A Brief Snake Handling Journey

I visited Tennessee this week to meet with my PhD supervisor (who is based in Cleveland even though my school is Bangor University, Wales). I had decided this visit that since I was “in the neighborhood” of the origins of the “serpent handler” churches, I’d like to visit the original site: Dolly Pond Church of God With Signs Following (you know its fun when a church name is that long).

As it happens, I also do a lecture on the origin and theology of snake handling for an undergraduate course I teach every Spring–Pentecostal Heritage. In part, I do this lecture as my final lecture of the semester in order to assure students will show up on the last day of class. I also do it because…well…its just plain fascinating to me and thus a fun way to end the course.

A Brief History of the Founder

The “founder” of snake handling churches, George Hensley, had been a moonshiner who came to the Lord at special meetings held by Homer Tomlinson just north of Cleveland, TN. Hensley took to preaching himself around Owl Hollow (eventually joining the Church of God Cleveland TN for a time) and was doing so on Mark 16:17-20, but some of his former moonshining buddies thought to scare off the meeting by tossing a box of poisonous snakes into their midst. While the congregation fled in terror, Hensley snatched up the snakes “like a boy would gather stovewood in his arms to carry into the house” (Tomlinson p. 41). This was apparently the beginning of Hensley handling serpents, but appears to have created quite a sensation throughout the region gaining the attention of A. J. Tomlinson. Of note is an invitation in 1914 by A. J. Tomlinson to Hensley to the General Assembly of the Church of God (Cleveland, TN) in order to demonstrate the handling of serpents. Hensley apparently had a difficult time in life as he was married four times and went back and forth preaching and handling snakes to making moonshine even spending time jailed for both practices (Olsen p.24). A not-so-surprising end, he died on July 24, 1955 as the result of a snake bite for which he denied medical care and was declared to have committed “suicide”.

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Snake handling service held in Lejunior, Harlan County, Kentucky at the Pentecostal Church of God, September 15, 1946 (National Archives and Records Administration, photo by Russell Lee)

My Surprises

I set up my visit to see the site of the Dolly Pond Church of God With Signs Following (Hensley’s church which was torn down decades ago). Church of God historian Dr. David Roebuck kindly arranged the trip north a half hour to Owl Hollow and Dolly Pond. As it turned out he had asked Bishop Wade Phillips to guide us. Bishop Phillips had just published the first volume of a series on the history of the Church of God and I was familiar with his work. This was a pleasant surprise tour guide.

We arrived at the site (where now a Church of God of Prophecy stands nearby) and saw something laying on what appeared to be the foundation of the Dolly Pond church we were looking for. It was a sloughed snake skin. A delightful find indeed. Especially as it was not a live snake.:-)

 

 

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Sloughed snake skin on the “foundation” of the location of the Dolly Pond Church of God with Signs Following.

Naturally we posed with the serpent remains.

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Bishop Wade H. Phillips, Dr. David G. Roebuck, and myself (holding the sloughed snake skin we found)

While wandering around the site, Phillips mentioned that he had been told (some 20 years prior by a nearby neighbor) that there was a small gathering of graves up on a hill near where the church had stood. We climbed the hill in search of the graves of potential members of the Dolly Pond Church of God With Signs Following and were again delighted by our find. We found a grave of one “Minnie L. Harden” (maiden name of Parker) buried near her parents Ben and Maggie Parker.

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Minnie L. (Parker) Harden’s grave on the hill just up from the Dolly Pond Church of God with Signs Following
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Picture from W.H. Phillips, “Quest to Restore God’s House” p. 356.

As it turned out Minnie had been pictured in Phillips’ book Quest to Restore God’s House: A Theological History of the Church of God (Cleveland, Tennessee) Volume 1, 1886-1923, where she has a rattlesnake draped across her forehead with the sign “The Dolley [sic] Pond Church of God With Signs Following” just over her shoulder.

While I know this is not a typical trip (for anyone), it was a fun historical adventure reminding me of locating historical figures and movements in their times and contexts. It also reminds me that even when I vehemently oppose a practice I can still appreciate the sense of experiencing the stories of others and how they may have handled issues of faith and practice.

Works Cited

Olsen, Ted. “They Shall Take Up Serpents,” Christian History 17.2 (May 1998): p.24.

Phillips, Wade H. Quest to Restore God’s House: A Theological History of the Church of God (Cleveland, Tennessee) Volume 1, 1886-1923. Cleveland, TN: CPT Press, 2014.

Tomlinson, Homer A. “It Came to Pass in Those Days”: The Shout of a King. Queens Village, N.Y.: Church of God, U.S.A. Headquarters, 1968.

