Christian churches that practice snake handling in their services have existed in Georgia since the early twentieth century. Most such churches identify themselves as “Church of God with Signs Following.” They are primarily Pentecostal congregations, which emphasize an individualistic faith, often characterized by such spiritual practices as evangelism, speaking in tongues, and faith healing. These congregations operate independently, use a variety of specific names, and have no national organization. Throughout their history, snake-handling groups have dotted the landscape of north and south Georgia. The two best known in the state are the Church of the Lord Jesus Christ in Kingston and Wades Chapel in Cartersville.
Snake handlers are essentially fundamentalist Christians who follow a literal interpretation of the Bible. Their key text is the King James Version of Mark 16:17-20, which indicates that Jesus’ followers “shall take up serpents” and not suffer harm. They hold basic Pentecostal beliefs about gaining repentance, receiving the Holy Spirit, and speaking in tongues, but they also view snake handling as a literal sign of God’s power to the believer and unbeliever. Since the churches are independent and each believer is responsible for his or her own interpretation of Scripture, wide variety in belief and practice exists among the adherents.
Georgia’s snake-handling churches are part of a larger movement concentrated in the central and southern Appalachian Mountains. Congregations can be found, however, from central Florida to Ohio, Indiana, and Michigan. Because there is no national organization, the exact number of members is unknown. Observers estimate that there are 50 to 100 churches nationally with a total of approximately 3,000 members. Efforts to count deaths among members who were bitten during services have been more successful. Approximately eighty people are known to have died in the twentieth century after being bitten while handling snakes. Deaths include those of three members of the churches in Kingston and Cartersville between 1978 and 1990.
The history of snake-handling churches extends back to the early 1900s in East Tennessee. Tradition attributes the practice to George Went Hensley, a rural preacher working near Cleveland, Tennessee, around 1909. From about 1910 to 1920 snake handling was widespread in the Church of God based in Cleveland, but by the end of the 1920s the denomination had renounced the practice. From then on, it existed only in independent churches in Appalachia.
Snake handlers in Alabama and Georgia also trace their heritage to James Miller, a preacher who independently began the practice in 1912 in Sand Mountain, Alabama. Under his influence the movement spread into Berrien and Cook counties in south central Georgia by 1920. Beginning in the 1940s, several southern states, including Georgia, passed laws prohibiting snake handling in religious services. The law in Georgia developed after a six-year-old girl was bitten during a service near Adel, in Cook County. Police arrested both her father and her pastor, Warren Lipham, who later stood trial but was not convicted for the earlier death of a worshipper in 1938. In 1941 Georgia passed a law that made snake handling a felony punishable by twenty years in prison in the case of injury to another, or by the death penalty in the case of a fatality. The law was repealed in the 1960s. Today, the handling of poisonous snakes in Georgia is legal only by permit.