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Religious Providence for Religious Action: Investigating Roger Allen Laporte’s French-Canadian Catholic Heritage

In the early morning hours of November 9th 1965, a 22 year old Catholic man from upstate New York named Roger Allen Laporte self-immolated in front of the United Nations in New York City as a strong political protest against the Vietnam War. Even 50 years after the event, Laporte still enflames debate in trying to understand his motivation and the overall meaning of such a drastic action: is it sacrifice or suicide. The key to this discussion, however, is that Laporte on his deathbed claimed it to be a religious act.

In a podcast interview for the Religious Studies Project, Francesca Cadeddu shares the insights of her postdoctoral research on Laporte looking at the psychological, social, and political dynamics at play in generating new forms and/or conceptualizations of martyrdom in the 20th century. Ultimately, Cadeddu seeks to understand the complexity of Laporte’s religious conviction. In this regard, I was struck by the idea of Laporte’s Francophone (or Franco-American) heritage. Though I must admit that it can only be inferred to what degree Laporte was influenced by the culture of French-Canadian/Franco-American Catholic identity,[1] it still remains an interesting aspect to explore as another layer of Laporte’s religious conviction.

In this brief response, I wish to deepen the discussion by investigating the discursive link and importance Catholic Ultramontanism played in constructing French-Canadian/Franco-American identity on both sides of the Canada/US border. I propose that exploring the 19th century construction of a racialized French-Canadian Catholic identity based on Christian Providence may shed further light into the depth of Laporte’s actions of religious martyrdom in the 20th century.[2]

French-Canadian Predestination

From c.1850 to 1950, Catholic culture was thoroughly dominated by an Ultramontanist discourse, which was an ecclesiastical effort to emphasize the importance of the Catholic Church in countering the perceived ill effects of modern society. For francophones in North America, Ultramontanist ideology became paramount to the socio-political and cultural construction of identity.[3] Their main concern was the survival of French language and culture against the hegemonic forces of a dominant Anglo-Protestant society both in Canada and the US.

In the same period, the province of Quebec was experiencing tremendous demographic and economic transformations. The population had drastically changed with the immigration of French Canadians to the burgeoning industries of New England.[4] Nive Voisine characterized it as “the march of misery and exile”[5] because French Canadians who sought employment abroad were leaving their lands without guarantee of returning. This caused a moral panic for the clergy. The architects of the Ultramontanist Church in Quebec therefore deployed a racialized and exclusivist identity framework along the lines of religion, language, land, occupation, and family. These socio-political ideals were tethered to the belief that ‘French-Canadians’ were predestined by God to be morally righteous missionaries in North America.

One of the most important ideologues for this identity programme was historian cleric Lionel Groulx (1878-1967).[6] In his mind, French-Canadian civilization[7] needed to perpetuate itself by means of a certain ethnic identification. Groulx formed a racial categorization of French Canadians in North America he called la race nouvelle (i.e. the new race)[8] as a projection of Catholic hegemony through (1) an assertion of French Canadian homogeneity, (2) an idealization of piety embodied in the parish and the family, and (3) the notion that patrimony equals land and that one needs to fight to assert his/her nationalism. Groulx saw the perfection of French Canadian identity represented as “service at the altar, service under arms, and the tilling of the soil.”[9] Groulx presented a heroic amalgam of priest and pioneer who were literally able to imbue the land and its people with an inherent Catholic morality. Therefore, the French-Canadian must take his/her place in the moral complex of the symbolic village—which was characterized by clerical guidance, independent and hard work, and the large Catholic family—in order to act in forging a better world. According to Groulx, this is the on-going mission field predestined by God to raise up the righteous Franco-North American civilization.

But the question remains: how does this inform the character of Roger Allen Laporte’s religious action? On one level, it is difficult to assume that it had any influence on his actions, especially in 1965 which saw the great transformation of the Catholic Church shedding the weighty tiara of Ultramontanist ideology. However, there is something important to be stated with the minority standing of the French-Catholic community in the US and especially in New England. In countering the struggles of social, cultural, linguistic, and religious assimilation, this racialized idealization acts to inflate one’s conviction and moral justification at the level of identity. By pointing to the need to perpetuate one’s French identity as an action of Christian Providence is a pretty lofty idea. One that could have had residual affects on a man like Laporte when it came to taking unambiguous political action.

Again, I cannot claim that the Ultramontanist ideals of French-Canadian identity were forefront in Laporte’s mind—a man who sought symbolic resources outside of his faith as a means to political protest. Yet the idea of struggle and action as being an inherently religious paradigm is relevant to Laporte’s case. It is not difficult to imagine that in your bones (i.e. the discursive genealogy of your ethno-cultural identity) lies the tools of moral justification and religious conviction to fight against insurmountable odds (that is, the saliency of a heritage of religious Providence that leads to religious action).

References

Bélanger, Claude. “Lionel Groulx – Histoire Du Québec.” L’Encyclopédie de L’histoire Du Québec / The Quebec History Encyclopedia. Accessed May 5, 2015. http://faculty.marianopolis.edu/c.belanger/quebechistory/encyclopedia/LionelGroulxindex.htm.

