In this week’s podcast, Chris Silver and Dr Paul Williamson explore Williamson’s research related to documentation of the Serpent Handling Sects of Appalachia. By some accounts these traditions are in decline due to globalization. Williamson has attempted to study these traditions qualitatively and quantitatively to better understand ...
The use of serpents – more commonly known as ‘venomous snakes’ – within religious practices is by no means a new phenomenon within religious and cultural contexts. Certainly there are plenty of examples of where serpents have been power symbols both in totem and ritualistic traditions. Moreover, many of the world’s population identify with serpent play as a potentially dangerous exercise. Within this risk potential, the serpent carries a variety of different auspicious meanings related to culture and/or the impermanence of life. The Southeast United States is no exception. The Appalachian Mountain region of the Southeast was geographically isolated in many parts from the rest of the United States until recently. This isolation coupled with the challenges of a rural socio-economic lifestyle created uncertainty within the minds of many inhabitants. Religious beliefs and practices provided meaning and certainty within an uncertain world. Serpent Handling traditions of Appalachia were no exception.
Serpent handling as a religious practice appeared within the first decade of the twentieth century. The practice emerged in east Tennessee and spread to other parts of the Southern Appalachian Mountain region of the United States. While many different groups, both Holiness and Pentecostal, enact the practice, the serpent handling groups themselves have no parent organization that binds them together. What binds the groups together is a sharing in diversity of belief with similar religious practices (Burton, 1993 pg. 20-21). Serpent handling sects are historically and philosophically linked to three forms of American Protestantism: Holiness, fundamentalism, and Pentecostalism, although typically many groups would identify their membership as Holiness (Hood, found in Brown & Mcdonald, 2000). The fundamentalists influence among serpent handlers is in their acceptance of a plain reading of the Bible when it is appropriate (Hood, Hill, & Williamson, 2005).
As handling serpents began spreading throughout the Southern Appalachians, the notoriety of serpent bite deaths increased (Hood & Williamson, 2008). Much of the public fascination with these traditions relates primarily to the dangerous practice of handling of serpents or drinking of poison as part of the religious ritual. Many outsider observers assume that serpent handling traditions are of one religion or of a single theology. Such an assumption cannot be further from the truth. Many of the churches diverge on issues of textual interpretation of the Bible and theology. Their only unifying practice is dictated within Mark 16. For those within these traditions, handling of serpents or drinking of poison is an issue of religious freedom. Most states have enacted laws outlawing the practice of serpent handling. Regardless of the legal discrimination or the physical risk to themselves, the serpent handling sects assume the risk to follow God’s commandment (Hood, 1998).
In this week’s podcast, Chris Silver and Dr Paul Williamson explore Williamson’s research, and by proxy his colleague Ralph W. Hood Jr. (see our podcast from 2 weeks ago) related to documentation of the Serpent Handling Sects of Appalachia. By some accounts these traditions are in decline due to globalization. Williamson has attempted to study these traditions qualitatively and quantitatively to better understand the profound sense of religious commitment and deeper meaning of the theology and practices of the Serpent Handling sects.
You can also download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. And if you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us, or use our Amazon.co.uk or Amazon.com link to support us when buying your important books etc.
W. Paul Williamson is professor of psychology at Henderson State University (USA), although he has not always been in academic research. He was previously a full-time clergy in a Pentecostal denomination for 17 years, but then became more interested in religion from a psychological perspective. This led to his studies at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, where he earned a Ph.D. in experimental psychology with training in both quantitative and qualitative research methodologies. Applying these approaches to the psychology of religion, he has published work in the areas of mysticism, religious fundamentalism, Christian serpent handling, and, most recently, spiritual transformation within the context of substance abuse recovery. He has co-authored The Psychology of Religious Fundamentalism (2005, Guilford Press), with Ralph W. Hood, Jr., and Peter C. Hill; and Them That Believe: The Power and Meaning of the Christian Serpent Handling Tradition (2008; University of California Press), with Ralph W. Hood, Jr. He is a recipient of the Margaret Gorman Early Career Award and the Distinguished Service Award, both from the American Psychological Association, Division 36: Society for the Psychology of Religion and Spirituality.
