Holy Hillbillies!: The Unique Religion of the Appalachias

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For much of the past week, I’ve been sitting on my office floor, mapping out Christian branches and denominations in magic marker on giant paper. It is a much more significant task than I expected. With estimates of Christian denominations ranging from 200 to 33,000, I had no hope of making sense of it all. (This was done for our “Our Beliefs, Our Faiths” mini exhibit running now. I’m not actually crazy.) I sat on the ground with my papers realizing I’d just fallen into the deep end. No, I’d fallen into Mariana’s Trench. And I was being eaten alive by anglerfish.

 Artist's rendering of me trying to understand Christian denominations. 

Artist's rendering of me trying to understand Christian denominations. 

Narrowing my focus, I decided to research denominations that emerged in our region, which led me to Church of God. A few of the beliefs of the Church of God that differ from mainstream Christianity are speaking in tongues and faith healing. To this yankee, lay on of hands was a cleric’s spell in Dungeons and Dragons and Glossolalia was the word that makes you lose the spelling bee. (And Appalachia is pronounced App-uh-lay-shya.) When I met people who believed in these things, I had to learn more. I had to understand.

And I learned that my grandfather (now passed) apparently had the gift of tongues.

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The Gift of Tongues

Speaking in tongues is considered a signal of being baptized in the Holy Spirit. People may also have the gift of interpreting tongues. Some may have convulsions or faint when experiencing the gift of God. Speaking in tongues goes back to Ancient Greece, to the priests of Apollo. It goes back to the Ancient Israelites. Today, it is primarily found in Pentacostal/Charismatic churches. Scientifically speaking, during these episodes, the part of the brain that oversees inhibition and self control essentially shuts down. For believers, this may be an indication of the Holy Spirit taking control of a person. For skeptics, this may be a purely psychological phenomenon.

Then there is faith healing. I will not comment on whether or not this is real or a fraud, as I am not qualified to take on such a complex topic. However, faith healing and speaking in tongues can be found in many different churches across the world. What about practices unique to Appalachia?

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Signs Following

This brings us to the Holiness Movement and (more locally) the Church of God with Signs Following. Like the Galapagos Islands’ isolation bringing us so many unique and interesting endemic species of animals, Appalachian isolation brought on unique culture and beliefs. (Appalachian Isolation sounds like a School House Rock song.) Endemic practices such as snake handling arose from interpretations from the following biblical verses:

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)

These are called the “Signs Following,” and are a critical component of Appalachian Pentecostal practice. It is not found in some translations of the Bible, but it is present in the King James Version, which is the preferred version of most of these churches.

The practice of snake handling began when George Went Hensley introduced it to the Church of God in Cleveland, Tennessee. This is almost exclusively practiced in the Appalachian region. The practice is outlawed in all Appalachian states except West Viriginia. However, adherents still practice despite the illegality and the danger posed to snake handlers. According to Pastor Jamie Coots: “Handlers get bitten all the time, and every few years someone dies.” Sadly, Coots was one of the ones to die from a snake bite after being bitten nine times during his life. Family refused medical treatment for him, as it went against his religious beliefs. Coots wished to have snake handling protected under religious freedom.

On the one hand, observers are kept at a safe distance from those that wish to handle the snakes and there has been no documented cases of a snake biting a non-handling believer. On the other, the snakes are often captured from the wild and kept in poor health. For those who do die of a snake bite, it is believed that it was simply their time to die.

Adherents also drink poison - usually strychnine. 

You can’t go to the hospital. There is not a lot they can do. But [seeking medical help] means you’re already starting to lose faith.
— Mack Wolford

These are deadly religious practices and I cannot say whether they should be legal or not. But they are unique. They are part of our history as a region. And we need to preserve these traditions through writings as the practice begins to die out.