Bélanger, Damien-Claude, and Claude Bélanger. “French Canadian Emigration to the United States, 1840-1930 – Readings – Quebec History.” Accessed May 5, 2015. http://faculty.marianopolis.edu/c.belanger/quebechistory/readings/leaving.htm.

Bock, Michel. A Nation Beyond Borders: Lionel Groulx on French-Canadian Minorities. University of Ottawa Press, 2014.

Brault, Gerard J. The French-Canadian Heritage in New England. Canadian Electronic Library. Books Collection. Hanover, NH: University Press of New England ; Kingston Ont, 1986.

Buckner, Phillip A., and R. D. Francis. Canada and the British World Culture, Migration, and Identity. Canadian Electronic Library. Books Collection. Vancouver BC: UBC Press, 2006.

Desjardins, Bertrand. “Le Programme de Recherche en Démographie Historique (The Research Program in Historical Demography) – PRDH-IGD.” Accessed May 5, 2015. http://www.genealogy.umontreal.ca/en/LePrdh.

Gagnon, Serge. Quebec and Its Historians: The Twentieth Century. Canadian Electronic Library. Books Collection. Montreal Harvest House, 1985.

Gareau, Paul L. “Le Providentialisme d’hier à Aujourd’hui : La Construction Idéologique Ultramontaine de L’identité Canadienne-Française dans le Développement de l’Armée de Marie.” Studies in Religion/Sciences Religieuses 42, no. 3 (September 1, 2013): 346–63.

Groulx, Lionel. Notre Grande Aventure : L’empire Français en Amérique du Nord (1535-1760). Collection Fleur de lys. Montréal: Fides, 1958.

Lefebvre, Solange. “The Francophone Roman Catholic Church”. In Paul Bramadat and David Seljak (Eds.) Christianity and Ethnicity in Canada. Toronto: University of Toronto Press 2008. 116-153.

Voisine, Nive. Histoire de l’Église Catholique au Québec (1608-1970). Montréal: Éditions Fides, 1971.

[1] It is interesting to note that Laporte is ranked 110th by the PRDH as a popular surname in Quebec. Cf. Desjardins, “Le Programme de Recherche En Démographie Historique (The Research Program in Historical Demography) – PRDH-IGD.”

[2] For a more in-depth discussion on the Ultramontanist construction of a moral geography in Quebec, cf. Gareau, “Le Providentialisme D’hier à Aujourd’hui : La Construction Idéologique Ultramontaine de L’identité Canadienne-Française dans le Développement de l’Armée de Marie.”

[3] Cf. Lefebvre, The Francophone Roman Catholic Church.

[4] This was a drastic demographic change that saw some 900,000 French Canadians immigrating to New England between 1840-1930. Cf. Bélanger and Bélanger, “French Canadian Emigration to the United States, 1840-1930”; Brault, The French-Canadian Heritage in New England; Buckner and Francis, Canada and the British World Culture, Migration, and Identity.

[5] “[La] marche de misère et de l’exile.” Voisine, Histoire de l’Église catholique au Québec (1608-1970), 55.

[6] Cf. for photo credit, Bélanger, “Lionel Groulx – Histoire Du Québec.”

[7] Groulx speaks not only of Quebec but in its broadest terms to include francophones of French-Canadian heritage who have left and are living in New England and all over Canada. For an in-depth analysis, cf. Bock, A Nation Beyond Borders.

[8] Cf. Groulx, Notre grande aventure.

[9] Gagnon, Quebec and Its Historians, 128.

Stereotypes and Dangerous Rituals: A Reflection on the Academic Study of Serpent-Handling

Picture 118While 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.

Stereotypes and Dangerous Rituals: A Reflection on the Academic Study of Serpent-Handling

By Travis Warren Cooper, Indiana University

Published by the Religious Studies Project, on 5 June 2013 in response to the Religious Studies Project Interview with Paul WIlliamson on Serpent Handling (3 June 2013)

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. He holds snakes in his hand, both as an allusion to Jesse James’s revivalist family background and intertextual echo of earlier filmic portrayals of the outlaw’s capricious and violent personality.

The Jesse James of the historical record was not an Appalachian serpent-handling Pentecostal, of course. But Hollywood likes to blend its symbols, especially its religious ones, and tends to prefer homogenized provocation over denominational specification. In an earlier Revisionist Western, The Great Northfield Minnesota Raid (1972), Robert Duvall―an actor now known for his critical portrayals of charismatic religions in films such as The Apostle (1997)―stages a prophetic utterance to determine Northfield,

Minnesota as the next site of exploit. This revival-type soliloquy, along with the snake-handling allusion of the 2007 film, construes Jesse James in terms of both violent outlawry and religious extremism. If film is to any degree a barometer of cultural perceptions on a subject, both Pitt and Duvall’s scenes are commentaries on the close relationship between religion and violence. Serpent-handling is one visible face of these tensions.

