"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 ...

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