[spreading the good news - if old news - about snake shakers sent to their eternal glory, they think. it is the wrongest thing in the world to pass laws against the stuff described below; far better to let nature take its course with these albino apes]
ONLINE EXCLUSIVE: Oct. 15, 1961 snake-handling story
Bluefield Daily Telegraph
EDITOR’S NOTE: The following story is from the Oct. 15, 1961, edition of the Bluefield Daily Telegraph. Due to an archive glitch, one paragraph in the story was intelligible.
By BURL OSBORNE
Associated Press Staff Writer
Her eyes burned at the crowd in the tiny coalfield church at Jolo in McDowell county.
“I gave up one of my children to this, and I’m not backing up from the stiff-necked, uncircumcised who never knew God.”
Mrs. Robert Elkins, self-appoionted leader of the snake handling Church in Jesus was “testifying.” It had been barely two weeks since her 23-year-old daughter died after a four-foot rattlesnake bit her during worship service at the church.
The death — which came after medical attention twice was refused — brought promises of an anti-snake handling law from aroused members of the state legislature.
Will Defy Law
But Mrs. Elkins served notice that “if they pass a law against handling snakes, we’ll handle them anyhow.
“I’m letting God fight my battle,” she said. “You think I’m going to let some of these little judges and lawyers make me back up on my salvation — No.!”
The practice of handling serpents in religious services already has been outlawed in neighboring states. As one result, Virginians from across the nearby state line were sprinkled among the 200 or more persons who turned out for this Sunday night service.
Many who attended were no more than curious. Others came to worship — but from a distance. And a few — perhaps half a dozen — came to handle the snakes and drink the poison to prove their faith.
The ritual is performed in a small frame building locked in the coal fields of Southern West Virginia by rugged mountains and narrow, twisting roads. The people are as rugged as the mountains.
Should Have own Wife
“We don’t believe in no cigarettes, smoking tobacco or back talk,” Mr. Elkins declared. A chorus of voices answered, “she’s right.” “Every man should have his own wife, she said.
The service had started slowly. The building equipped with unpainted wooden benches, couldn’t contain the crowd. Late comers stood by the highway and peered through open windows.
Bare bulbs lighted the church. A small platform was raised in front. Eight men and six women sat there on hand-made wooden benches. The platform is known to members as “The Holy of Holies.”
The elderly women wore full gingham dresses, ankle length. Their hair was uncut and rolled in tight knots. None wore makeup.
Over a hum of conversation, two electric guitars and a piano were playing spirituals, heads bobbed, keeping time, feet patted the floor. A little girl bounced to the rhythm on her mother’s knee.
The old upright piano quickened the pace. It was “Take My Hand Precious Lord.” The congregation chanted with the melody.
A fruit jar containing a colorless liquid rested on the pulpit, in the center of the platform. It was said to be strychnine.
Beneath the benches on the platform were screened-in boxes. More than a dozen rattlesnakes and copperheads coiled inside, ready to be handled. Plain leather toes tapped in rhythm. A slight vibration could be felt running through the floor. Many stood and added clapping to the tapping.
Robert Elkins, playing a guitar, halted the music long enough to caution, “I want to make it clear ... We are not responsible for anybody who goes into the serpent box — we don’t put them on anybody.
Then they prayed. All individually. All aloud.
It started as a humming entreaty. The murmur became a chant. From kneeling positions, arms were upraised. Fists were clinched. The chant climaxed to a fever pitch, then subsided. Music resumed.
They sang “I’m getting ready.” Most of those at the front were standing.
The toe-tapping had became foot-stomping. The platform rocked.
The chanting grew to a fevered throbbing. The building rocked. Then on the platform, two men arms — uplifted, eyes closed, expressions blank — started moving, slowly at first, then into a sort of convulsive dance, to the beat of the music.
One sipped from the live jar of clear-liquid. Their dance carried them nearer and nearer the snake boxes. Three women had started to dance. A teenage girl, face flushed but expressionless, joined them ...
*paragraph of story unavailable*
A plump matron, apparently in her 50s or 80s, smiled vacantly and picked up a snake. She held its head near her hand. A forked tongue darted out, but the snake did not strike.
She put down the rattler and brought out a handful of young copperheads. Coddling them in both hands, she lifted the writhing mass to the knot of hair atop her head, and continued to dance. Church members cal it the “Holy Dance,” inspired by God.
A lank gray-haired man took one rattler in each hand. He looked back and dared, “you want one of ‘em Buddy?”
Spectators were stacked to the ceiling at the back of the room. “All right,” Elkins said, “some one testify — sing, pray, whatever the Lord leads you to do.”
His wife strode to the pulpit. Mrs. Elkins, 42, wore high heels and a straight, royal blue, skirt. A light blue scarf was fastened about the collar of the white blouse she wore. Her auburn hair was done tightly about her head.
Paces To And Fro
“I’m glad for something you can feel,” she said, “I’m glad when He saved me He give me the dance, and a new heart and a new life.”
She paced to and fro cross the platform.
“I’m glad we’re not yet living in a state of communism,” I wouldn’t live in a state like that, unless they passed the law all over, and even if they did, we’d worship anyway.
“They won’t even go down in the serpent box; they won’t even pick up a little bottle of strychnine.”
A minister in the Church of Christ in another McDowell community suggested publicly that “the responsible people of that community would be justified in going inside that church and destroying those snakes.”
“I praise God,” Mrs. Elkins said, “because Dewey was bitten last night” Dewey Chains is her 29-year old son. It was the second time he had been bitten.
“Oh, how the devil wanted to kill him, “ she said, “but it’s not swelled much is it?”
Dewey held up his hand, It’s not bothering me one bit.”
The music picked up and the ritual started all over again. “You don’t find many today who’ll confirm The Word,” said the man who first picked up the snakes. “They are afraid to die — glory to God — it don’t make no difference to me — glory to God — if you’re not willing to suffer — glory to God — then you might as well quit — glory to God ...”
“This is the Holy Ghost that does this. When I’m under the anointing of God, you’re not talking about me, you’re talking about God.”
The rattles whirred.
“We know what we’ve go and we don’t have to guess at it. “This (snake handling) is the heart is the heart of our service. If you take them away, we might as well go home.”
A woman from the front row swayed a cross to the edge of the platform. “I’m afraid of the serpents,” she said, but “I believe the Lord gives us the serpents.” At that she began intoning in her “unknown tongue.”
Then there was praying for healing for a sick infant.
“We believe in worshipping God in the beauty of holiness,” said Mrs. Elkins. “sometimes He anoints us and we handle serpents ... and we drink poison ... and we handle fire, heal the sick ...”
It was getting late when the “minister” at the church, identified only as “brother Carl,” stood for a sermon that lasted no more than three minutes.
“People are looking for too much preaching and not enough demonstrating,” the handsome youth, wily hair combed back, told the crowd.
Then they prayed. All individually. All aloud.