A lightning-rod of controversy, serpent-handling is a contentious practice on multiple levels. As popular media attest, the ritual is a filmic symbol of North American religion. More specifically, it is an iconic metonym of U. S. Pentecostalism. Protestants live deeply material lives, as scholars have argued (McDannell, 1995), and some of them interact with prayer cloths, guitars, bottled anointing oils, thick hymnbooks, and worn family Bibles in densely intertwined networks of objects and quasi-objects of the Latourian sort (1993). In obedience to what they see as clear biblical mandate, snake-handling Pentecostals take up canebrake rattlers and copperheads—and on rare occasions, cottonmouths or diamondbacks—living objects that have the potential to strike and kill their bearers. Snakes are living agents and dangerous ritual objects.

That religion manifests in violence often finds itself made light of in pop cultural depictions, such as in Duvall’s expert mimicry of a Southern preacher’s drawl as he gives his pseudo-prophecy. Is this an uneasy laughter, a nervous chuckle, of sorts, that holds cultural anxieties at bay, and perhaps allows viewers to laugh off these ambivalences? Cultural depictions of serpent-handlers are often cynically comical in their accounts. Moe Szyslak, a character in The Simpsons, brandishes bandaged hands and refuses to join Homer’s new religion, saying, “I was born a snake handler, and I’ll die a snake handler.” More recently, comedian Will Ferrell plays Cam Brady, a Democratic Congressman from North Carolina in The Campaign (2012). In this irreverent parody of the American political system, Brady attempts to assuage the public’s concern that he is not really a Christian by joining a serpent-handling congregation. All this occurs after his political opponents shame him for not being able to publicly recite the Lord’s Prayer. “I have the power in me!” he exclaims, dancing in a group of other handlers at the front of a small church that brims with visibly ecstatic worshipers. “I could do this forever. These snakes love me.” Brady’s glee is short lived, though, as one of the snakes predictably strikes, sinking its fangs deep into his forearm. He rips it out, uttering a string of expletives. But even as his sight blurs and he breaks out in feverish sweats, Brady manages to turn the situation for political gain.

In terms of scholarly representation, however, comedies such as The Candidate and long-running favorites like The Simpsons simply get it wrong. While they evidence a cultural uneasiness with the practice, they do not accurately portray the marginalized group in focus. Comical films stereotype and homogenize fringe religious practices; scholarly study elucidates complex social and cultural minutiae. 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. But this is just harmless slapstick comedy, one might claim. It would be all fun and games if it were not for the fact that cultural understandings—public opinion informed by (and informing) common stereotypes—often exhibit themselves at the legislative level.

According to one of the most recent and most thorough studies of Appalachian serpent-handlers, “legislatures and courts have had little real knowledge of serpent-handling churches and therefore have little basis on which to judge whether serpent handling is dangerous to others” (Hood and Williamson 2008, 214). In 1940, Kentucky passed the first law banning “intentional exposure to venomous reptiles” in religious gatherings. Tennessee and Virginia delivered bans of their own in 1947. North Carolina and Alabama followed suit in 1949 and 1950. Notably, North Carolina and Georgia have legislated even further by prohibiting the preaching of beliefs about snake handling, rather than simply banning the practice itself. “Thus in North Carolina and Georgia even preaching from Mark 16:17-18 could be interpreted as a violation of state law,” the authors lament. These sorts of state actions “not only infringe on religious practice but on the right to religious belief as well.” West Virginia, in 1963, passed a bill that made the handling of poisonous serpents a misdemeanor. Both Georgia and Alabama ratcheted up the legal consequences of serpent handling by bringing the crime from a misdemeanor to a felony (Ibid., 208-217).

Two of Hood and Williamson’s arguments are that stereotypes influence legislation and legislation has tended to unconstitutionally limit the practices of snake handlers. Overall, Americans tend to resist approving of religions that might bring physical harm to its devotees. “It is implicit in a commonsense view that religion must be ‘good’ and should not condone rituals that can maim or kill. While this is a reasonable position, it also can be viewed as a prejudice. Why cannot religion legitimately endorse a practice that can maim or kill?” Ultimately, they argue that “despite the fact that serpent handlers are injured and killed, their faith may be both sincere and valid” (Ibid., 209). Stereotypes and prejudices against fringe religious groups like serpent-handlers do not realize the cultural specificity of the rituals, the meaning derived by participants from performance in it. To be certain, the authors do not shy from describing the violent nature of the practice. They go to disquietingly specific lengths, in fact, to describe the physical effects of snake bites and admit that increased handling of snakes actually increases rather than decreases the potentiality of attacks (Ibid., 87, 85).

Besides attempting to accurately document the rituals of their subjects, the authors contextualize and humanize the snake-handlers, putting faces on the people who engage in the rituals and find theological meaning from the practice—regardless if it is dangerous. Since the origins of U.S. Pentecostalism, they point out, there have been under a total of 100 documented fatalities due to serpent-handling rituals. In the interview, Williamson points out the irony that state governments feel the need to prohibit the religious practice while turning a blind eye to excessively dangerous sporting activities. Consider, for instance, that between 1931 and 2008 some 1,013 fatalities occurred due to athletic participation in the sport of (American) football (Mueller and Colgate, 2009), a (quasi-religious) ritual in its own right. Further, the authors examine stereotypes themselves, finding that when exposed to ethnographic data, critical outsiders actually softened their opinions and became more empathetic in their understandings of the handlers (Hood and Williamson 2008, 222). Practitioners do die from snake bites, but these deaths are uncommon exceptions. The snake-handling rituals, in terms of safety, are actually quite contained: “Experienced researchers know that church members and observers are not endangered by others who are handling serpents.” There is also “no documented case of a non-handling member being bitten by a serpent handled by another believer” (Ibid., 214). Those who handle are consenting adults, to apply a term with heavy cultural baggage, and as little as ten to fifteen percent of congregants handle the snakes in services. Children do not participate, and those not handling the serpents sit apart from the ritual as it proceeds. In short, Hood and Williamson find that serpent-handlers have largely been misrepresented in both cultural stereotypes as well as legal precedent. They intend their study to address some of these issues.

