While working at the Center for Southern Folklore in Memphis, TN, our work was primarily in the Delta area. But since we had some advanced technology, other folklorists around the country would often send us films or tapes to be edited. I had to work on editing a film once about folks who handled snakes and drank hydrochloric acid in church. It was a 30-minute film, but I had to see it several hundred times in order to fix it (technical term for "make it watchable"). Those images stay in my mind even now, many years later.
When I was a kid, I heard about the Holy Rollers, as my dad called them, but I never really knew what they did that made them seem weird to my family. I know now.
The whole idea behind this snake handling began in the hills of Tennessee back in the early 1900's. A guy named George Hensley had an epiphany concerning Mark 16: 17-18.
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.
One day in church, as the story goes, someone threw a box of deadly rattlesnakes down in front of Hensley. He supposedly picked them up and handled them while never missing a beat in his sermon. Hensley died in 1955 of a snake bite.
These folks are generally in a church known as the Church of God with Signs Following. The practice itself developed out of the Pentecostal-Holiness movement which flourished in the first two decades of the twentieth century. By 1914 it had spread throughout the Church of God; however, the actual act of snake handling was only practiced by a small portion of the members. By 1928, snake handling became the activity of only a few independent churches in the Appalachian Mountains where it stayed until its revival in the 1940's. An exact number is unknown due to the autonomy of each individual group, but estimates range between 1,000 and 2,000 total church members, including those who do not actually handle snakes.
Snake handlers can be found as far south as central Florida as far west as Columbus, Ohio and as far north as West Virginia. The film I edited came from West Virginia, and the scary part was really watching them drink hydrochloric acid. I'm not sure how watered down it was, but they sure had a funny look on their faces as it hit 'em.