Take Up Your Serpents: Salvation on Sand Mountain

Take Up Your Serpents: Salvation on Sand Mountain

Salvation on Sand Mountain: Snake Handling and Redemption in Southern Appalachia by Dennis Covington (Penguin, 1996)

Several years ago, my father bought a stack of books from his favorite bookstore in Oxford, Mississippi. This was not unusual — the number of books nor a whole afternoon spent with coffee on the second floor of this store in late July. We had vacationed in the area before. Something about the slowness of each day, an un-pinnable calmness, and streets lined with magnolias and front-porched houses caused Oxford to become my ideal picture of the South.

Oxford is about four hours west of Scottsboro, Alabama. In the early 90s, this small town drew the attention of The New York Times because of the Glenn Summerford trial. Summerford was the preacher at The Church of Jesus Christ with Signs Following, and he was accused of trying to murder his wife with a handful of poisonous snakes, which he used in his worship services.

This story is the genesis of Dennis Covington’s plunge into the world of Holiness: snake handling, strychnine, and the Holy Ghost. This is the book that I found lying on our side table, then the coffee table, then the Ottoman weeks after our vacation. The summer I decided to read it for the first time is a blur, but Covington’s seductive writing stayed with me as I pursued an English degree, dealt with mental illness, and began writing as a means of discovering. I felt a strange kinship, much like he felt with the members of Summerford’s church and the larger web of churches connected by Appalachian mountain tops, each of us dealing with “one kind of snake or another.”

The Holiness church is a more extreme sect of American Christianity that has been present in the rural South since the early 1900s. Its most notable quality is based on the words of Jesus in the book of Mark: “And these signs will accompany those who believe: in my name they will cast out demons; they will speak in new tongues; they will pick up serpents with their hands; and if they drink any deadly poison, it will not hurt them; they will lay their hands on the sick, and they will recover.” They take these verses quite literally — mason jars of strychnine, boxes of poisonous snakes, and healing the sick of ailments and demons.

While I find the ideas of picking up rattle snakes and drinking strychnine to be things of nightmares, the church of Summerford was thriving before his publicized trial—and hung around long after. For Covington, like many of us, he both resists and indulges in the things he cannot explain, things so unsettling they’re almost appealing, in order to discover more about himself. How can these folks survive poisonous snake bites or speak in a language they don’t know while waving a tambourine down the aisles of a church? It’s more circus act than act of worship.

But I suspect the reason this book, these people, this hypnotic, extreme faith sticks in my mind more than some of the best poetry I’ve read is because at the core, Covington reveals raw beauty and truth right alongside the ugliness. He revels in the things he is hesitant to believe, even as he witnesses them.

At one of the worship services, a woman named Aline McGlocklin begins speaking in tongues above the voices of the others. Covington describes it as inhuman, then slowly her voice is steeped in pleasure and torment—he notes that “ecstasy, I would learn later, is excruciating…” There are pictures included in my copy, somewhere near that part, and when I found Aline’s picture—eyes shut, plain face turned upward, a snake resting heavily in her upturned hands—it seems she is crying and laughing, in pain yet joyful. In that moment, she is eerily stunning.

I can recall times that I have felt this. My husband reminds me often that I am a “feeler,” usually allowing my emotions to dictate decisions, more empathy and tears than blood and bone. Throw anxiety into the mix, and it’s a wonder that I approach anything logically. This summer, I am looking for a full-time job—which was fun for the first two or three weeks. Once the rejections started coming in and the available opportunities dwindled, my emotional state felt a lot like what I saw in Aline McGlocklin’s face or what, I imagine, Covington felt as he handled a timber rattler.

Because right now, not having a job is liberating, but in the way that walking around your apartment without pants on is liberating. There’s always a chance that your roommate could walk in or your neighbors could see in the windows. There comes a point where things are out of your control, and that fact can be both freeing and terrifying. The same is true when I put together my resume, knowing full well that I don’t have at least two years of experience teaching courses at a college or university or one published book with significant publications in another genre. (Seriously, who actually has that second one?) Always at the mercy of probability, will I be welcomed or turned down? I can only unsteadily anticipate an answer.

On a very small scale, it seems this is what Covington and McGlocklin have experienced, what they crave—to be rewarded for sticking their necks out there. And much larger than that, an encounter with something more than themselves. I believe there are glimpses of redemption to be found, not in how the Holiness church interprets those Bible verses, but how freely they invite the sacred in.

They risked death and potential embarrassment regularly as an act of worship, as a form of religion. In return, they expected the Holy Spirit on his own terms, not theirs.

I’d like to say I do the same, but I don’t. While I take a risk in letting another person tell me how valuable or invaluable I am for their company, or in putting all my best qualities into words on one single-spaced page, ultimately, it’s a means to an end. I risk because I have to. Because I expect something in return.

Someone (maybe Shakespeare) said that “expectation is the root of all heartache.” How often do my expectations ruin an experience or relationship? In turn, how often do my expectations drive me toward something new and exciting? I need expectations to apply for a job or maintain friendships, but there is an underbelly that contains rejection and miscommunication.

More and more, I think of the Holiness people as my kind of folks. I admire their attitude toward faith and hospitality. It seems that with each snake they lift, I see myself holding my anxiety, my resume, my finances. Both actions embody a sacrifice; an opening of the hands as a response to faith, hope, and even insanity. If we want to understand ourselves and others a bit more fully, perhaps the first step is recognizing the dichotomy present and active within us. That a bit of madness can coincide with logic. That we can claim them both.

So let the “snakes” run loose in the house sometimes, and when needed, grip them tightly. Know that other people are wrangling their own in the ways they can. If you’re like me and feel very unqualified, yet overqualified, or don’t know whether to laugh or cry because of what your life looks like, know that there is freedom found there in the rawness.

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