Imagineyou are at the alter with a priest who is willing to let a snake bite you. Youare timid, scared, and unsure if you will live. You cry out for help from God,but the venom circulates through your body, proving your state of faith.
Thispractice is called snake handling. Told from three differentperspectives, Adelaide Lyle, sheriff Clem Barefield. and nine-year-old JessHall, A Land More Kind Than Home byWiley Cash, is about a story of snake handling and faith gone sour, and acommunity that follows a false prophet even when the methods lead to the deathsof members of the community. Wiley Cash’s novel was influenced by the fact thathe was born and raised in Appalachia. In this essay I will explain the positiveand negative impacts that the passion for God and the Bible has on the MadisonCounty community in A Land More Kind ThanHome. Snake handling, also called “serpenthandling”, is a religious ritual that took place in small churches located “inthe United States, including the man said to have started the whole thing,George Went Hensley, who died vomiting blood in a shed in north Florida in1955. Hensley began handling around 1910 and had been bitten more than fourhundred times before the fatal strike. Scholars attribute to him the spread ofsnake handling beyond Grasshopper Valley, Tennessee, into Kentucky, theCarolinas, Virginia, Ohio, and Indiana” (Covington 669).
Snake handling was usuallycharacterized as rural and part of the Holiness movement. The practice of snakehandling began in the early 1900’s in Appalachia. Although snake handling was abig deal, it only played a small part in the church service. Usually, “participantsare either Holiness, Pentecostals, Charismatics or other evangelicals” (Bultmann). Practitioners of snake handling foundthis practice moral due to verses from the bible. Verses that led to thesepractices are in Mark and Luke.
In Mark it states, “And these signs shallfollow them that believe: In my name shall they cast out devils; they shallspeak with new tongues. They shall take up serpents;and if they drink any deadly thing, it shall not hurt them; they shall layhands on the sick, and they shallrecover” (Mark 16:17-18). In Luke it is states, “Behold, I give unto youpower to tread on serpents andscorpions, and over all the power of the enemy: and nothing shall by any means hurt you” (Luke 10:19).
These quotesare important because they are what motivates the church to practice snake handling.With any snake handling church, these quotes are praised and worshiped in everservice. Also, these quotes show that the idea of snake handling was not meantto harm anyone but A Land More Kind ThanHome shows that it can negatively affect a whole community by loss of innocence, betrayal of trust, and manipulationof religion. In the beginning of A Land More Kind Than Home, Adelaide Lyle talks about her experiencewith the snake handling church that happened nearly eleven years ago. Adelaide Lylewitnessed Molly Jameson get poisoned by a snake at the age of seventy-nine. AdelaideLyle intensely describes how her cheeks had “started to turn blue, and they hadto tip the water glass into her mouth because her lips were almost swollenshut” (Cash 5). Cash’s quote shows the detrimental danger that snake handlingcan have on a person such as Adelaide Lyle. Although these practices at thetime were praised due to religion, people were dying and becoming sick.
AuthorSteven M. Kane states, “Many snake-handlers interpret complications or deathfrom snake bite as evidence that the victim didn’t have enough faith” (260).The words he states: “complications” and “death”, is heavily stressed in thissituation because “Press reports and devotees indicate that at leastthirty-five persons died between 1936 and 1973 from the effects of poisonoussnake bites” (Kane 260). Although more people live than die, I believe thatforcing poison onto someone is an unhealthy and manipulative way of determiningfaith.
In Cash’s novel, Adelaide Lyle mentionsthat during the ceremony, while Miss Jameson was dying from a snake bite infront of the whole church, members of the church including the pastor continuedto sing and dance past Miss Jameson’s death and thrive with the loud, pulsingmusic. The deacons of the church picked Miss Jameson’s body up and carried herpast everyone and nobody seemed to care. This shows that deaths caused by snakehandling are not worrisome to intense practitioners of snake handling.