My response to Hood and Williamson’s theses is mixed. With Russell McCutcheon’s critic/caretaker binary echoing in my mind (2001), passages arguing that the faith of the handlers “may be both sincere and valid” through an application of Soren Kierkegaard’s “teleological suspension of the ethical” (Hood and Williamson 2008, 209) seem to me at first to step well beyond the qualifications of the scholar of religion. What place do scholars have in evaluation of the quality and sincerity of a group’s theological systems of belief and action? Further, are academics scholars or activists? Are we to study particular people groups or argue on behalf of and in support of them? At points the authors come across as explicit advocates or spokespersons for these marginalized Pentecostal churches. We would do wrong, however, to dismiss the work as it is the most sustained and nuanced study on the subject to-date. Have not subaltern studies scholars taught us that all academic writings are political acts, produced within privileged positions of power and prestige? Scholars, especially those studying living peoples, cannot ignore the fact that we have ethical obligations towards our subjects of study. For those of us who work with human subjects, pre-research training and approval through Institutional Review Board (IRB) requirements are constant reminders of these obligations. As primarily an ethnographic work, Hood and Williamson’s study rightly falls under the category of critical ethnography as it assumes “an ethical responsibility to address processes of unfairness or injustice within a particular lived domain,” in anthropologist D. Soyini Madison’s words (2005, 5; emphasis original).

There are no easy solutions for these issues. Hood has gone as far as calling for those who have died from snake-bite related complication to be lauded for their willingness to follow biblical mandate (find the Washington Post article here). In response, other scholars have allowed for an empathetic respect, of sorts, but reject that lauding need occur. Still others argue that endorsement via lauding, respect, and empathy is a less relevant construct that should have little bearing on whether or not a scholar effectively understands a phenomenon. Toward the end of Brad Pitt’s scene, he turns the tables on viewers’ expectations. He discusses with the young Robert Ford how good the snakes taste fried, how he gives snakes the names of his enemies before he eats them. Then in one fell action he flattens the heads of the serpents across a table and decapitates them. If one doubts the allusion to the Pentecostal ritual, a woman vocalizes “Amazing Grace” in the background. The decapitated snakes writhe around the outlaw’s arm. This is only one possible interpretation of a symbolically polysemous scene, of course, but one cannot help but read into it one’s own theorizations. Is this not serpent-handling with a shocking twist, a bloodied reversal of viewer expectation? Pitt adds violence to violence as he underscores the controversial American ritual. Films of this sort obscure the ritual¾making it even more foreign and violent, so to say¾but as scholars of religion we must work to elucidate and understand it.

This material is disseminated under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License. and can be distributed and utilised freely, provided full citation is given.

About the Author

Picture 118Travis is an associate instructor and doctoral student at Indiana University (Bloomington) in religious studies and anthropology (doctoral major and minor emphases, respectively). His primary research interests include contemporary evangelicalism, pentecostalism, revivalism, and televangelism, with excursions into theory of religion and the body, materiality, cognition, gender, media, anthropology of film, and visual culture. Travis is an ethnographer by methodological trade. His published works include “Marjoe Gortner, Imposter Revivalist: Toward a Cognitive Theory of Religious Misbehavior” (PentecoStudies 12.1 (2013): 83-105, and “‘Cooking with Gordon’: Food, Health, and the Elasticity of Evangelical Gender Roles (and Belt Sizes) on The 700 Club” (Religion & Gender 3.1 (2013): 107-123. He also writes informally about his academic work on his personal blog, “Mythology & Footnotes.”

References

  • Hood, Ralph W. and W. Paul Williamson. Them That Believe: The Power and Meaning of the Christian Serpent-Handling Tradition. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2008.
  • Latour, Bruno. We Have Never Been Modern. Trans. Catherine Porter. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1993.
  • Madison, D. Soyini. Critical Ethnography: Method, Ethics, and Performance. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, 2005.
  • McCutcheon, Russell T. Critics Not Caretakers: Redescribing the Public Study of Religion. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2001.
  • McDannell, Colleen. Material Religion: Religion and Popular Culture in America. New Haven, Yale University Press, 1995.
  • Mueller, Frederick O. and Bob Colgate. “Annual Survey of Football Injury Research, 1931-2012.” Unpublished paper, prepared for the American Football Coaches Association, National Collegiate Athletic Association, and The National Federation of State High School Association, 2013.

Paul Williamson on Serpent Handling

Paul Williamson

Paul Williamson

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.

WP WilliamsonW. 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.”

References:

  • 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.

