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Courting Death, Appalachian's Old-Time Religionists Praise the Lord and Pass the Snakes

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It’s Saturday night in Jolo, W.Va., an impoverished Appalachian mining town, and at the Church of the Lord Jesus an intimate prayer meeting has erupted in frenzy. The clapboard walls of the tiny chapel shake as 15 mountain folk lift their voices to summon the Holy Spirit. They dance and clap to the electric-guitar picking of church leader Dewey Chafin. They weep and wail, and some gnash their teeth, as Chafin, 56, sets aside his guitar and opens a large wooden box.

“Praise JE-sus!” Chafin shouts. “I’ve got the JOY! Yeah, Lord!” He reaches into the box and pulls out four rattlesnakes.

“Lord have mercy!” cry the faithful as the poisonous snakes slither along Chafin’s bare arms. Then the rattlers are handed from one church member to the next. Chafin takes a deep swig from ajar said to contain a mixture of water and strychnine and passes it among the faithful. Finally the worshippers set a kerosene-soaked cloth alight and hold their hands over the flames. Afterward, Chafin grabs a dog-eared Bible and shows a visitor Mark, chapter 16, verses 17 and 18. ” ‘And these signs shall follow them that believe,’ ” he recites. ” ‘In my name they shall 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.’

“See, I handle serpents because it’s in the Bible, like a commandment,” Chafin explains. “And I drink poison like strychnine because the Bible says it won’t hurt me. Now, either every word in that Bible is right or it’s wrong.”

The Bible notwithstanding, every state except West Virginia has made snake handling illegal. But the ritual is still practiced in isolated communities in southern Appalachia and parts of Ohio, Michigan and Indiana—with occasionally deadly results. In West Virginia alone there have been 11 documented deaths of supplicants from snakebite since 1945.

Chafin himself says he has been bitten 106 times, and he has scars on his hands, arms and face to prove it. “There have been times when I thought I might die,” he says. “A bite hurts. It’s a pain about 100 times worse than a toothache. It’s real sharp and keen—you feel like you’re on fire. Once I was laid up for 15 days. But I’ve always pulled through, and I’ve never had medical treatment.” Chafin regards many of the bites as reminders of the sin of false pride. “Sometimes I’d start feeling exalted and think I was climbing the high road to perfection, and that’s when I’d get bit,” he says. “But really, it’s just the nature of snakes to bite sometimes. And if it’s God’s will, they’re going to bite you no matter what.”

Chafin’s sister, Columbia, was killed by a bite in 1961. “It was her time to die,” he says. “She’d handled snakes quite a while, and that was the first time she’d been bitten. We asked if she wanted us to take her to a doctor, but she said no. She wanted God to do what he wanted to with her.”

Her mother, Barbara, was standing next to Columbia when the rattler struck. “I’ve often looked back to what happened,” she says, “and I’ve never seen the real power of God on anybody like it was on Columbia. She had a glorified look.” Barbara, 72, has survived 17 snakebites herself. “A carnal mind can’t understand snake handling,” she says. “It takes a spiritual mind.”

Indeed it may be the snake handlers’ faith that enables them to survive, according to Dr. Mary Lee Daugherty of Berea (Ky.) College’s Appalachian Ministries Educational Resource Center. Multiple snakebites confer no resistance to the venom, but “some doctors feel that the human body may be able to sustain higher doses of venom when it is in a state of religious ecstasy,” says Daugherty. Adrenaline flows, helping the body cope with emergencies. “And when snake handlers are bitten, they’re never left alone. There are always members of the church praying and ‘laying hands’ on them. They’re constantly reassured that God will heal them. And I think in many cases that gets them through it.”

For his part, Chafin, a former miner who now lives on veterans’ disability payments, relishes the idea of dying by snakebite. “I don’t think there could be a better way to go,” he says. But he concedes that not everyone on the road to salvation may wish to be hastened on his way by a viper. “I don’t believe serpent handlers are the only ones who will be saved,” he says. “If we were, we’d have an awfully little heaven.”

—David Grogan, Chris Phillips in Job