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.

Washington Monthly - Donate today and your gift will be doubled!

Support Nonprofit Journalism

If you enjoyed this article, consider making a donation to help us produce more like it. The Washington Monthly was founded in 1969 to tell the stories of how government really works—and how to make it work better. Fifty years later, the need for incisive analysis and new, progressive policy ideas is clearer than ever. As a nonprofit, we rely on support from readers like you.

Yes, I’ll make a donation

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore is a political columnist for New York and managing editor at the Democratic Strategist website. He was a contributing writer at the Washington Monthly from January 2012 until November 2015, and was the principal contributor to the Political Animal blog.