Podcasts

Religious Providence for Religious Action: Investigating Roger Allen Laporte’s French-Canadian Catholic Heritage

In the early morning hours of November 9th 1965, a 22 year old Catholic man from upstate New York named Roger Allen Laporte self-immolated in front of the United Nations in New York City as a strong political protest against the Vietnam War. Even 50 years after the event, Laporte still enflames debate in trying to understand his motivation and the overall meaning of such a drastic action: is it sacrifice or suicide. The key to this discussion, however, is that Laporte on his deathbed claimed it to be a religious act.

In a podcast interview for the Religious Studies Project, Francesca Cadeddu shares the insights of her postdoctoral research on Laporte looking at the psychological, social, and political dynamics at play in generating new forms and/or conceptualizations of martyrdom in the 20th century. Ultimately, Cadeddu seeks to understand the complexity of Laporte’s religious conviction. In this regard, I was struck by the idea of Laporte’s Francophone (or Franco-American) heritage. Though I must admit that it can only be inferred to what degree Laporte was influenced by the culture of French-Canadian/Franco-American Catholic identity,[1] it still remains an interesting aspect to explore as another layer of Laporte’s religious conviction.

In this brief response, I wish to deepen the discussion by investigating the discursive link and importance Catholic Ultramontanism played in constructing French-Canadian/Franco-American identity on both sides of the Canada/US border. I propose that exploring the 19th century construction of a racialized French-Canadian Catholic identity based on Christian Providence may shed further light into the depth of Laporte’s actions of religious martyrdom in the 20th century.[2]

French-Canadian Predestination

From c.1850 to 1950, Catholic culture was thoroughly dominated by an Ultramontanist discourse, which was an ecclesiastical effort to emphasize the importance of the Catholic Church in countering the perceived ill effects of modern society. For francophones in North America, Ultramontanist ideology became paramount to the socio-political and cultural construction of identity.[3] Their main concern was the survival of French language and culture against the hegemonic forces of a dominant Anglo-Protestant society both in Canada and the US.

In the same period, the province of Quebec was experiencing tremendous demographic and economic transformations. The population had drastically changed with the immigration of French Canadians to the burgeoning industries of New England.[4] Nive Voisine characterized it as “the march of misery and exile”[5] because French Canadians who sought employment abroad were leaving their lands without guarantee of returning. This caused a moral panic for the clergy. The architects of the Ultramontanist Church in Quebec therefore deployed a racialized and exclusivist identity framework along the lines of religion, language, land, occupation, and family. These socio-political ideals were tethered to the belief that ‘French-Canadians’ were predestined by God to be morally righteous missionaries in North America.

One of the most important ideologues for this identity programme was historian cleric Lionel Groulx (1878-1967).[6] In his mind, French-Canadian civilization[7] needed to perpetuate itself by means of a certain ethnic identification. Groulx formed a racial categorization of French Canadians in North America he called la race nouvelle (i.e. the new race)[8] as a projection of Catholic hegemony through (1) an assertion of French Canadian homogeneity, (2) an idealization of piety embodied in the parish and the family, and (3) the notion that patrimony equals land and that one needs to fight to assert his/her nationalism. Groulx saw the perfection of French Canadian identity represented as “service at the altar, service under arms, and the tilling of the soil.”[9] Groulx presented a heroic amalgam of priest and pioneer who were literally able to imbue the land and its people with an inherent Catholic morality. Therefore, the French-Canadian must take his/her place in the moral complex of the symbolic village—which was characterized by clerical guidance, independent and hard work, and the large Catholic family—in order to act in forging a better world. According to Groulx, this is the on-going mission field predestined by God to raise up the righteous Franco-North American civilization.

But the question remains: how does this inform the character of Roger Allen Laporte’s religious action? On one level, it is difficult to assume that it had any influence on his actions, especially in 1965 which saw the great transformation of the Catholic Church shedding the weighty tiara of Ultramontanist ideology. However, there is something important to be stated with the minority standing of the French-Catholic community in the US and especially in New England. In countering the struggles of social, cultural, linguistic, and religious assimilation, this racialized idealization acts to inflate one’s conviction and moral justification at the level of identity. By pointing to the need to perpetuate one’s French identity as an action of Christian Providence is a pretty lofty idea. One that could have had residual affects on a man like Laporte when it came to taking unambiguous political action.

Again, I cannot claim that the Ultramontanist ideals of French-Canadian identity were forefront in Laporte’s mind—a man who sought symbolic resources outside of his faith as a means to political protest. Yet the idea of struggle and action as being an inherently religious paradigm is relevant to Laporte’s case. It is not difficult to imagine that in your bones (i.e. the discursive genealogy of your ethno-cultural identity) lies the tools of moral justification and religious conviction to fight against insurmountable odds (that is, the saliency of a heritage of religious Providence that leads to religious action).

References

Bélanger, Claude. “Lionel Groulx – Histoire Du Québec.” L’Encyclopédie de L’histoire Du Québec / The Quebec History Encyclopedia. Accessed May 5, 2015. http://faculty.marianopolis.edu/c.belanger/quebechistory/encyclopedia/LionelGroulxindex.htm.