 

Student FAQ for the Society for Pentecostal Studies

SPS Student CaucusWhile this is not an official FAQ of the Society for Pentecostal Studies (SPS), I offer it in response to a series of questions I was asked by a friend who is a student member wishing to submit a proposal for a paper to be presented at an SPS Annual Meeting. I have also offered a few of my own questions which I thought might be beneficial. I have been an active member of the Society since 2008 and helped to found the SPS Student Caucus in order to assist students in developing as scholars within the broad field of Pentecostal studies and as Pentecostal scholars. I believe my responses to his questions might prove helpful to others who might also be wondering similar things about writing and presenting research for SPS.

What is the standard length of a paper submitted to SPS?

There is no official standard length for papers. Some present papers of only 10 pages while others have submitted papers over 50 pages. The key is how much time your session will allow for presentation and questions afterward. Typically there is about 20-30 minutes for presentation and questions which means a paper of 15-20 pages is almost all that one has time to read in that timeframe. Longer papers are not discouraged, but that means much of the material will need to be summarized rather than shared outright.

Does the paper have to be completely written before you submit a proposal?

No. For student members it is better to have already written the paper (or much of the paper) prior to submission of the proposal since it can be difficult to meet the time demands of writing a paper after being approved. Proposals are submitted by the June deadline, approved by August-September then the paper is expected to be submitted in January. While this sounds like a lot of time it can slip away rather quickly in the midst of study and work.

Does a paper have to fit the theme for SPS?

No. It is helpful to use the proposed theme for the upcoming meeting in order to offer something which is more likely to be approved, but members are welcomed to submit on any number of topics which may or may not have anything to do with the overall theme.

Are all papers that are accepted also presented at the SPS conference?

That is the agreement made when submitting the proposal. If a student submits a proposal they are agreeing to write the paper, renew their membership, and attend the conference to present. The approval process is approving papers for presenting and the schedule of the conference is developed according to the papers approved.

How would I go about finding 2 respondents?

It isn’t necessary to have two respondents, but if you know people who are a part of SPS and might have some expertise or interest in your topic then they can be included. Most papers do not have respondents in my experience. I’ve only ever had one respondent and it was not even a person that I knew nor had I put their name down, but they were an expert in the field and their feedback was excellent.

 I have done something similar for my thesis, but I haven’t written a paper for a conference yet. Is this something I should wait on and try to attend SPS and see how it is done?

You are always welcome to attend an SPS conference to see how such things flow. Many other conferences function similarly so it isn’t necessary to attend SPS to see how an academic conference can be run. However, the spirituality and the comradery of SPS are unlike any conferences I have had the pleasure of sharing in or attending. I would personally say that presenting at SPS is an excellent opportunity for students beginning their engagements within the broader academic world as the members of SPS are primarily sympathetic and constructive. You would likely find that the feedback and engagement with your presented work will benefit its further development.

How would I join a special interest group?

You “join” a special interest group by attending that group’s meeting at the annual SPS meeting. It is as simple as saying you want to be a part of a particular group because you feel it intersects best with your reason for being a part of SPS. When filling in the interest group information online for your proposal simply select the group which seems to best fit the broad field of study being proposed. For instance, several years ago I wrote on an engagement between Post Modern and Pentecostal homiletics so I submitted the proposal to the “Practical Theology” interest group. My typically writes philosophical works and thus typically submits to the “Philosophy” interest group. Most years I propose something that is primarily exegetical (with theological orientation) and thus submit my proposals to the “Biblical Studies” interest group.

I trust these are helpful and would welcome any further questions that are felt to be pertinent particularly to student members of the Society.

SPS 2017 Proposal Submitted

I just submitted my proposal for the 2017 Society for Pentecostal Studies annual meeting in St. Louis, MO. It is always a bit daunting preparing for a presentation at a scholarly society, but I have always found the effort well rewarded by the responses and engagement at the time of presentation. My title is Toward a Pentecostal Hermeneutic of the Former Prophets. Here is my proposal synopsis:

While there is no singular Pentecostal hermeneutic (nor a singular definition of ‘Pentecostal’), and some still persist in questioning whether there is or should be any, there are noticeable trends toward more clearly defined Pentecostal hermeneutics while still ‘in the making’. Perhaps this ‘still in the making’ is part and parcel of the Pentecostal’s sanctified/sanctifying interpretation. Claims to any form of Pentecostal hermeneutics must admit no ‘claim to possess a pristine and qualitatively unique methodology’. Instead, every hermeneutical approach (including those which might be called Pentecostal) is distinguished ‘by the presuppositions on which they build, the questions that they privilege, the interpretive tools they prefer, and the texts to which they attend’. Such a hermeneutical approach is perhaps properly always in the making as an improvisational performance of the Word by the Spirit within the community.

