I'm a modern day recluse living on the verge of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. I'm a writer, dairy goat farmer and have a Cocker Spaniel rescue. I write in the genre of Southern fiction and non-fiction, primarily about the Appalachian people.
I'm a southern girl, born in Savannah, GA and gently raised in the lowcountry of South Carolina. I'm a gun-toting progressive liberal Democrat.
I could have just gone in there and taken photos and snarkily portrayed them as the press has done so many times before. I could have just stopped at the snakes and the drinking of "the deadly thing" and left it like that. That's the easy way to go. Stop at the snakes and the poison and snicker. But you know me. That's just not me. And truthfully, the snakehandlers have thoroughly charmed me.
Before I go further on this journey, I wanted you to understand some of what I see in them. Some of what has made them a life-long fascination for me. I want you to know some of what they believe. I want you to understand their sweetness.
If I make mistakes in conveying the nature of their beliefs to you, it is only my imperfect knowledge of them and no deficit of theirs.
I know more about snakes than is strictly appropriate for a someone of my upbringing. We were raised with a healthy respect for poisonous reptiles. As a child, growing up on the coastal wetlands of South Carolina, they were an ever present danger. I remember having a craving for sassafras tea and taking myself, barefoot, off into the woods to gather roots. I looked down in horror to find a nest of just born copperheads just inches from my toes. It was not unusual for me to return home from school to find a huge water moccasin sunning itself on the front porch steps. I witnessed, more than once, the terrible damage their bites wrought on unsuspecting dog noses.
Later, in my teen years, I would help a local herpetologist remove snakes from the tomato fields. The migrant workers would grind to a halt any time a snake was spotted. We were actually trying to save the red rat snakes and the indigo snakes. But just as often, there would be a poisonous snake there.
I first heard of the Pentecostal Church Snakehandlers when I was in college. I was a theater major with very modest acting skills. Okay, really bad acting skills. But I hadn't come to that realization yet, so I was always looking for parts to audition for. One day there was an audition notice for Romulus Linney's "Holy Ghosts". Underneath, in bold, black magic marker it said, "Must NOT be afraid of snakes!!"
So I got my first role in a play and it was the beginning of my fascination with the Pentecostal Church Snakehandlers.
As sensitively as Romulus Linney portrayed them in his play, in hindsight, I don't think he quite "got it".
Jimmy Morrow is the Pastor of the Edwina Church of God in Jesus Christ's Name. I had known about Jimmy since I came here. Because of the blog, I sometimes get inquiries about snakehandling. If I felt they were respectful, I always referred them on to Jimmy. But I only met Jimmy face to face several weeks ago. I had been wanting to attend his service for a while but didn't think it appropriate to show up without an invitation.
Jimmy is not what you would expect. He is a tall man with greying hair and a gentle face who can talk a blue streak. His eyes are bright and animated and when he speaks you are aware of his keen intelligence. It is easy to see why so many university professors and intellectuals have befriended him. He is clearly "one of us". By that, I mean, that his thirst for knowledge and questing mind are evident when he speaks of his topic, the Jesus' Name Snakehandlers and their history. His archives, covering over 100 years of Appalachian history, are as meticulously documented and kept as any university don's. He has every right to be proud of his scholarly achievements.
"I've only got a fifth grade education." He said shyly after the first service I attended, "But I reckon I'm the only one up here that has a book out."
There is no doubt in my mind that had Jimmy been born in another place or time, he would hold three PhD's and be chairing the sociology department at an Ivy League university. His second book is on its way to the publishers.
His wife, Pam, is as quiet as Jimmy is loquacious but she is integral to the partnership. Her beliefs run as deeply as Jimmy's. She exudes a Madonna-like aura of joy, tranquility, love and peace. Just being near her is calming. She is gifted with tongues. She also has a fluting and sweet singing voice that does justice to every song she sings. It is a "joyful noise" indeed.
As a couple, they share a sort of love that one rarely sees. It flows off of them like sunbeams off of running water. It is the sort of love that makes you believe in love again even if you have lost your faith in love.