Bélanger, Damien-Claude, and Claude Bélanger. “French Canadian Emigration to the United States, 1840-1930 – Readings – Quebec History.” Accessed May 5, 2015. http://faculty.marianopolis.edu/c.belanger/quebechistory/readings/leaving.htm.

Bock, Michel. A Nation Beyond Borders: Lionel Groulx on French-Canadian Minorities. University of Ottawa Press, 2014.

Brault, Gerard J. The French-Canadian Heritage in New England. Canadian Electronic Library. Books Collection. Hanover, NH: University Press of New England ; Kingston Ont, 1986.

Buckner, Phillip A., and R. D. Francis. Canada and the British World Culture, Migration, and Identity. Canadian Electronic Library. Books Collection. Vancouver BC: UBC Press, 2006.

Desjardins, Bertrand. “Le Programme de Recherche en Démographie Historique (The Research Program in Historical Demography) – PRDH-IGD.” Accessed May 5, 2015. http://www.genealogy.umontreal.ca/en/LePrdh.

Gagnon, Serge. Quebec and Its Historians: The Twentieth Century. Canadian Electronic Library. Books Collection. Montreal Harvest House, 1985.

Gareau, Paul L. “Le Providentialisme d’hier à Aujourd’hui : La Construction Idéologique Ultramontaine de L’identité Canadienne-Française dans le Développement de l’Armée de Marie.” Studies in Religion/Sciences Religieuses 42, no. 3 (September 1, 2013): 346–63.

Groulx, Lionel. Notre Grande Aventure : L’empire Français en Amérique du Nord (1535-1760). Collection Fleur de lys. Montréal: Fides, 1958.

Lefebvre, Solange. “The Francophone Roman Catholic Church”. In Paul Bramadat and David Seljak (Eds.) Christianity and Ethnicity in Canada. Toronto: University of Toronto Press 2008. 116-153.

Voisine, Nive. Histoire de l’Église Catholique au Québec (1608-1970). Montréal: Éditions Fides, 1971.

[1] It is interesting to note that Laporte is ranked 110th by the PRDH as a popular surname in Quebec. Cf. Desjardins, “Le Programme de Recherche En Démographie Historique (The Research Program in Historical Demography) – PRDH-IGD.”

[2] For a more in-depth discussion on the Ultramontanist construction of a moral geography in Quebec, cf. Gareau, “Le Providentialisme D’hier à Aujourd’hui : La Construction Idéologique Ultramontaine de L’identité Canadienne-Française dans le Développement de l’Armée de Marie.”

[3] Cf. Lefebvre, The Francophone Roman Catholic Church.

[4] This was a drastic demographic change that saw some 900,000 French Canadians immigrating to New England between 1840-1930. Cf. Bélanger and Bélanger, “French Canadian Emigration to the United States, 1840-1930”; Brault, The French-Canadian Heritage in New England; Buckner and Francis, Canada and the British World Culture, Migration, and Identity.

[5] “[La] marche de misère et de l’exile.” Voisine, Histoire de l’Église catholique au Québec (1608-1970), 55.

[6] Cf. for photo credit, Bélanger, “Lionel Groulx – Histoire Du Québec.”

[7] Groulx speaks not only of Quebec but in its broadest terms to include francophones of French-Canadian heritage who have left and are living in New England and all over Canada. For an in-depth analysis, cf. Bock, A Nation Beyond Borders.

[8] Cf. Groulx, Notre grande aventure.

[9] Gagnon, Quebec and Its Historians, 128.

Stereotypes and Dangerous Rituals: A Reflection on the Academic Study of Serpent-Handling

Picture 118While 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.

Stereotypes and Dangerous Rituals: A Reflection on the Academic Study of Serpent-Handling

By Travis Warren Cooper, Indiana University

Published by the Religious Studies Project, on 5 June 2013 in response to the Religious Studies Project Interview with Paul WIlliamson on Serpent Handling (3 June 2013)

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. He holds snakes in his hand, both as an allusion to Jesse James’s revivalist family background and intertextual echo of earlier filmic portrayals of the outlaw’s capricious and violent personality.

The Jesse James of the historical record was not an Appalachian serpent-handling Pentecostal, of course. But Hollywood likes to blend its symbols, especially its religious ones, and tends to prefer homogenized provocation over denominational specification. In an earlier Revisionist Western, The Great Northfield Minnesota Raid (1972), Robert Duvall―an actor now known for his critical portrayals of charismatic religions in films such as The Apostle (1997)―stages a prophetic utterance to determine Northfield,

Minnesota as the next site of exploit. This revival-type soliloquy, along with the snake-handling allusion of the 2007 film, construes Jesse James in terms of both violent outlawry and religious extremism. If film is to any degree a barometer of cultural perceptions on a subject, both Pitt and Duvall’s scenes are commentaries on the close relationship between religion and violence. Serpent-handling is one visible face of these tensions.

