"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." These were Jesus' last words on earth, according to Mark's Gospel (though only in the later manuscripts).

Pentecostals believe in exorcisms, speaking in new tongues, and laying hands on the sick; so why not taking up serpents? To an illiterate Tennessee preacher named George W. ("Little George") Hensley, it seemed inconsistent. So when he preached on the Mark passage one Sunday in 1910, he concluded by taking a large rattlesnake out of a box with his bare hands. He handled it for several minutes, then ordered his congregation to handle it too or else be "doomed to eternal hell."

Hensley's fame spread throughout the Appalachian region and soon caught the attention of A. J. Tomlinson, then General Overseer of the Church of God. He ordained Hensley into the denomination (though there is no record of Tomlinson handling snakes, his daughter did).

At first, most of the snakes were brought to the church by unbelievers looking for a good show. At one early meeting, hecklers threw a box full of cottonmouths, copperheads, and rattlesnakes in front of the former moonshiner while Hensley was preaching. The congregation ran out of the building, but Hensley simply bent down and picked up the snakes, as one observer put it, "like a boy would gather stovewood in his arms to carry to the house."

For a decade, Hensley traveled around the region preaching, handling snakes, and drinking poison. At the end of the exhibitions, awed observers would rush down the aisles for the altar call. But Hensley had trouble at home and did not support his family when away on his evangelistic trips. His neighbor began to make obvious overtures to his wife, but she refused to leave her husband. The enraged neighbor attacked the preacher with a knife, beating him severely. Once he recovered, Hensley resigned his ministry, left his family, and reassembled his whiskey still.

Before long, he was arrested and convicted for selling his moonshine. On the chain gang he was a model prisoner—until he escaped and fled to Cleveland, Ohio. There he remarried and began to preach again. He and his family moved to Kentucky and again began to handle snakes. He continued to travel, to have marital troubles (he was married four times), and to handle snakes. By the 1940s, the movement had captured both the attention of the national media and the local lawmakers, and the practice was outlawed. But Hensley and his followers continued to "obey God's law not man's law." They were, of course, repeatedly arrested.

"It's the rulers every time," Hensley preached. "It's the rulers that persecutes the people. … But I've handled 'em all my life—been bit four hundred times 'till I'm speckled all over like a guinea hen. … I'll handle 'em even if they put me on the road gang again! Just you wait! Now it's handlin' serpent that's again' the law, but after a while it'll be against the law to talk in tongues, and then they'll go after the Bible itself!"

Once bitten

Today about 2,500 Pentecostals practice snake handling. The churches are autonomous (all mainstream Pentecostal organizations, including Tomlinson's Church of God, have long since condemned the practice), and they are marked by strict literal interpretations of the Bible. Jewelry is forbidden, including wedding rings and watches. Women may not cut their hair. Members greet each other "with a holy kiss."

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.