When covering Pentecostal serpent handlers, reporters shouldn't settle for a quick hit

I recently come out with a book on 20-something Appalachian Pentecostal serpent handlers who publicize their exploits on social media, so I know a few things about what it’s like to cover this unusual group. I’ve handled a lot of topics on the religion beat, but this was one of the most difficult.

First, most of their churches are tough to find, as they typically wish to stay hidden from the media. Worship, to them, is not a spectator sport and services are four hours or more. Most of these churches are tucked into remote corners of eastern Kentucky and Tennessee; south West Virginia, western North Carolina, the northeastern tip of Alabama, western Virginia and northwestern Georgia.

You need to earn the trust of those handling the snakes. You don’t just walk into a service and expect to be handed the right to interview people or take photographs. It takes several visits to for them to know you. I stuck out because I was bringing a 7-year-old with me.

I was also fortunate that the photographer I worked with for my first article on these folks, which ran in late 2011 in the Washington Post, had done all the prior groundwork for this first encounter. That meant that I simply needed to drive 420 miles from inside the Beltway to a famous church in Jolo, W. Va., and stay there three days.

I learned these handlers are some of the most vilified people in American religion. I explain why in a Wall Street Journal “Houses of Worship” column running today. It says, in part:

In 40 years covering religion, I’ve rarely seen a religious group receive as much vitriol as the serpent-handler community. Yet the handlers have a fascinating ability to withstand torrents of abuse and ridicule. I was afraid of them myself once. But after spending time in their churches, I found kind, likable people who struggle to get through life like everyone else.

Thanks to a reality show, "Snake Salvation," on two serpent-handling families that ran in September 2013 on the National Geographic Channel, coverage of this culture has exploded. All sorts of media flocked to eastern Tennessee when one of the photogenic leaders of the movement ended up in court. The following February, Jamie Coots, one of the stars of the reality show, died at the age of 42 from rattlesnake bite, leading to more coverage.

A lot of handlers have faded into the woodwork since then, but there are still reporters out there seeking to cover this culture. Some contact me, as I’ve written the most recent book on the topic, which is called "In the House of the Serpent Handler." I still have a current file of phone numbers of serpent-handling pastors. Others go it on their own.

In this post, I’ll spotlight some of the good -- and bad -- examples among the recent stuff, beginning with Sammy Fretwell’s July 9 article for The (S.C.) State on how the marketing of reptiles is an unregulated industry in South Carolina.

When fundamentalist preacher Jamie Coots died after handling a snake during a church service four years ago, it led to a flurry of news reports about the circumstances surrounding his death and why he would hold a serpent to show religious faith.

But little was said about where Coots got the timber rattler that killed him or the collection of other snakes kept at Coots’ church in the mountains of eastern Kentucky.
It turns out that Coots bought some of his snakes in South Carolina, one of the few states with virtually no restrictions on the sale of venomous serpents.
South Carolina has, through the years, provided snakes that serpent-handling preachers use at Sunday services because the Palmetto State, unlike many jurisdictions, doesn’t limit the sale of venomous snakes, state officials in South Carolina, Tennessee and Kentucky say.

This was a unique angle I'd seen nowhere else: From whence come the poisonous snakes that kill some of the serpent-handlers? What follows is a lengthy article on how unregulated the reptile sales industry is in that state.

As an example of what not to do re serpent-handler coverage, here’s a disaster of a June 15 Agence France-Presse story. It employs every cliché possible:

SQUIRE (UNITED STATES) (AFP) -- The tiny community of Squire, West Virginia, near a coal mine in the Appalachian mountains is made up of a few scattered houses, a car wash, and one of the few remaining Pentecostal Signs churches.
With old fashioned apostolic gospel music echoing through the small wooden building, members of the congregation dance and spin in a trance as Pastor Chris Wolford reaches into a box and pulls out a three-foot long timber rattlesnake, a test of faith.

First, there are not “a few” such churches left. Plus, these folks are not in a trance. They’re involved in worship, yes. In a trance: No. I’ve sat through many hours of these services and no one is in a real trance.

