Folklife: The Holy Ghost People of Appalachia
In 1967, Antioch College student, Peter Adair, narrated and directed his first prize-winning documentary about a fundamentalist Pentecostal church of serpent handlers. This documentary was filmed on location at Scrabble Creek Church of All Nations near Gauley Bridge, West Virginia.
Serpent-handling was introduced to Scrabble Creek in 1941 by a coal miner from Harlan, Kentucky. Adair’s film captures the raw charismatic Pentecostal worship service where members believe in the manifestations of the Holy Spirit including signs and wonders, prophecy, miraculous faith healing, speaking in tongues and discerning of spirits. Adair’s father invited him on a field trip to Appalachia and brought his Bolex 16mm camera.
“He took me to this church with the snake handlers, and I decided that I wanted to make a film about it,” recalls Adair.
The snake handlers were outcast in their community and were considered crazy. But Adair understood their ritual and meaning in the midst of their hardship and he admired their “anarchistic” services. The film debuted at a private showing in San Francisco’s Surf Theater. A famous photographer Imogen Cunningham admired the documentary so much that she helped Adair get Holy Ghost People into the New York Film Festival.
The documentary is considered a classic of ethnographic filmmaking and is still shown nationwide across major university and college campuses. The documentary gave media attention to the small Scrabble Creek church and the Pentecostal mountain people became known as “The Holy Ghost People of Appalachia.”
The Pentecostal Revival Movement
Around the turn of the 19th century, Appalachia historically identified with Old School Primitive Baptist. In concert with Primitive Baptist, independent Holiness churches also attracted popularity from the Great Pentecostal Revival that swept across the Appalachian frontier. These small Holiness groups would become synonymous with Appalachia more than any other denomination. The primitive faith of Pentecostalism has been shunned by most major churches.
Pentecostalism has been referred to as “the people’s religion” and has been the most influential and fastest growing religion of Christianity worldwide. “Pentecostal” comes from the Book of Acts and the event of Pentecost, where early Christians received the gifts of the Holy Spirit. Pentecostalism delivers flamboyant evangelism with their unique belief that an individual can serve as a conduit for supernatural gifts endowed by the Holy Ghost. These gifts can be “speaking in tongues”, “laying on hands”, prophecy, discernment and faith healing. Pentecostals are also distinguished by their own folk traditions and religious vocal expression.
The post-Civil War Holiness movement opposed the rationalism of the established churches and emphasized moral perfection. Charles Parham, the Godfather of the Pentecostal movement, started out as a pastor at the age of 20 at Eudora Methodist Church in Lawrence, Kansas. Parham’s theology conflicted with his Methodist superiors with his belief in sanctification, baptism by the Holy Spirit and divine healing. He advocated the return of fundamental teachings of the scriptures. Parham eventually broke from all denominations and started his own evangelical ministry of the holiness movement.
By 1913, independent Pentecostal organizations began to form within the movement creating the Church of God, Assemblies of God and United Pentecostal Church. Pentecostalism began attracting the poor, uneducated and diverse groups of people from different cultures and races. Amazing defeat considering at the time our nation was very racially divided with segregation along with the birth of Jim Crow laws.
Pentecostalism was given a public platform when Agnes Ozman began speaking in tongues during a revival at Parham’s Bethel Bible College in Topeka, Kansas. According to other students, a halo surrounded both her face and head and she starting speaking Chinese. Before long, other students began speaking unknown languages. It was said that Agnes could not speak English for three days and was only able to write in Chinese characters. Word spread quickly about the event and Pentecostalism began to attract more members. Parham closed Bethel Bible and expanded his ministry to spread the word to other locations.
Pentecostalism exploded when William Seymour, a former student of Parham and son of a freed slave, started preaching out of a converted livery stable in Los Angeles. The Pentecostal experience of “speaking in tongues” burst out onto the scene.
The Azusa Street Revival was born and spread across the nation. It was called America’s third Great Awakening. The revival went on day and night for more than three years. The Los Angeles Times ran a front-page story on the revival.
Seymour received a lot of criticism from outsiders for his mixed-race revivals, but he still attracted followers. The Azusa Street Revival was the most influential revival in the history of the Holiness movement.
Several pastors from the Church of God, located in Cleveland, Tennessee traveled to Los Angeles to observe this new sect called Pentecostalism.
Upon their return to Appalachia, the word began to spread about the Holy Ghost baptism. All mainline Pentecostal denominations today can trace their historical roots to the Azusa Street Revival.
They Shall Take Up Serpents
Using snakes in Pentecostal worship services began somewhere around 1909. George Hensley, an evangelical minister, started using snakes in his service at a church in the Grasshopper Valley community in Tennessee. Hensley focused on a bible scripture passage in the Gospel of Mark 16:17-18, “And these signs shall follow them that believe; In my name they shall cast out devils; they shall speak with new tongues. They shall take up serpents; and if they drink any deadly thing, it shall not hurt them; they shall lay hands on the sick, and they shall recover.” Hensley died of a snake bite in 1955 but as the congregation will remind you, even though the Bible says to take up serpents, it doesn’t say they won’t bite.
Serpent handlers believe handling deadly snakes is one way of demonstrating faith in God. Hensley’s use of snakes in worship established a unique and harshly criticized practice of Christianity. Snake handling rituals have survived through the ages despite being outlawed in every state except West Virginia. In North Carolina, it is illegal to cause “continuous human exposure to reptiles of a venomous nature” and punishable by a $500 fine or six months in jail. The type of venomous snakes vary but are usually timber rattlers, copperheads, and sometimes even cobras. Some congregations also included handling fire using coal-oil torches using the Book of Daniel in which Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego are cast into the fiery furnace.