A lightning-rod of controversy, serpent-handling is a contentious practice on multiple levels. As popular media attest, the ritual is a filmic symbol of North American religion. More specifically, it is an iconic metonym of U. S. Pentecostalism. Protestants live deeply material lives, as scholars have argued (McDannell, 1995), and some of them interact with prayer cloths, guitars, bottled anointing oils, thick hymnbooks, and worn family Bibles in densely intertwined networks of objects and quasi-objects of the Latourian sort (1993). In obedience to what they see as clear biblical mandate, snake-handling Pentecostals take up canebrake rattlers and copperheads—and on rare occasions, cottonmouths or diamondbacks—living objects that have the potential to strike and kill their bearers. Snakes are living agents and dangerous ritual objects.

That religion manifests in violence often finds itself made light of in pop cultural depictions, such as in Duvall’s expert mimicry of a Southern preacher’s drawl as he gives his pseudo-prophecy. Is this an uneasy laughter, a nervous chuckle, of sorts, that holds cultural anxieties at bay, and perhaps allows viewers to laugh off these ambivalences? Cultural depictions of serpent-handlers are often cynically comical in their accounts. Moe Szyslak, a character in The Simpsons, brandishes bandaged hands and refuses to join Homer’s new religion, saying, “I was born a snake handler, and I’ll die a snake handler.” More recently, comedian Will Ferrell plays Cam Brady, a Democratic Congressman from North Carolina in The Campaign (2012). In this irreverent parody of the American political system, Brady attempts to assuage the public’s concern that he is not really a Christian by joining a serpent-handling congregation. All this occurs after his political opponents shame him for not being able to publicly recite the Lord’s Prayer. “I have the power in me!” he exclaims, dancing in a group of other handlers at the front of a small church that brims with visibly ecstatic worshipers. “I could do this forever. These snakes love me.” Brady’s glee is short lived, though, as one of the snakes predictably strikes, sinking its fangs deep into his forearm. He rips it out, uttering a string of expletives. But even as his sight blurs and he breaks out in feverish sweats, Brady manages to turn the situation for political gain.

In terms of scholarly representation, however, comedies such as The Candidate and long-running favorites like The Simpsons simply get it wrong. While they evidence a cultural uneasiness with the practice, they do not accurately portray the marginalized group in focus. Comical films stereotype and homogenize fringe religious practices; scholarly study elucidates complex social and cultural minutiae. 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. But this is just harmless slapstick comedy, one might claim. It would be all fun and games if it were not for the fact that cultural understandings—public opinion informed by (and informing) common stereotypes—often exhibit themselves at the legislative level.

According to one of the most recent and most thorough studies of Appalachian serpent-handlers, “legislatures and courts have had little real knowledge of serpent-handling churches and therefore have little basis on which to judge whether serpent handling is dangerous to others” (Hood and Williamson 2008, 214). In 1940, Kentucky passed the first law banning “intentional exposure to venomous reptiles” in religious gatherings. Tennessee and Virginia delivered bans of their own in 1947. North Carolina and Alabama followed suit in 1949 and 1950. Notably, North Carolina and Georgia have legislated even further by prohibiting the preaching of beliefs about snake handling, rather than simply banning the practice itself. “Thus in North Carolina and Georgia even preaching from Mark 16:17-18 could be interpreted as a violation of state law,” the authors lament. These sorts of state actions “not only infringe on religious practice but on the right to religious belief as well.” West Virginia, in 1963, passed a bill that made the handling of poisonous serpents a misdemeanor. Both Georgia and Alabama ratcheted up the legal consequences of serpent handling by bringing the crime from a misdemeanor to a felony (Ibid., 208-217).

Two of Hood and Williamson’s arguments are that stereotypes influence legislation and legislation has tended to unconstitutionally limit the practices of snake handlers. Overall, Americans tend to resist approving of religions that might bring physical harm to its devotees. “It is implicit in a commonsense view that religion must be ‘good’ and should not condone rituals that can maim or kill. While this is a reasonable position, it also can be viewed as a prejudice. Why cannot religion legitimately endorse a practice that can maim or kill?” Ultimately, they argue that “despite the fact that serpent handlers are injured and killed, their faith may be both sincere and valid” (Ibid., 209). Stereotypes and prejudices against fringe religious groups like serpent-handlers do not realize the cultural specificity of the rituals, the meaning derived by participants from performance in it. To be certain, the authors do not shy from describing the violent nature of the practice. They go to disquietingly specific lengths, in fact, to describe the physical effects of snake bites and admit that increased handling of snakes actually increases rather than decreases the potentiality of attacks (Ibid., 87, 85).

Besides attempting to accurately document the rituals of their subjects, the authors contextualize and humanize the snake-handlers, putting faces on the people who engage in the rituals and find theological meaning from the practice—regardless if it is dangerous. Since the origins of U.S. Pentecostalism, they point out, there have been under a total of 100 documented fatalities due to serpent-handling rituals. In the interview, Williamson points out the irony that state governments feel the need to prohibit the religious practice while turning a blind eye to excessively dangerous sporting activities. Consider, for instance, that between 1931 and 2008 some 1,013 fatalities occurred due to athletic participation in the sport of (American) football (Mueller and Colgate, 2009), a (quasi-religious) ritual in its own right. Further, the authors examine stereotypes themselves, finding that when exposed to ethnographic data, critical outsiders actually softened their opinions and became more empathetic in their understandings of the handlers (Hood and Williamson 2008, 222). Practitioners do die from snake bites, but these deaths are uncommon exceptions. The snake-handling rituals, in terms of safety, are actually quite contained: “Experienced researchers know that church members and observers are not endangered by others who are handling serpents.” There is also “no documented case of a non-handling member being bitten by a serpent handled by another believer” (Ibid., 214). Those who handle are consenting adults, to apply a term with heavy cultural baggage, and as little as ten to fifteen percent of congregants handle the snakes in services. Children do not participate, and those not handling the serpents sit apart from the ritual as it proceeds. In short, Hood and Williamson find that serpent-handlers have largely been misrepresented in both cultural stereotypes as well as legal precedent. They intend their study to address some of these issues.