Then, a few paragraphs down, the writer misquotes Mark 16:17-18 –- or uses a translation that is very freewheeling. I always used the King James Version of the text, because that’s what the handlers themselves use.

Then the writer quotes a professor from Catholic University, some 400 miles away from this part of West Virginia. Note to reporters: At least try to find an academic who is in one of the Appalachian states and knows the basic facts about this phenomenon. Ralph Hood from the University of Tennessee/Chattanooga, is the national expert on this stuff.

One thing I noticed at the many services I attended is there was often someone from a European media outlet filming the worshippers. Serpent-handling is uniquely American and the folks from across the pond like to pound home the point of how crazy American religion is by running stories about these churches.

The YouTube video atop this post is a good example of a look-at-those-crazed-religious-Americans mentality. Filmed by an Australian news magazine called Sunday Night, the segment opens with an announcement of it being about "the snake preachers" which they aren't at all. A lurid backdrop proclaims "strange obsession." A voice over intones, "It's been called a religion. It's been branded a cult. The lethal sect of the snake."

Gimme a break. It's not a "sect," for starters. These people are Pentecostal Holiness believers, similar to Kim Davis, the Rowan County, Ky., county clerk who refused to sign marriage licenses for gay couples. Davis isn't a snake handler but she eschews makeup, doesn't cut her hair and follows similar practices of Holiness women. 

In its June 3 editions, the Register-Herald, a newspaper in Beckley, W. Va., ran quite a package on the same church that AFP profiled.

This was much better written than the AFP piece. It centered on Chris Wolford, the brother of Mack Wolford, a serpent handler who died in 2012 from rattlesnake bite. I covered Mack’s death here. Six years later, the other Wolford has filled his brother’s shoes.

(Wolford) says anyone who attends his church is given the option to not handle a serpent or sip on poison; nothing is forced. He says it all boils down to faith.
“It’s the word of God; you can’t debate it. It says so in scripture, but if you don’t have the faith, don’t take part,” Wolford said. “I’ve got the Bible to back up my faith, but if you don’t see that and you don’t feel it, then don’t do it. It’s not the time.
“You won’t be looked down upon. You do it when you’re ready, when you have the faith. You’ll know. God will move when he knows you’re ready.”

Getting any of these churches to allow photos and video is a feat, so I have to hand it to the Register-Herald for closing the deal. The folks there probably realized how they’d missed covering Mack Wolford’s death in a big way back in 2012, so they’re tracking Wolford’s brother Chris.

One thing to remember while covering these folks is that they truly appreciate stories that talk about the realities and challenges of their lives -- not just the snake part. In the Journal column, I expressed their frustration here:

TV footage notwithstanding, snake handling is a tiny part of what goes on in these small, rural churches. They have preaching, prayer, offerings, announcements and worship like everyone else. Ralph Hood, a University of Tennessee professor and expert on this group, says most of these churches prohibit photographers and film crews because media visitors are fixated on the snakes. “They feel they preach for three hours and handle serpents for five minutes,” yet all the images are of people handling serpents, he told me.

Like good journalism everywhere, it takes time to record the complexities of these Pentecostals. Scoring a quick hit by attending one service really doesn’t do it. For those of you wishing to pick up where I and others have left off, it's more difficult than it was back in 2012-2014, where more preachers and churches were willing to be photographed. Several factors --  including the reality show, Jamie Coots' death and moral failures among some of the 20-something handlers I was covering -- persuaded most of the other serpent-handling pastors to duck for cover. 

Plus, Ralph Hood told me, longtime leaders in this movement, who've been quietly running their churches with no publicity, feel reporters aren't really interested in their lives.

"They (reporters) only write about these people when they get bit and die," he said. "It’s like writing the history of Catholicism while only talking about pedophile priests. There’s such a distortion. There are churches under the radar, that are successful and that don’t want reporters."

Which is not to say you can't show up, but the days of the quick hit are over.

The above photo of Andrew Hamblin holding a snake was taken in by John-David Hatch and is the same photo that appears on the cover of "In the House of the Serpent Handler."

Please respect our Commenting Policy