This paper briefly traces the four broad streams of historical development with the Pentecostal community’s hermeneutics as outlined by V. Kärkäinnen: Oral pre-reflexive, Fundamentalist-Evangelical, pneumatic exegesis and an emerging post-modern movement. This last movement is followed more closely as it unfolds in a triadic form in developing the hermeneutic suggestive by the text of the Former Prophets within the Pentecostal community taking into account the recent work on this trajectory by Scott Ellington, J. Christopher Thomas, Kenneth Archer, and Amos Yong (among others). A proposed phenomenological experience of the text by the Pentecostal community is offered toward a narrative approach to the text of the Former Prophets.

And in case you were wondering … “Former Prophets” refers to the books of the Hebrew Bible / Old Testament known as Joshua, Judges, 1-2 Samuel, and 1-2 Kings.:-)

Thinking Big About Pastors of Small Churches

Church sign

I am delighted with the growing interest in helping small church pastors be the best pastors (and their congregations the best congregations) they can be. Serving faithfully wherever God calls. One recently discovered resource is offering a plethora of helps for small church pastors and Karl Vaters has apparently only been at it for 100 days (but WOW! has he done a LOT in that time). What a terrific day and age to be a small church pastor. There are opportunities like never before to serve our communities and be resourced to bring greater glory to God.

With that in mind, I was listening to a message by pastor Mark Dever delivered at the recent Desiring God conference for pastors. He shared a quote–that has stayed with him and made impact in his own life and ministry–that I was struck by:

John Brown in a letter of paternal counsels to one of his pupils newly ordained over a small congregation:

“I know the vanity of your heart, and that you will feel mortified that your congregation is very small, in comparison with those of your brethren around you; but assure yourself on the word of an old man, that when you come to give an account of them to the Lord Christ, at his judgment-seat, you will think you have had enough.”

And while you are at it, check out his first message on being a discipling pastor in a discipling community titled “Centrality of the Church in Discipleship” (neatly summarized toward the end by the poetic: Preach and Pray, Love and Stay). Love it!

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Originally blogged by myself at bluechippastor.org on February 27, 2013.

Three years later, I am even more passionate about seeing pastors of small congregations succeed in doing what the Lord has called them to do. I say this as one who regularly preaches to gatherings of a few dozen and has pastored churches of 20-60 congregants. I am also grateful to serve in an institution like Trinity Bible College and Graduate School that equally cares for churches of all sizes and the pastors called to serve them.

Where He Leads I’ll Follow

The Winding Path - Leiden, Zuid Holland
The Winding Path – Leiden, Zuid Holland

I never cease being surprised by the many places the Lord will take those who follow his calling. One could never conceive what such a journey might look like. Following Jesus is an adventure.

As a newborn I was prayed over in the Block Memorial Chapel of Trinity Bible Institute (now College and Graduate School). I had been born just a few blocks away in the old hospital in Ellendale, North Dakota. A visiting evangelist prayed blessings over me that someday I might preach Jesus to many around the world.

As a sixteen year old, I heard the voice of Jesus calling me in a church service in Omaha, Nebraska, to give my life for the ministry of sharing Jesus among Muslims. I intended to go straight upon graduation to some far off land and figure things out en-route. Instead, I heard the words of a district youth leader in the Assemblies of God of Nebraska (who went on to serve in missions full-time) addressing the need to commit to training because the cost of serving Jesus demanded that I demonstrate faithfulness to study and be discipled  into the man of God I was called to be. So I enrolled at Trinity Bible College for their Missions Major.

After Trinity I pastored several churches in rural North Dakota and Minnesota over the course of 14 years. This was the result of hearing the call of the Lord to preach followed immediately by an unquenchable passion to do just that. I had not intended to be a preacher (or a pastor).  But Jesus had other plans.

I found myself preaching for youth conferences, family and youth camps, special services, and missions conventions around the region. And I could not help but preach Jesus wherever I found an open invitation. It has led to ministry among German Lutherans and Mennonites, Swedish Baptists, Norwegian and Romanian Pentecostals, and African diaspora on three different continents. I have preached under trees, in soup kitchens, on streets, in stone churches, and private homes. I have witnessed Jesus healing and setting free. I have shared Jesus among the poor of central Mexico and on the streets of El Salvador. I have fed the hungry, clothed the naked and visited the sick. I have joined the chorus of saints gathered from across Europe and Africa worshiping Jesus in northern Italy.

