CNN, serpent handlers and July

Veeka and the Saturn 5 rocket in Huntsville

Veeka and the Saturn 5 rocket in Huntsville

In all the fuss over getting a new Mac, I forgot to say I got another blog published on CNN’s Schools of Thought blog on June 21. It was on the trend toward classical schools. I’m already working on another piece for More and putting together a book proposal on youthful serpent handlers. I’m really fascinated by these 20-something pentecostals who do this and publicize their exploits on social media. Which is why I made two visits to famous serpent-handling churches last month. The first was in Del Rio, Tenn., a six-hour slog across the state. There was a homecoming at the Edwina Church of God in Jesus Christ’s Name (homecomings are when folks in these circles gather once a year at a particular church for worship and a banquet) where there’d be lots of people from outside of town attending. Meanwhile, I’d gotten an email from a man named Jonathan Campbell who admired my “Quitting Church” book. He said that if I was ever in the east Knoxville area, we could stay with him. WELL, he got an email right back asking if Veeka and I could come the next day!

Jimmy Morrow and one of his serpent handler dolls. Notice the tiny snake.

Jimmy Morrow and one of his serpent handler dolls. Notice the tiny snake and similar shirt.

It turns out we had a great stay at his lovely home, met the wife and son and then I snagged Jonathan to come with us to church that morning. When I walked in, I saw the place was filled with the most gorgeous primitive art painted by Jimmy Morrow, the pastor. A painting of a mass baptism was right over me during the whole service which, yes, featured lots of singing, dancing, preaching and snakes. Afterwards, the pastor showed us a huge collection of his art, which was the equal of the legendary Christian primitive artist Howard Finster, IMHO. He even has a snake-handler doll. He makes everything. There were several people well-known in the serpent-handling world who were at this service and I was fortunate to get interviews with most of them while shoving down a delightful and fattening Southern-style lunch. Jonathan, who works in the area as a school counselor, seemed amazed to encounter a culture close by that most people never see. Because you have to know where to look.

The Jimmy Morrow painting that hung above me at church.

The Jimmy Morrow painting that hung above me at church.

The next weekend, on the advice of Ralph Hood, the preeminent scholar on this topic and a professor at University of Tennessee/Chattanooga, I drove to Sand Mountain in northeast Alabama for a service at the Rock House Holiness Church. Fortunately, it was an hour east of Huntsville, where I happened to have longtime friends. And Rebecca, the female half, took care of Veeka while I schlepped over to Sand Mountain Saturday and Sunday. Saturday afternoon, Craig Hodge, the male half of the couple with whom I stayed, kindly took Veeka and I to the space center, which is the town’s main attraction. It was similar to the Air and Space Museum in DC but there were things there I’d not seen. It was a blistering hot day, but we still walked among the Saturn 5 rockets while trying to explain to Veeka what interplanetary travel is. Later that afternoon, another friend from south of Birmingham, dropped by. John Morgan and I had corresponded for years, but we’d never met and he wanted to attend a holiness church with snakes, so off we went. The drive down the Tennessee River was quite lovely in the early evening and we stopped at a gorgeous viewpoint on the way where we ran into some folks having a wedding ceremony just before sunset. It was no problem to find the church, which was made famous in the 1993 book “Salvation on Sand Mountain.” When we left that evening, however, I got disoriented and forgot which turn to make on those back country roads. Were it not for John’s GPS, we’d still be driving about there, as there are no street lights down those roads.

John and I on a viewpoint overlooking the Tennessee River on the road up Sand Mountain.

John and I on a viewpoint overlooking the Tennessee River on the road up Sand Mountain. Notice the long skirt-a recommended dress code for pentecostal  services.

The next morning, John and I were back. He being from a rural Alabama church culture, he knew several of the songs these folks were singing whereas I was clueless. He was fascinated by the fact that one of the most famous of the handlers, ‘Punkin’ Brown, had died about five feet (yes, of snake bite) from where we were sitting plus we were listening to one of his sons preach that morning. And the son was handling snakes despite his father having died from the practice in 1998 and his mother, Melinda Brown, having died of the same thing in 1995. Quite a few of the well-known names in the movement were there that morning and later on John and I had a good talk with the pastor, Billy Summerford, a kind and hospitable man. We also talked with some of the foster kids he had taken in, a true sign of saintliness. And so I am busily typing away at this proposal before we depart next week for Seattle and much cooler weather.

2 thoughts on “CNN, serpent handlers and July

  1. John Morgan

    The experience of a lifetime. I don’t know why, but I’m not afraid of alligators anymore.

  2. David Christian Newton

    Please check out our bed and breakfast website which is accessible through the blog address. We were pleased to read about your adventures in East Tennessee. My mother was born in Winchester, Franklin County…near Sewanee, the Jack Daniels, and somewhat west of Chattanooga. We have a lot of people buried in Franklin County….surname of Neal, Chisum, Limbaugh, Grant, Donaldson. Many Confederate veterans…some were killed or died in POW camps in Ohio.
    William Henry Neal is my gggrandfather, and served as a chaplain to Confederate units…42 Regiment, Infantry, also 4th Tennessee Cavalry. He was a studied and ordained minister…Methodist…and railed against the foot washers and snake handlers, even back then. His son was a partisan ranger, Tennessee Volunteer Home Guard, and ended his service before he turned 15, in May, 1865. He had 12 children, all of whom lived, among them my grandfather. He follow his wife into the Episcopal Church, and attended in Winchester and Chattanooga. William Benjamin Franklin Neal finally died in 1936, and was the last Confederate veteran with any vestige or pretence of service. He never signed the loyalty oath, through the rest of all his days. He and his father also fought the Klan when they caused problems during the 1890s and again in the 1920s. He was a member of the Knights of the Golden Circle.

    We invite you to our vituperous blog, A Gringo in Rural Mexico, full of rightwing sound and fury, but we do not bite. And you can access our little place…the Quinta Tesoro de la Sierra Madre…where we guarantee boredom, hundreds of species of birds (450 on an annualised basis) and wondrous floods of butterflies….tranquillity and a comforting scenic setting surrounded very high mountains in the close-by near distance, huge cypress trees lining spring fed rivers, and other neat things.
    We are a somewhat frequent commentator on the blog of The Anglican Curmudgeon, and we found you linkage there.

    Your life path and accomplishments are actually stunning. And, your insights and observations range from interesting to compelling. We are arch-traditionalist, but we are pretty much non-violent by this point in life. We no longer bite, perhaps because we did not want to renew our rabies vaccination any more.
    Your adventure with the daughter appears to be very rewarding, and I am glad she did well among the Smokey Mountain people. My grandmother taught in a one room school not far from the Parton place, but back in 1910, when she was 15. She had her secondary and the summer session at the University of Tennessee in Nashville, at the Normal….and she went to the little school house and found that she had all six grades, and 16 students…including 4 Negroes, 3 Cherokees, and 9 little Tow-heads. She always referred to them a “…my blessed bright children who taught me so much.” She taught for two years up there, and all her charges became Military officers, professionals, or proprietors.
    Probably said too much, but your site was most cathartic and pleasant.
    David Christian Newton

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