They Shall Take Up Serpents

I don’t get the National Geographic channel on my cable package. So even though I may well be a distant cousin of some of the characters on its reality show Snake Salvation, I didn’t know about it until I read the news that its star, the Kentucky preacher Jamie Coots, had died of a snakebite.

As you may or may not know, snake-handlers are a small but notorious Appalachian pentecostal sect that has gone on a bizarre tangent from its reading of Mark 16:18 (“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.”)

The best account I’ve read of them is in the remarkable Salvation on Sand Mountain, a 1995 book by journalist Dennis Covington’s experience with a group of snake-handlers in northern Alabama, who very nearly won him over.

Growing up as a Southern Baptist with Appalachian roots, I was aware of the snake-handlers as a sort of distant rumor, but never met any so far as I know. But I do remember hearing this comedy routine from gospel singer Wendy Bagwell, which to my astonishment, has been uploaded on YouTube. Even if you aren’t interested in mountain religion, Wendy’s dialect (“I like to died!”) is good enough reason to listen to this.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.