The practice usually consists of a worship service with singing, praying, speaking in tongues and preaching. The front of the church, behind the pulpit, is the designated area for handling snakes. Rattlesnakes, cottonmouths, and copperheads are the most common, but even cobras have been used. As the service crescendoes, those who feel "anointed" approach the front and begin to pick up the snakes, usually raising them into the air and sometimes allowing the snakes to crawl on their bodies. The snakes are considered symbols of Satan, and handling the snakes demonstrates one's power over him. Members are not required to handle the snakes. Some believers will also engage in drinking poison (most commonly strychnine) at this time.
Over 60 cases of death as the result of snakebites in religious worship services have been documented in the United States. If a handler is bitten, it is generally interpreted as a lack of faith or failure to follow the leadership of the Spirit. But individual incidents may actually be understood in a variety of ways. Bitten believers usually do not seek medical help, but look to the Lord for their healing. Beginning in 1936, six southeastern states outlawed snake handling. George Hensley died in Florida in 1955 from a poisonous snakebite.
Independent researcher Deborah McCauley revealed that the serpent-handling churches are not one uniform body, a fact that has previously lacked sufficient recognition. They fall into at least two distinct groups: Oneness or Jesus-Only (non-trinitarian) churches and Trinitarian churches. The groups located in central Appalachia tend to be Oneness, while the churches located in southern Appalachia tend to be Trinitarian.
In other areas of belief, the Church of God with Signs Following holds doctrines and practices that are similar to related Church of God bodies. They maintain a strict teaching of holiness, practice speaking in tongues, divine healing, baptism by immersion, and foot washing. They also stress Romans 16:16 - "Salute another with an Holy Kiss."
The exact membership is unknown, and has recently been estimated as low as 10002 and as high as 50003, with possibly 50 to 100 congregations. According the Encyclopedia of American Religions, churches "can be found from central Florida to West Virginia and as far west as Columbus, Ohio." Each church body is independent and autonomous, and the denominational name is not consistent in all areas, although it is almost always some variation of the name Church of God.
The distinctive practice of these churches is variously known as Serpent Handling, Snake Handling, and Taking up Serpents. Many people consider snake handling to be a folk religion.
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