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.

 

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Judging Judges: The Cutting of the Concubine

concubineI was just asked how one should deal with the story of the Levite cutting up his gang-raped concubine in Judges 19. Here is my short answer.

The ending chapters of Judges function at several levels:
1) historical context for the audience who received these stories in this form (the accounts refer to some time 1200-1100 BC). For instance, chapter 18 explains why Dan was in the north rather than in the south (where Joshua had said they were alloted land). Chapters 19-21 explain why Benjamin was so small and how they had barely survived. In the context of later generations reading this account it would explain the loss of tribes by means of the LORD expelling them for their continuing depravity. I am particularly thinking of the expulsion of the ten tribes of Israel (including Benjamin) in the 700s and then the later exile of Judah between 609-586 BC.

2) Kingship – the author of Judges is demonstrating what life without a king was like. The whole story (19-21) is framed by “there was no king” (19:1; 21:25). This would seem to indicate they had a positive appraisal of kingship even if the actual stories of kings for Israel and Judah does not play out that well (which might indicate that this account found its form in the days of David/Solomon).

3) Rejection of Benjamin – this whole story emphasizes the perversity of Benjamin and their near annihilation. We need to bear in mind that the king chosen first was from Benjamin. Is this a way of subtly (not so subtly) speaking against Benjamites ruling? After all, Saul would likely have been only a handful of generations removed from this incident. He owes his life to the sparing of the tribe, but also finds his genealogy littered with the perverse. More striking is that the father-in-law in Bethlehem of Judah (David’s hometown) is over-abounding in generosity toward the Levite (19:3-10). When the Levite finally leaves he is compelled by his servant to not stay in Jebus (what would become Jerusalem) because of the Jebusites whom they would not likely receive hospitality from. Instead they stay the night in Gibeah of Benjamin and are violated perversely.

4) Increasing depravity – the whole of judges undoes the work of Joshua. Joshua reads as if the people inherited the whole of the land. Judges (from the beginning) shows they did not. And not only was this because they did not deal with neighboring clans/tribes of the Canaanites as they should (and then face battles with various folks as judgment), but they even face assaults from their own tribes: Benjamin assaulting the concubine (and showing them to be just as evil as Sodom which was entirely destroyed) and the other tribes assaulting and almost completely destroying Benjamin. And the violence continues with the forcible taking of wives for Benjamin. And in the immediate account, the Levite treats the concubine with violence in his cutting her into pieces. And the text even is suggestive that the concubine hadn’t died from the gang raping and there is no clear indication she died prior to being cut up by the Levite. Is this demonstrating yet further that the Levites – those specifically responsible to teach and uphold Torah for everyone – were descended into depravity? (see Judges 18 about the Levite serving the idol stolen from Micah and established in Dan).

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Arnold, Bill T., and H. G. M. Williamson, eds. Dictionary of the Old Testament: Historical Books. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2005.

Block, Daniel Isaac. Judges, Ruth. NAC. Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1999.

Boling, Robert G. Judges. AB. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2005.

Frolov, Serge. Judges. FOTL. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2013.

Hamilton, Victor P. Handbook on the Historical Books: Joshua, Judges, Ruth, Samuel, Kings, Chronicles, Ezra-Nehemiah, Esther. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2008.

Martin, Lee Roy. The Unheard Voice of God: A Pentecostal Hearing of the Book of Judges. Blandford Forum, Dorset, UK: Deo Pub, 2008.

Soggin, J. Alberto. Judges, a Commentary. OTL. Philadelphia, PA: Westminster Press, 1981.

Joshua Fit the Battle of Jericho

Just a fun post with a short music video because this song got stuck in my head a few days ago after a discussion of the historicity of Joshua and walls of Jericho (Joshua 6). Indeed, when the text of Scripture makes strong historical claims we ought to accept those claims (despite the archeological evidence not yet being clear one way or another – see this bit, which I do not fully endorse, by Bryant Wood who challenges the findings of Kathleen Kenyon). And V. Philips Long has made a fine contribution to the discussion of the veracity of historical claims from Scripture on us as faithful readers in his contribution (“The Art of History”) to “Foundations of Contemporary Interpretation” (gen. ed., Moisés Silva; 6 Vols in 1; Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1996): pp.247-434.

