Appalachian Religious Serpent Handling


Poisonous Serpents have been handled by devout Appalachian believers since the early 1920s. Handling serpents is considered, by those in the practice, to be one of the five signs mentioned in Mark 16. Those in this Pentecostal/Holiness sect feel that believers should manifest at least some of the signs. Although these fine folks have been ridiculed for their worship, and have often suffered death, serpent handling persists in Appalachia. This pathfinder and bibliography include all found published information concerning the practice, including all aspects such as deaths, legality, fictional sources, bibliographies, encyclopedia entries, etc.

Introductory Text: 

Thomas Burton’s book, Serpent Handling Believers, offers a comprehensive description of the practice, and is an excellent starting point.

Burton, Thomas. Serpent Handling Believers. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1993. App Coll BX7990.H6 B87 1993

Library of Congress Subject Headings: 
  • Library of Congress Headings:
  • Most Relevant:
  • Church of God with Signs Following-History
  • Snake Cults (Holiness Churches)
  • Snake Cults (Holiness Churches) Appalachian Region, Southern
  • Snake Cults (Holiness Churches) Southern States
  • Serpents, Religious Aspects
  • Serpents, Religious Aspects-Christianity
  • Serpent Worship-Southern States
  • Psychology, Religious
  • Clippings File Headings:
  • “Snake Cults”
  • “Religion”
Library of Congress Call Numbers: 
  • BL441
  • BX7990

Thomas Burton, mentioned above, and Ralph Hood are two of the most noted scholars concerning serpent handling.
Hood, Ralph W. Them That Believe: The Power and Meaning of the Christian Serpent-Handling Tradition. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2008. App Coll BX7990.H6 H66 2008

Kimbrough, David. Taking Up Serpents: Snake Handlers of Eastern Kentucky. Georgia: Mercer University of Press, 1995. App Coll BX7990.H6 K46 1995

La Barre, Weston. They Shall Take Up Serpents: Psychology of the Southern Snake Handling Cult. New York: Schocken Books, 1969. ASU Main Stacks BL441.L3 1969

McDonald, Jeanne and Fred Brown. The Serpent Handlers: Three Families and Their Faith. Winston-Salem: John Blair, 2000. App Coll BX7990.H6 B76 2000

Pelton, Robert. Snake Handlers: God Fearers or Fanatics. Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1974. App Coll BX7990.H6 P38

Guides, Encyclopedias, and Dictionaries: 

Appalachian Collection:
Burton, Thomas. “Serpent Handling.” Encyclopedia of Appalachia. Eds. Ruby Abramson and Jean Haskell. Knoxville, TN: University of Tennessee, 2006. 1351-1353. App Coll F106.E53 2006

Belk Library:
Kane, Steven. “Serpent Handlers.” The New Encyclopedia of Southern Culture: Volume 1 Religion. Ed. Samuel Hill. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2006. 211-212. ASU Main Stacks F209.N47 2006 v.1

Abstracts and Indices: 

Relevant search headings are “Snake Cults” and “Holiness Serpent”

America: History & Life
Relevant search headings are “Snake Handling” and “Serpent Handling”

Sociological Abstracts
Relevant search headings are “Serpent Handling” and “Snake Handling”


Appalachian Journal has published several articles over the years that concern serpent handlers, and includes reviews of books related to the topic.

Appalachian Journal (v. 1-35, 1972- )

Subject Headings Frequently Used in Journals:

Snake Cults

Serpent Handling


Smith, Colin. SOC 257: New Religious Movements. Course home page. Serpent Handlers aka Snake Handlers and the Signs Following Movement. May 1998. Department of Sociology, U of Virginia. 27 October 2008 <>.

Compiled by: 

Compiler: Joshua Noah, 9 December 2008