Imagine and Indiana” (Covington 669). Snake handling was

Imagine
you are at the alter with a priest who is willing to let a snake bite you. You
are timid, scared, and unsure if you will live. You cry out for help from God,
but the venom circulates through your body, proving your state of faith. This
practice is called snake handling.  Told from three different
perspectives, Adelaide Lyle, sheriff Clem Barefield. and nine-year-old Jess
Hall, A Land More Kind Than Home by
Wiley Cash, is about a story of snake handling and faith gone sour, and a
community that follows a false prophet even when the methods lead to the deaths
of members of the community. Wiley Cash’s novel was influenced by the fact that
he was born and raised in Appalachia. In this essay I will explain the positive
and negative impacts that the passion for God and the Bible has on the Madison
County community in A Land More Kind Than
Home.

            Snake handling, also called “serpent
handling”, is a religious ritual that took place in small churches located “in
the United States, including the man said to have started the whole thing,
George Went Hensley, who died vomiting blood in a shed in north Florida in
1955. Hensley began handling around 1910 and had been bitten more than four
hundred times before the fatal strike. Scholars attribute to him the spread of
snake handling beyond Grasshopper Valley, Tennessee, into Kentucky, the
Carolinas, Virginia, Ohio, and Indiana” (Covington 669). Snake handling was usually
characterized as rural and part of the Holiness movement. The practice of snake
handling began in the early 1900’s in Appalachia. Although snake handling was a
big deal, it only played a small part in the church service. Usually, “participants
are either Holiness, Pentecostals, Charismatics or other evangelicals” (Bultmann).
 Practitioners of snake handling found
this practice moral due to verses from the bible. Verses that led to these
practices are in Mark and Luke. In Mark it states, “And these signs shall
follow them that believe: In my name shall they 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” (Mark 16:17-18). In Luke it is states, “Behold, I give unto you
power to tread on serpents and
scorpions, and over all the power of the enemy: and nothing shall by any means hurt you” (Luke 10:19). These quotes
are important because they are what motivates the church to practice snake handling.
With any snake handling church, these quotes are praised and worshiped in ever
service. Also, these quotes show that the idea of snake handling was not meant
to harm anyone but A Land More Kind Than
Home shows that it can negatively affect a whole community by loss of innocence, betrayal of trust, and manipulation
of religion.

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            In the beginning of A Land More Kind Than Home, Adelaide Lyle talks about her experience
with the snake handling church that happened nearly eleven years ago. Adelaide Lyle
witnessed Molly Jameson get poisoned by a snake at the age of seventy-nine. Adelaide
Lyle intensely describes how her cheeks had “started to turn blue, and they had
to tip the water glass into her mouth because her lips were almost swollen
shut” (Cash 5). Cash’s quote shows the detrimental danger that snake handling
can have on a person such as Adelaide Lyle. Although these practices at the
time were praised due to religion, people were dying and becoming sick. Author
Steven M. Kane states, “Many snake-handlers interpret complications or death
from snake bite as evidence that the victim didn’t have enough faith” (260).
The words he states: “complications” and “death”, is heavily stressed in this
situation because “Press reports and devotees indicate that at least
thirty-five persons died between 1936 and 1973 from the effects of poisonous
snake bites” (Kane 260). Although more people live than die, I believe that
forcing poison onto someone is an unhealthy and manipulative way of determining
faith.  In Cash’s novel, Adelaide Lyle mentions
that during the ceremony, while Miss Jameson was dying from a snake bite in
front of the whole church, members of the church including the pastor continued
to sing and dance past Miss Jameson’s death and thrive with the loud, pulsing
music. The deacons of the church picked Miss Jameson’s body up and carried her
past everyone and nobody seemed to care. This shows that deaths caused by snake
handling are not worrisome to intense practitioners of snake handling. On
question arises when thinking about snake handling. Is it really the strength
of faith that determines whether a person dies or not?