According to Williamson, “What so often is missing in research is a balanced approach in the psychological study of religious phenomena. It typically is either from the objective standpoint or from the subjective point of view. What is needed for a more complete understanding of a particular phenomenon is the blending together of both perspectives in the use of quantitative and qualitative methodologies.”
Brown, Fred & Mcdonald, Jeanne (2000). The serpent handlers: three families and their faith. Blair publishing: Winston-Salem, North Carolina.
Burton, Thomas. (1993). Serpent handling believers. University of Tennessee Press: Knoxville, Tennessee.
Hood, R. W., Jr., (1998). “When the spirit maims and kills: social psychological considerations of the history of serpent handling sects and the narrative of handlers. The International Journal for the Psychology of Religion, 8, 71-96.
Hood, R. W., Jr., Hill, P.C., & Williamson, W. P. (2005). The psychology of religious fundamentalism. New York: Guilford.
Hood, R. W., Jr. & Williamson, W. P. (2008). The power and meaning of the Christian serpent- handling tradition. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.
This episode has not been transcribed yet.
Consider a donation to pay for the cost of editing a transcript?
Over the past decade or so, the academic study of religion has become infused with a (re-)appreciation of the importance and impact of space, place and location upon its field of study. Of course, scholars have for a long time been aware of the need to situate ‘religion’ in context, however, the spatial analysis goes far beyond mere description of physical or cultural spaces, ...
When encountered for the first time, the idea of a fiction-based religion might seem quite ’far out’ and counter-intuitive. How is it possible to mix together religion (that, supposedly, deals with faith and so with a truth of some sort) and works of popular culture, which are clearly created by human imagination, and so are by definition not true?
"While Hollywood often takes a critical stance in the name of provocation and artistic freedom, scholars of particular social and cultural groups often find themselves working against the grain of collective assumptions."
In one melancholic and chilling scene in director Andrew Dominik’s The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007), leading man Brad Pitt’s rendition of the famous American outlaw sits outside his Missouri home.
What is the relationship between Religious Studies and the study of the Christian New Testament? Although RS is often considered to be "studies of thee other religions", Biblical Studies also offers a way into the broader theoretical and definitional issues in the study of religions. As Dale B. Martin explains to Jack Tsonis,...
Why attend conferences? What is the point? What else could we do instead that might be a better use of our time? And how did we find having a fully-functional podcast studio set up at this conference? These are just a few of the issues that crop up in this lively roundtable discussion, facilitated by the inestimable Moritz Klenk.
In the 1960s, most sociologists consciously or unconsciously bought into idea of the 'death of god' - religion became effectively invisible to academia. Throughout the 1980s and 90s, a number of events - most notably the 'Satanic Verses' controversy - dramatically increased the 'visibility' of religion: it became a political problem. Now, in the 21st century, ...
Dr Elisha McIntyre discusses her research into religion and humour, particularly looking at comedic work The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints as well as a broad range of evangelical comedians. McIntyre discusses the use of religious comedy as a point of entertainment as well as an identity solidifier, evangelical tool, and preaching format within Christianity.
Week three of our Editors' Picks. Chris tells us why he (and his fiancée) liked Jay Demerath's interview on substantive and functionalist definitions of religion. Could the difficulties associated with the academic conceptualisation of “religion” be overcome by changing our focus instead to “the sacred”?
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution- NonCommercial- NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.
The views expressed in podcasts, features and responses are the views of the individual contributors, and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Religious Studies Project or our sponsors. The Religious Studies Project is produced by the Religious Studies Project Association (SCIO), a Scottish Charitable Incorporated Organisation (charity number SC047750).