Holiness in the Hills
BY ELAINE RUBY GUNN
Her eyes are closed, her head lifted to the ceiling. In her ears ring the repetitive beats of the snare and cymbal and the sound of her sister’s wailing hymn through a scratchy microphone. This young mother has one arm tightly around her four-year-old son, the other in the air. Under her breath she mumbles a mixture of praises and pleas. Her feet are firmly planted under the wooden pew in front of her, while her husband jumps and screams at the front of the church; he utters unintelligible syllables as he spins in circles. It’s not the clamorous drumming or the pastor’s continuous hallelujahs that have her heart racing; instead, she rocks back and forth with anxiety as her husband’s arms rise and fall, his eyes fixed on the hissing rattler in his grip.
It’s these charged, faith-filled moments that UTC’s Dr. Ralph Hood and his colleague Paul Williamson have been capturing for over 30 years in their ongoing Holiness Churches of Appalachia Recordings and Interviews data collection. After spending a semester transcribing some of these recordings for Hood’s project, I observed that the vibrant snake-handling tradition is one that Hood respectfully embraces. Though handling a snake is not on his religious agenda, he is seen on his own footage dancing alongside members of the congregation and shaking the tambourine for hours at a time. Whether celebration, loss, or revival, Hood has engaged his research deeply, personally fostering relationships over the decades. “For every [church] that allows a camera, there are fifteen that won’t let you anywhere near the church with one,” said Hood, explaining the reverence that must be applied in his research.
“Take that which you think is different, and try to understand it,” he said of his motivation. In his early years at UTC, Hood overheard other professors discussing the snake-handlers in the surrounding mountains. “They called them ignorant, back-woods people,” Hood recalled, “So, I just asked them, ‘Have you ever been to a service?’” His interests rooted in psychology and religious studies, Hood felt the obligation to destroy such stereotypes and to promote respect for the Appalachian community—specifically the Holiness congregation.
Often overlooked and readily rejected, the snake-handling practice can be traced back to White Oak Mountain around 1910, when George Hensley took the gospel of Mark literally and felt the call to proclaim that all Christians should handle venomous snakes in order to activate their faith. Branching off from the Church of God, several followed Hensley and his literal interpretation of Mark 16: “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” (KJV). This was the start of the Holiness tradition.
In his 30 years of research, Hood has followed three generations. “These people don’t survive by conversion,” Hood said, “but by maintaining their children in the faith.” Though the tradition is very much alive, over 100 deaths have been documented due to snake bites, three recorded personally by Hood and Williamson. These deaths are devastating for the Appalachian community, Holiness or not. In services held about five times a week, both adults and children are no less dedicated to their faith than their work, completely invested in the snake-handling tradition. While most members are employed at local coal mines or other laborious jobs, exhaustion isn’t an option after work. “It’s cyclical,” he explained. “Church absorbs their so-called free time.”
In his 30 years of investment, Hood tells of the Holiness tradition as if it is his own.
“I have never been dishonest with them; I don’t want to mock their faith,” confessed the professor. “I tell their story.”
With multiple publications presenting this unique element of Appalachian culture, Hood and Williamson have kept true to their word. Unique to his research is his dedication to the flourishing of the church; Hood has testified in court on multiple occasions, as one of the goals of his research is to remove laws that prohibit the snake-handling practice. With a Christian church on nearly every corner in the South, it’s hard to believe that any sector of the Christian tradition experiences religious discrimination. West Virginia, however, is the only state in the Appalachian region that doesn’t legally pose a threat to snake handlers. All other surrounding states have outlawed the handling of snakes for religious purposes, under the claim that it is too high of a risk. Georgia and North Carolina have even passed laws that would accuse the evangelist of the Gospel as a murderer if a church member died as a result of handling under the speaker’s influence.
“High risk in the secular community is not disputed,” noted Hood, sarcastically gesturing to the busy street outside of his office, “but submitting to this bias against religion requires people to risk their salvation.”
Hood’s goal is not to persuade anyone of the power of snake handling: “I’ve never handled a snake, never will.”
Instead, he wishes to display the strength of these people, “Characterizing these people as ‘backwoods, ignorant people’ falsifies their faith.” Exposing the façade of religious freedom in the South, Hood and the Holiness project is well on its way to exposing the façade of religious freedom in the South. Over his years of research, documentary crews from Canada and Australia have traveled to stay up to date on Hood’s work with the snake handlers. Work to preserve these documents began in 2013 in UTC’s Special Collections Department and is funded through a grant provided by the UC Foundation.
“We hope this is a springboard for [Hood] and I to get bigger external funding,” stated Carolyn Runyon, Director of UTC Special Collections.
The grant awarded to this project will cover the digitization of nearly 200 of Hood and Williamson’s original recordings. Runyon’s personal goal for the project is to use metadata to make the material as researchable as possible. According to Hood, UTC now holds the largest data collection of Appalachian Holiness churches.
Amidst persecution, the Holiness church continues to pursue holiness. In the corner of Hood’s office sits a dark wooden box, a gifted token of thanks, that once held the slithering embodiments of faith. Engraved on the box are the words “Wait on God.” This refers to the members’ commitment to handle snakes only out of obedience to God. The church’s relentless drive to wait on God will not be stopped by man or law.
Elaine is a first year graduate student at UTC. Raised in Music City, she now calls Chattanooga her home. When she isn’t frantically revising a writing project, she can be found in the restaurant kitchen whipping up some southern comfort food. If you’re missing a pen, it’s probably behind her ear. If you’re caffeine deprived, she’ll offer you a mug of black coffee from her ever-brewing coffee pot. If you’re in need of a laugh, her dry humor and sarcasm should do the trick.