The film records the overseer of the small Scrabble Creek church, Elzie Preast introducing several guests and comments to the congregation, “This is a free church. We don’t have any program to follow. Things just happen as the Holy Ghost moves us. You’re free to do what you and believe what you want.”
The Scrabble Creek church has been described as a small building with no signs or crosses to indicate it is a place of worship. The main sanctuary measures approximately 20 by 40 feet and is usually packed with 200 or more members.
The pews are made from old bus seats that are usually at capacity leaving the rest of the congregation standing room only. Prayer begins the service with the congregation praying aloud simultaneously. Serpent-handling during services usually lasts 15 or 20 minutes within a four or more hour meeting. The service has special music presentations of singing hymns, dancing in the spirit, testifying, faith healing and foot washing.
Peter Adair’s film documents an unbiased account of snake-handling. Adair narrates the beginning of the film giving a brief introduction and then allows others to speak for themselves through personal interviews from the parishioners and members of the church. One gentlemen comments as to why the church has no pastor, “Because, one of God’s children just as good and close to the Lord as any other.” Near the end of the documentary, Preast is speaking to the congregation and is bitten by a copperhead. While he cleans the blood from his hand, he tells the members “If I die with this snake bite, it’s still God’s word, just the same.
Whether we die or live by it, it’s still God’s word.” Preast ends the sermon stating, “Every individual soul is a creation of God. Makes no difference where they’re from, who they are, what color they are, they’re God’s creation because by one blood he made all nations.” His poignant statement reminds us that all men were created equal in the eyes of God and should be treated as such.
The Holy Rollers
I grew up in the Pentecostal faith despite the controversy that surrounds the Holiness movement. I have witnessed my mother speaking in tongues, falling out in the spirit, laying on hands and miraculous healings during revival services. She was baptized in the Holy Spirit and received the gift of prophecy, discernment and music. I can testify that my mother could not carry a tune to save her life! But after her baptism of the Holy Spirit, she sings like a songbird and has been the official music director of the Church of God for over 30 years. To this day, she still fascinates me with her devotion and the abundance of spiritual wisdom she loves to teach.
To an outsider, the worship service may seem bizarre and ludicrous. Traditional church services are quiet and simple with a certain cadence and structure. Our church was loud, joyful and probably broke a few noise ordinances back in the day. Pentecostals dance in the spirit, shout, clap and pray out loud during worship. Amazingly enough, my pastor was a woman, Rev. Agnes Baker which was rare in major churches. The Pentecostal church was one of the first religious groups to ordain women into leadership roles. Our congregation greeted each other as brothers and sisters.
We sang old-timey music hymns of the sweet bye and bye and just about every service was closed with the heart-tugging emotional hymn, “Just As I Am”. It was a powerful song to play when trying to bring lost souls to the altar. The church doctrine forbade women to wear makeup, jewelry, pants or cut their hair. The derogatory term other Christians called us was, “Holy Rollers” and labeled us as a Christian cult. The term “Holy Roller” is used by outside denominations to describe people literally rolling on the floor in an uncontrolled manner. Today Pentecostals have reclaimed the term as a badge of honor.
An Endangered Tradition
Snake handling is an endangered practice in Appalachia and may soon only exist in folklore. The most important event in the history of serpent handling happened in 1922 when Jim Reece was the first recorded death of a snake bite in Alabama. As churches institutionalized the ritual of handling snakes, snake bites became more frequent and newspapers began to report more deaths as a result. Pentecostal denominations began to back away from the ritual and abandoned the practice. Today, many Appalachian snake handlers have gone underground and continue to traditionally practice their art of taking up serpents.
West Virginia is the home of several serpent-handling churches because it’s the only state where the practice is not illegal. Snake handling churches are considered independent and often call themselves “signs following” churches and are continually under scrutiny. Congregations have grown smaller and meet in various type of dwellings other than a designated church. Handlers learn by word of mouth from other churches and do not announce their presence. A tradition that has been passed down from generation to generation can no longer rely on its survival. There are only a few snake-handling churches left throughout Appalachia.
Where Are They Now
Peter Adair’s documentary is now available all people to view. Spoiler Alert! Reverend Elzie Preast did not die of a snake bite during this documentary. Preast was bitten nine times in the 35 years that he handled snakes and passed away in 2002.
The Preast family and members of the Scrabble Creek church have since built a new church and services are held every Friday evening with a once a month service on the second Sunday. After Adair’s documentary, several professors visited the area to study the serpent phenomenon.
A former University of Charleston sociologist, Dr. Nathan Gerrard studied the serpent phenomenon. He administered a psychological test to the Scrabble Creek members and gave the same test to the nearby Methodist Church as a control group. The serpent handlers came out mentally healthier. Harvey Cox, a Harvard theologian accompanied Dr. Gerrard to a snake-handling worship service in Boone County.
When the congregation began their trancelike “dancing in the spirit”, Dr. Gerrard was surprised to see Dr. Cox jump up and join the celebration! So the Holy Ghost people of Appalachia may seem bizarre and ludicrous, but they ain’t crazy.
The full documentary can be viewed here.
Do you love all things Appalachia? Then you might enjoy Sitting Up With the Dead: Lost Appalachian Burial Customs and Folklife: The Vanishing Grave Houses of Appalachia.