Onquestion arises when thinking about snake handling. Is it really the strengthof faith that determines whether a person dies or not? As stated in Holy Ghost People: The Snake Handlers of Southern Appalachia bySteven Kane, “Several factors play a role in determining thegravity of poisonous snake bite. These include: the age, weight, allergycomplex, and general physical and emotional condition of the victim; the ageand size of the snake; the condition of the snake’s fangs and venom glands, andthe quantity and toxicity of its venom; the presence of various pathogenicmicroorganisms in the snake’s mouth; the location of the bite and depth of fangpenetration.” The reason stated by Kane gives more reason to question whetherthe snake handling business was dishonest. Digging deeper into Cash’s text,days later, Miss Jameson’s body was found dead in her garden on Wednesdayevening. She was found dead in a row of tomatoes with a spade in her hand.
Herdeath had been covered up by the church to prevent rumors of the churches practiceof snake handling. If a church knew that snake handling was healthy for thewhole community, the church would not try to cover up the death of MissJameson. Adelaide Lyle went to the post office to get a stamp for her envelope andoverheard a woman talking to the postman about Miss Jameson’s death. Eventually,Miss Jameson’s death story proceeded to be that she was attacked in her gardenby a snake.
Adelaide Lyle states, “After that I understood that my churchwasn’t no place to worship the Lord in, and I realized I couldn’t stay. I’dbeen a member of that church in one way or another since I was a young woman,but things had been took too far, and I couldn’t pretend to look past them nomore” (Cash 8). When Adelaide Lyle tried to leave the church, the pastorforefully threatened her with snakes.
Religion should never be forced uponsomeone. For the pastor to act out this way, proves he is controlling andshouldn’t have the title of a pastor. Adelaide Lyle realizes the horribleeffects that her church as a young woman had lied to and impacted thecommunity. Adelaide Lyle has devoted the rest of her time keeping childrenduring services to protect them from the dangers of snake handling. Throughouthistory, preventing children from partaking in snake handling has been a goal.
One reason for this is loss of innocence. Children are born innocent until theyare spiritually ready for snake handling. In a county like Madison county,parents try to prevent their children from spying on adults, so they don’t ruintheir child hood and begin to uncover reasons for snake handling. Other placesbelieve that “you cannot turn kids loose in a serpent-handling church” (Coots).Jess Hall and his 13-year-old brother Christopher, called “Stump” for beingmute.
Returned after spending time at the creek, the two boys overhear theirmother, in bed with a man who is not their father. When Stump climbed lookthrough their parents’ bedroom window, Jess is surprised to see the pastorCarson ChamblissTheSunday after the two boys caught their mom being shady with the pastor,Chambliss wants to cure Stump’s muteness. When Christopher is unexpectedlyremoved from Addie Lyle’s house during the service, Unfortunately, Jess and hisfriend Joe Bill sneak away to learn what they can for themselves. Looking inthrough a back window of the church, Jess witnesses Stump struggling violentlyagainst the church members who are laying hands on him trying to remove hismuteness with the Holy Ghost. Stump’s death made Ben Hall, hisfather, who does not believe in snake handling, go head to head with his wife, thepastor, and with the sheriff of Madison County. The sheriff is and will continueto investigate the reasoning for these deaths in the small town.
In that moment,questions were being asked and the family fell apart. For a child to witnesshis brother being treated this way can be detrimental to not only him butothers around him. By the end of the book more chaos had struck. Because ofeach individual traumatic event explained, the community became frantic. Ben, completelyfrazzled at the end, accidently kills his only son left living by shooting him inthe neck with a shotgun.
Although,there are negative effects placed on the community, one could argue that it ispositive as well. People of the church are in their own world and do things forGod’s purpose. Snake handling was a religious practice therefore, since it wasto worship God, for them it was considered moral. In a religious setting, manyreligious people come together for the same reason, to embrace their love for ahigher power. This can be the most powerful feeling a person can endure. Iremember when I used to attend church on a regular basis, it was the mostwarming feeling I had ever felt due to the spread of love for each other andGod. While reading A Land More Kind ThanHome, I had to keep in mind, that each religion has its own way of worship,but also understand the practice of snake handling as immoral.