Monday, June 20, 2022

Snake Handling in the early history of the Church of God, Cleveland, TN

 In the developmental years of the Church of God, the leadership and membership supported a very radical form of Christianity. This manifested itself in severe pacifism, asceticism, a dogmatic refusal to watch baseball games, refusal to consult medical professionals, and even snake handling.

On January 24, 1914, A. J. Tomlinson, Overseer of the Church of God, wrote of Church of God meetings, "There are marvelous cases of healing, devils cast out, some of the gifts of the Spirit slightly demonstrated, like as of fire seen, angels seen in our midst, serpents and burning fire handled with no harm to the saints..."

On May 9, 1914, J.B. Ellis (the Ellis of "Atkins-Ellis Hall" at Lee University) wrote extensively of snake handling. It is too lengthy to quote here however, he provides a qualified endorsement arguing that it is a sign of the Holy Spirit not intended for all people, but it serves as a testimony to the power of God.

An unnamed author, I think it was probably A.J. Tomlinson, wrote on September 19, 1914, of a successful Church of God meeting led by Brother Hensley. The piece is extensive but in one particularly interesting portion, the author states, "The power of God was demonstrated successfully... and several handled [the rattlesnake] and no one was injured by it. Some were bitten, but with no damage to them.... On Sunday night Sept. sixth they took in a 'Copperhead.' This was handled with as much success as the first, and many were made believers on account of the demonstration of God's power." This article contains many more accounts of snake handling. But, the author closes, "Beware of presumption. Never try to handle a serpent yourself. Be sure that it is the power of God that compels you... then there is no danger."

In an article entitled "White Heated Love: Necessary for the Development of a Perfect Christian Character," published in volume 5, number 44 of the Church of God Evangel the writer notes that members of the Church of God are "Christ-like in their conversation, clean in their lives, free from sin and able by His power to do wonders in healing, signs of tongues, taking up serpents..."

In notes from the Church of God General Assembly of 1914 it is stated, "Our people are taking up serpents and literally handling fire with no harm."

One of the most telling quotes from this period is from the November 21st, 1914 issue of the Church of God Evangel. It reads, "it is true, that poison serpents are taken up and handled any way with no injury to those exercised by the power of God. A few years ago if some one should have mentioned such a thing he would have been considered a fanatic, but among us now it is only looked upon as one of the signs that are expected to follow believers."

There are countless other examples, but to continue to list them is only to belabor a point that is well made. The Church of God (Cleveland, TN) endorsed snake handling from about 1910 until around 1930. To members of the Church of God: do not be ashamed of your church's past. Be proud of spiritual predecessors; those peculiar people who did their best to praise God the only way they knew how. They, like everyone, incorporated their folkways and rural identity into their search for a transcendent experience of the divine. In some cases, the resulting mixture was transformative and endures in Pentecostalism to this day; in other cases, the result was more mutable. Regardless, what is revealed here is the depth of conviction regarding faith. Theirs was not a convenient faith, it was not a popular faith, but it was their faith, sincerely held and fervently practiced.

Last Word: I am putting this together quickly in an attempt to answer a tweet, so I apologize for any grammatical/spelling/writing errors. The writing may be clumsy, but I stand fully behind the research.
You can check some of my sources at the Consortium of Pentecostal Archives.

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