I'm sure that their shared beliefs and faith have something to do with that. They call it "living by the signs".
One of the first things I noticed when I entered their church was a large hand drawn sign that had the name of God in Hebrew. Underneath it said, "The Name of God in English is Jesus Christ." That is a principle belief of theirs, that Jesus' name is also the name of God, superseding the Trinity. They believe that all things can be endured or accomplished in Jesus' name.
The signs refer to the five attributes given in Mark 16: 17~18
1. Casting out Devils. 2. Speaking in Tongues. 3. Taking up Serpents. 4. Drinking of any Deadly Thing. 5. Laying on of Hands to heal the Sick.
They also take on fire. There is an acetylene torch that sits on Jimmy's pulpit for this purpose. It is not mentioned in Mark 16: 17~18, but it is something that they practice on occasion.
A common misconception is that they do these things as "tests" of faith. They are not testing their faith at all. They believe this is a way of life. They understand that they may die by living this way and sadly, they sometimes do. But they believe that if they "die by the signs", that it is merely God's wish for them to go at that time. It is a mark of honor to die this way and those that do are spoken of reverently.
They are also very gentle about their faith. There is no hard sell or proselytizing here. I found this very appealing about them. They never harp about the fact that they are the "one true" faith...though I'm sure they believe that. They expect people to come to them of their own accord.
So, there are the basics. I'll be looking into their faith more deeply. I'm not sure how far I'll go as of yet. I have no plans to handle serpents myself. My skeptics mind was toying with the theory that perhaps there was a genetic basis that allowed them to live through the dozens of snakebites, drinking of lye and lethal strychnine or being unburnt by fire.
But that was before I discovered I was related to them by blood. I'm not too keen on that idea anymore.
I know you are dying to see a snake at this point. Below is the copperhead I saw handled on Friday by Jimmy. He was in his box on the altar platform. I will get pictures of the actual handling at another time.
Chris...I think we talked about that before...it should be in the comments.
POH...I'm not that related to everyone like Scott is...I was just as shocked as I could be when Jimmy pulled out the geneologies and there were my kinfolk. Mostly, dating doesn't seem to be a problem.
I'm so glad you read Jimmy's book, Maridmitch! I loved it that Ralph Hood kept Jimmy's vernacular in there...he speaks very much like the book was written. I'm not sure what the next book is going to be on. Jimmy says he's pretty sure he's got a few more books in him. He has some really great artifacts in his archive as well. An amazing and intricately carved snake box that must be 100 years old and lovely hand bound verse books.
The church is off of one of those tiny little roads off of that Wilton Springs road. I think it's the same one you take...or the one after that to get to the Buddhist Pavillion.
POH, yes, the Nipponzan Myohoji Atlanta Dojo have been building the Smoky Mountain Peace Pagodaon Hall's Top Mountain. I see them in at the Newport Walmart sometimes in their orange robes when they come to town. So yes...if you make a wrong turn you can end up "Na Mu Myo Ho-ing" when you actually meant to snakehandle.
Thanks Momma! That's very sweet! I appreciate your visit.
Hi Rosie- The Snakes in a Church post is a very interesting story. I wish I could experience something like this.
My mom was the only one who went to Yalta last year for the dedication of the chapel ... unfortunately I missed out. I need to correct a few items on that post, but most of the translation on the plaque is correct - some of the people listed are my great grand parents, and great great grandparents.
Jimmy is really used to attention, Jane. Aside from his book, he was just on the Travel Channel's "Miracles" program and he's been on Nat'l Geographic, Discovery and The Learning Channel. He really is a scholar. He's just really clear that he doesn't want anything showing up on the news...they never give them a fair shake and always make them look foolish. I quite enjoy attending his church. I didn't take pictures the first time but I now have permission to. So, I'll be back this Saturday. Scottie enjoyed it as well. I felt very much at home there. I'll be giving Jimmy copies of all my photos, print and the nifty graphic I designed for the series.
Chris...not mad, just email for any repeat info. I'll give you an url to a recent article Simone had done.