that if they are bitten and die, it is the time God has appointed for them to leave this world.
So it is not as if Charles Prince was unaware of the possibility of death when he brought snake-handling services to Haywood County in 1985, or when he was bitten and died six weeks later.
Less than a year before, Richard Barrett, pastor of Wade Chapel Church in Cartersville, Georgia, was bitten during a service. He was taken to a nearby home, where he reportedly said, “I put myself in the hands of the Lord. If it is his will that I die, then so be it.” He died that evening. Two months after Charles Prince’s death, a worshipper in Kentucky died of snakebite.
Raised in the belief
Prince’s father, Ulysses, was a preacher who started several churches in North Carolina and Georgia where serpents were handled. Charles’ sister, Ann, has written memoirs about her experiences in the family.
Charles was about 6 years old, Anna about 9, when their father began handling serpents as part of his call to preach, Anna wrote in Serpent-handling Believers, by Thomas Burton. Soon after he handled snakes for the first time, Ulysses quit his job at a mill near Charlotte, Anna recalled. Ulysses sold most of their belongings, even their forks and spoons, and moved the family to Aquone, overlooking Nantahala Lake.
Her father began preaching and handling snakes, moving several times, until he established several churches. Anna described sleeping in a tent after one of the moves, with two rattlesnakes locked in a box under her bed. The next morning, one of the snakes was missing. She spent much of that winter in fear of the missing rattler.
Later, her father was bitten during a worship service.
“In 1946, Ulysses Gordon Prince came to Ducktown, Tennessee, preaching the true gospel of Jesus Christ with the signs following,” wrote Morrow. “… He reached down to the serpent box and got a rattler out of the box and was handling it when the rattler bit him on the left hand. He became very sick. … The members brought up a horse drawn wagon and laid him in the back. … Prince said that when the wagon wheel would hit a hole in the road the pain would run all over his body and it felt like he would not see another day. It was almost daylight when they got him home. He got better in about three days.”
Ulysses continued handling serpents.
Like father …
For some years Charles Prince did not handle serpents, but then, “something clicked in him,” Anna wrote. “He began visiting snake-handling churches, becoming bold and daring, risking his life three or more times a week by drinking strychnine mixed with water, handling snakes and fire, often at the same time! As he became more daring, I became terrified he might go too far. I spent many sleepless nights fearing for his life.”
Tennessee had passed laws in 1947 forbidding the religious handling of venomous snakes. (All states but West Virginia now forbid the practice.) Some churches gave up the practice, including the one in Ducktown. But in 1982, Ulysses and Charles Prince brought snakes back into the service, despite the law.
“Members that had not handled serpents for 22 years took turns handling the serpents,” Morrow wrote of that service.
The Edwina preacher also described a service he attended in Georgia where Charles Prince had handled two rattlesnakes and Ulysses preached:
“There was a large rattlesnake lying on the pulpit when Ulysses Gordon Prince reached out and laid his hand on the pulpit. As he was praying the serpent started to crawl up his arm, around his neck and down the other arm. The serpent stopped on his hand and rested there for 10 minutes. Then Brother Prince got the serpent and laid it back on the pulpit.”
Morrow described another serpent handling in which he and Charles Prince participated:
“Prince got anointed by the Lord. He bounded on one foot across the room with the first finger on his right hand held high. As the large rattler was brought out of the box, Brother Prince was praising the Lord and handling the serpent. He let its head come before his and smiled. As he danced with it, I was praying for the brothers handling the serpents.
“As the anointing moved on me, I rose and joined the circle of the anointed. Prince handed me the canebrake rattler and I handled the serpent in the name of the Lord. Prince danced outside the circle towards the serpent boxes and grabbed the gigantic rattler. The big serpent waved back and forth in his hand, rattling a deadly warning. As this time, Prince took the canebrake rattler from me and lay it out on the floor of the church. He took off his shoes and walked on the serpents in the name of Jesus Christ, according to Luke 10:19. He stopped on the midsection of the serpent with his right foot pressing with the full weight of his body on it. Prince began to shout praises to the Lord. He took the diamondback from around his neck and began to dance on one foot, holding the serpent high and praising the Lord.
“… After the serpents were put back in the boxes, Prince walked behind the pulpit and took a drink of strychnine.
“Then the anointing moved on him to handle fire, so he picked up a torch filled with flammable liquid. Someone lit the wick, and the flame was over a foot high and he held the orange and blue flame under the chin while walking back and forth in front of the pulpit and preached the Word of God.”
The tragic outcome
The call Anna Prince feared came Aug. 15, 1985. Charles had been bitten at a service near Greeneville, Tennessee. Morrow wrote that Charles was in fact bitten in the same hand by two rattlesnakes during the service. Anna, living in Canton at the time, traveled to Greeneville and kept vigil as her brother refused medical treatment.
Morrow, who had been preaching elsewhere, also reached Prince’s side before his death. Charles greeted him with a smile, Morrow recalled, and said he was in pain, requesting prayer. Soon after, Charles asked his sister to recite the 23rd Psalm.
“When he requested that, I knew Brother Prince was going home to be with the Lord,” Morrow recalled. Reportedly, Charles’ last words were, “The Angel is coming to take me home. I believe I can rest now.”
Having attended the funeral, Morrow noted, “In the year 1945, Charles’ father, U.G. Prince, held his first serpent-handling service where they buried Charles 39 years later.” He also noted Ulysses Prince gave up the practice of serpent handling in the early 1980s, though he did not state why, or whether it was before or after Charles’ death.
In the last decade, television has highlighted the practice of handling serpents during worship. In 2012, Animal Planet’s, “Snake Man of Appalachia” followed a family of serpent handlers. In 2013, National Geographic ran a series on two serpent-handling pastors. One of those pastors, Jamie Coots of Kentucky, died the next year of a rattlesnake bite at age 42.
Those who study the practice, including Hood, estimate there are between 100 and 200 U.S. churches that still handle serpents as a part of worship and their message. Morrow might put the number higher.
“Even today there is more snake handling being practiced than people think — it is very much alive but mostly underground,” Morrow said in his 2005 history. “If all the believers were to come out of hiding in North Carolina, the churches could not hold them all.”
Sources for this story: Serpent-Handling Believers by Thomas G. Burton, University of Tennessee Press; Handling Serpents: Pastor Jimmy Morrow’s Narrative History of his Appalachian Jesus’ Name Tradition, by Morrow and Ralph W. Hood, Mercer University Press; “Serpent Experts Try to Demystify Pentecostal Snake Handling,” Oct. 18, 2013, National Public Radio; and multiple editions of The Mountaineer, July and August, 1985.