As stated in Holy Ghost People: The Snake Handlers of Southern Appalachia by
Steven Kane, “Several factors play a role in determining the
gravity of poisonous snake bite. These include: the age, weight, allergy
complex, and general physical and emotional condition of the victim; the age
and size of the snake; the condition of the snake’s fangs and venom glands, and
the quantity and toxicity of its venom; the presence of various pathogenic
microorganisms in the snake’s mouth; the location of the bite and depth of fang
penetration.” The reason stated by Kane gives more reason to question whether
the snake handling business was dishonest. Digging deeper into Cash’s text,
days later, Miss Jameson’s body was found dead in her garden on Wednesday
evening. She was found dead in a row of tomatoes with a spade in her hand. Her
death had been covered up by the church to prevent rumors of the churches practice
of snake handling. If a church knew that snake handling was healthy for the
whole community, the church would not try to cover up the death of Miss
Jameson. Adelaide Lyle went to the post office to get a stamp for her envelope and
overheard a woman talking to the postman about Miss Jameson’s death. Eventually,
Miss Jameson’s death story proceeded to be that she was attacked in her garden
by a snake. Adelaide Lyle states, “After that I understood that my church
wasn’t no place to worship the Lord in, and I realized I couldn’t stay. I’d
been a member of that church in one way or another since I was a young woman,
but things had been took too far, and I couldn’t pretend to look past them no
more” (Cash 8). When Adelaide Lyle tried to leave the church, the pastor
forefully threatened her with snakes. Religion should never be forced upon
someone. For the pastor to act out this way, proves he is controlling and
shouldn’t have the title of a pastor. Adelaide Lyle realizes the horrible
effects that her church as a young woman had lied to and impacted the
community. Adelaide Lyle has devoted the rest of her time keeping children
during services to protect them from the dangers of snake handling. Throughout
history, preventing children from partaking in snake handling has been a goal.
One reason for this is loss of innocence. Children are born innocent until they
are spiritually ready for snake handling. In a county like Madison county,
parents try to prevent their children from spying on adults, so they don’t ruin
their child hood and begin to uncover reasons for snake handling. Other places
believe that “you cannot turn kids loose in a serpent-handling church” (Coots).
Jess Hall and his 13-year-old brother Christopher, called “Stump” for being
mute. Returned after spending time at the creek, the two boys overhear their
mother, in bed with a man who is not their father. When Stump climbed look
through their parents’ bedroom window, Jess is surprised to see the pastor
Carson Chambliss

The
Sunday after the two boys caught their mom being shady with the pastor,
Chambliss wants to cure Stump’s muteness. When Christopher is unexpectedly
removed from Addie Lyle’s house during the service, Unfortunately, Jess and his
friend Joe Bill sneak away to learn what they can for themselves. Looking in
through a back window of the church, Jess witnesses Stump struggling violently
against the church members who are laying hands on him trying to remove his
muteness with the Holy Ghost. Stump’s death made Ben Hall, his
father, who does not believe in snake handling, go head to head with his wife, the
pastor, and with the sheriff of Madison County. The sheriff is and will continue
to investigate the reasoning for these deaths in the small town. In that moment,
questions were being asked and the family fell apart. For a child to witness
his brother being treated this way can be detrimental to not only him but
others around him. By the end of the book more chaos had struck. Because of
each individual traumatic event explained, the community became frantic. Ben, completely
frazzled at the end, accidently kills his only son left living by shooting him in
the neck with a shotgun.

Although,
there are negative effects placed on the community, one could argue that it is
positive as well. People of the church are in their own world and do things for
God’s purpose. Snake handling was a religious practice therefore, since it was
to worship God, for them it was considered moral. In a religious setting, many
religious people come together for the same reason, to embrace their love for a
higher power. This can be the most powerful feeling a person can endure. I
remember when I used to attend church on a regular basis, it was the most
warming feeling I had ever felt due to the spread of love for each other and
God. While reading A Land More Kind Than
Home, I had to keep in mind, that each religion has its own way of worship,
but also understand the practice of snake handling as immoral.