My response to Hood and Williamson’s theses is mixed. With Russell McCutcheon’s critic/caretaker binary echoing in my mind (2001), passages arguing that the faith of the handlers “may be both sincere and valid” through an application of Soren Kierkegaard’s “teleological suspension of the ethical” (Hood and Williamson 2008, 209) seem to me at first to step well beyond the qualifications of the scholar of religion. What place do scholars have in evaluation of the quality and sincerity of a group’s theological systems of belief and action? Further, are academics scholars or activists? Are we to study particular people groups or argue on behalf of and in support of them? At points the authors come across as explicit advocates or spokespersons for these marginalized Pentecostal churches. We would do wrong, however, to dismiss the work as it is the most sustained and nuanced study on the subject to-date. Have not subaltern studies scholars taught us that all academic writings are political acts, produced within privileged positions of power and prestige? Scholars, especially those studying living peoples, cannot ignore the fact that we have ethical obligations towards our subjects of study. For those of us who work with human subjects, pre-research training and approval through Institutional Review Board (IRB) requirements are constant reminders of these obligations. As primarily an ethnographic work, Hood and Williamson’s study rightly falls under the category of critical ethnography as it assumes “an ethical responsibility to address processes of unfairness or injustice within a particular lived domain,” in anthropologist D. Soyini Madison’s words (2005, 5; emphasis original).

There are no easy solutions for these issues. Hood has gone as far as calling for those who have died from snake-bite related complication to be lauded for their willingness to follow biblical mandate (find the Washington Post article here). In response, other scholars have allowed for an empathetic respect, of sorts, but reject that lauding need occur. Still others argue that endorsement via lauding, respect, and empathy is a less relevant construct that should have little bearing on whether or not a scholar effectively understands a phenomenon. Toward the end of Brad Pitt’s scene, he turns the tables on viewers’ expectations. He discusses with the young Robert Ford how good the snakes taste fried, how he gives snakes the names of his enemies before he eats them. Then in one fell action he flattens the heads of the serpents across a table and decapitates them. If one doubts the allusion to the Pentecostal ritual, a woman vocalizes “Amazing Grace” in the background. The decapitated snakes writhe around the outlaw’s arm. This is only one possible interpretation of a symbolically polysemous scene, of course, but one cannot help but read into it one’s own theorizations. Is this not serpent-handling with a shocking twist, a bloodied reversal of viewer expectation? Pitt adds violence to violence as he underscores the controversial American ritual. Films of this sort obscure the ritual¾making it even more foreign and violent, so to say¾but as scholars of religion we must work to elucidate and understand it.

This material is disseminated under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License. and can be distributed and utilised freely, provided full citation is given.

About the Author

Picture 118Travis is an associate instructor and doctoral student at Indiana University (Bloomington) in religious studies and anthropology (doctoral major and minor emphases, respectively). His primary research interests include contemporary evangelicalism, pentecostalism, revivalism, and televangelism, with excursions into theory of religion and the body, materiality, cognition, gender, media, anthropology of film, and visual culture. Travis is an ethnographer by methodological trade. His published works include “Marjoe Gortner, Imposter Revivalist: Toward a Cognitive Theory of Religious Misbehavior” (PentecoStudies 12.1 (2013): 83-105, and “‘Cooking with Gordon’: Food, Health, and the Elasticity of Evangelical Gender Roles (and Belt Sizes) on The 700 Club” (Religion & Gender 3.1 (2013): 107-123. He also writes informally about his academic work on his personal blog, “Mythology & Footnotes.”

References

  • Hood, Ralph W. and W. Paul Williamson. Them That Believe: The Power and Meaning of the Christian Serpent-Handling Tradition. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2008.
  • Latour, Bruno. We Have Never Been Modern. Trans. Catherine Porter. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1993.
  • Madison, D. Soyini. Critical Ethnography: Method, Ethics, and Performance. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, 2005.
  • McCutcheon, Russell T. Critics Not Caretakers: Redescribing the Public Study of Religion. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2001.
  • McDannell, Colleen. Material Religion: Religion and Popular Culture in America. New Haven, Yale University Press, 1995.
  • Mueller, Frederick O. and Bob Colgate. “Annual Survey of Football Injury Research, 1931-2012.” Unpublished paper, prepared for the American Football Coaches Association, National Collegiate Athletic Association, and The National Federation of State High School Association, 2013.

Paul Williamson on Serpent Handling

Paul Williamson

Paul Williamson

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.

WP WilliamsonW. 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.”

References:

  • 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.