Christian History Home > Issue 58 > They Shall Take Up Serpents
They Shall Take Up Serpents
Few have taken the Bible more literally than George Hensley and the snake handlers.
In the early days of the movement, the bitten were shunned—the person was considered to be "in sin" or lacked sufficient faith. Today most adherents believe even the devout will be bitten occasionally.
Believers say God allows snake bites, (1) to punish sins in daily life, (2) to prove the snakes have not been tampered with and are still quite deadly, (3) to try the faith of the victim and other worshipers, and (4) to show God's healing power.
But one of the most common reasons given is that the handler did not have the "anointing." Snakes must only be handled when a believer is completely under the power of the Holy Ghost: an experience marked by speaking in tongues and physical frenzy. Many receivers of this anointing have no recollection of the experience or even of handling the serpents.
The founder of the movement lived into his seventy-fifth year. On July 24, 1955, Hensley was bitten again. Like so many times before, he refused medical treatment. But by the following morning, he was dead. Officials, showing a complete misunderstanding of Hensley's faith, listed his death as suicide.
Ted Olsen is assistant editor of Christian History.
Copyright © 1998 by the author or Christianity Today/Christian History magazine.
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