I now write as one who has been training workers for the Lord of the Harvest for 4 years in two colleges, one graduate school and one seminary (between two countries). I write this as one about to preach on “prayer and action” for a series of meetings in an African church in western North Dakota. Who could have imagined such a thing?

I write this as one who sees the great harvest before me. I am moved to weeping. I am compelled to preach. I am enjoined to prayer. I hear Jesus calling…where it takes me before he comes again, I don’t know.

But I will follow! And I gaze longingly into the future before me!

A Sermon No One Should Preach

David and GoliathI know it’s often easier to critique than to offer positive contributions, but I was just meditating again on the story of David and Goliath in 1 Samuel 17. And I was remembering poor sermons I have heard over the years on this favorite Sunday School story (you know it’s fun when talking veggies have their own rendition). At the time, they seemed like poignant Biblically-based messages that spoke to my life, but as a pastor now (and wanting to be faithful to the intent of Scripture) they were simply atrocious (even when offering valuable points that have little if anything to do with the text’s intent itself).

So here’s one: “You need to slay the giants in your life!” The preacher begins to name those giants: pride, lust, fear, smoking-drinking-and-chew, and going-with-girls-who-do (or something like that). It’s animated. You bring to mind all the sins you have committed and all the potential challenges you may face in life. You swing your air sling, followed by a chopping motion…and now the head of victory is in hand. It’s powerful. You are ready for any altar call given. The problem is…it just isn’t the point of this story.

Another day, another preacher: “God has given you five stones to defeat your enemies!” The stones are rattled off with exaggerated booming-voiced, staccato-like gunfire. The giants from the last message won’t stand a chance. Your stones of faith, forgiveness, prayer, reading your Bible, and going to Sunday School (or something like that) are powerful weapons in the arsenal of any David looking to be victorious over the enemies of their soul. The problem is…this also is not the point of the story.

Yet another day and another preacher (indicating the rejection by David of Saul’s armaments): “Use what has been tested and proven!”- followed by six more points every David-like leader needs to know in order to succeed (you have to have at least seven to be a truly spiritual leader after all). The litany of kingdom-wise business bullet points is overwhelming. You know you will actually need to have a couple of pens just to take all of the notes, because this message is LOADED with truthiness. Again, not the point of the story.

Is there no end to the directions this favorite tale has been taken? What is the point anyways? Put simply, the LORD (the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob…the God of Israel) is lord of all. The LORD will not be mocked. The LORD is truly God. The LORD is the champion of His people. The LORD will act to deliver through those whom the LORD chooses to anoint.* This is ultimately a story about the LORD.

So the next time you preach 1 Samuel 17…make sure you know the point of the story…and don’t just start loading your slingshot with whatever you find along the way, try using what is already there. You may be surprised what the LORD will do with His own word.

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* I just realized I gave five points…now that should go in my pouch for future slinging.:-)

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Adapted from my post authored at bluechippastor.org on July 1, 2013.

Prayer (Poetics of Meaning) – A Maundy Thursday Devotion

He whom I bow to only knows to whom I bow
When I attempt the ineffable name, murmuring Thou;
And dream of Pheidian fancies and embrace in heart
Meanings, I know, that cannot be the thing thou art.
All prayers always, taken at their word, blaspheme,
Invoking with frail imageries a folk-lore dream;
And all men are idolaters, crying unheard
To senseless idols, if thou take them at their word,
And all men in their praying, self-deceived, address
One that is not (so saith that old rebuke) unless
Thou, of mere grace, appropriate, and to thee divert
Men’s arrows, all at hazard aimed, beyond desert.
Take not, oh Lord, our literal sense, but in thy great,
Unbroken speech, our halting metaphor translate.

C. S. Lewis, “The Pilgrim’s Regress,” The Timeless Writings of C. S. Lewis
(New York: Inspirational Press, 2003), p. 109.

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May our prayers never be answered in the subtleties of our self-deceit, but according to the glorious and super-abounding faithfulness of Your Son and Your Spirit by whom we cry, “Abba, Father!” May the Spirit-groans that longingly beckon for Your sons and daughters to be revealed with Your glory and receive their inheritance be heard. Cleanse our lips and make us clean. We wash our hands, He washes our feet, but who can cleanse our hearts? Who can give us a mind like Yours? Who can make our confessions better than our intentions, better than our stammering and inverted lifeless words?

Hear our prayers, oh Lord, because You hear His prayers and sanctify us to Yourself in the unity of Your Spirit. In this we praise You! Hallelujah and Amen! Come Lord Jesus!