Here is Mahalia Jackson singing “Joshua Fit the Battle of Jericho”

IHS – What Does It Mean?

IHSI had a conversation with a couple of the ladies in my church today about a symbol that is imprinted into the fabric lining the bottom of our brass offering plates. I had overheard one of them telling the other that “IHS” stood for “In His Service”. Sounds good enough. Makes sense. It would be a good meaning to take away from it. But that isn’t what it actually means.

I have found that many times symbols have a way of taking on a life of their own and often their significance shifts (sometimes rather dramatically) over time. This may largely be to a lack of pastors and teachers discussing the meanings and significance of symbols within the Church (or perhaps many pastors and teachers don’t know such matters themselves). But we really should take care to do so.

I have encountered times in my own life where folks have decided that such symbols are somehow pagan…often this comes from a lack of historical appreciation. Or because of the lack of historical understanding it was easy for some other folks to force their seemingly spiritual interpretation onto the other folks in order to attack such symbols. Sadly lacking historical appreciation of the Church makes us easy targets for false teaching.

So what does “IHS” mean? It belongs to a VERY EARLY tradition found in the Greek manuscripts of the early church wherein the sacred name (nomina sacra) of “Jesus” (Gr. ‘ΙΗΣΟΥΣ; transliterated as ‘IESOUS) was abbreviated by use of the first two letters of his name (IH – sounded like “yeah”) and the final letter (Σ which is a ‘sigma’ for ‘s’). It is actually a Christogram where the name of Jesus holds great significance and has been used as a tool of veneration among many.  As a Christogram it has been also variantly explained to refer to an abbreviation of the Latin Iesus Hominum Salvator (“Jesus, Savior of Humankind” which provides both the sacred name “Jesus” and its implicit meaning found in Matthew’s gospel 1:21: “he will save his people from their sins”).

While the simple misunderstanding mentioned in my church today was nothing significant (it was my own understanding for many years) it simply reminded me of the need to ground the local church in the history of the Church as one guard against false teaching and a greater appreciation for the richness of our heritage as members of the Church universal. Or maybe I’m just sentimentally reflecting on my responsibilities as a pastor and one who desires to find myself an understanding and appreciative member of the wider Church. And I’m convinced such symbols aid our congregations to find creative entrée into discussing and appreciating the rich history of the wider Church. 🙂

The Former Prophets: A Theological History

ImageAs I’ve been lecturing this winter semester (Providence University College) for my course “The Former Prophets” (i.e., Joshua, Judges, 1-2 Samuel, and 1-2 Kings) we’ve had some wonderful discussions about what it means for this portion of Scripture to offer a “history” of Israel.

Part of the reason for the course not being called “The History Books” (besides that term being used to refer to other books as well: Ruth, Chronicles, Ezra-Nehemiah, Esther) is that the point of these books is not simply to offer a “history” of Israel, but a theological “history” of God’s dealings with Israel, and thus a theological explanation for where Israel finds themselves at the conclusion of this literary unit (in Babylon, no Davidic heir on the throne, with Jerusalem, the land, and the temple destroyed). The focus on these books as belonging to (what the Hebrew canon calls) “The Prophets” (נְבִיאִים nevi’im) is to emphasize their theological intent. This distinction gives emphasis to the presence and work of God. A distinction I find far more satisfactory than simply a discussion of these books as “history” (or even as contemporary scholarship refers to them following the work of Martin Noth: “Deuteronomistic History“). None of this is to deny the historical claims of the text (when such claims are actually present), but simply to recognize the work of the LORD throughout.

I was just wondering if others have found such a distinction helpful themselves in studying these books?

Pentecost In North West Minnesota

I was given the following brief account (written by Mrs. Anna Vagle in 1958) of some of the occurrences in 1905-6 in north-western Minnesota when the “winds of the Spirit” began to blow with “Pentecostal power”.  It is a marvelous thing to read what God has done in the past…and it makes me long to see what more God will do in the present.  While not every phenomenon is to be treated equally it is still a wonderful piece of Pentecostal history that I thought should be shared with a wider audience.  And so I’m posting it here for your reading pleasure.