Snake Handling and Redemption in Southern Appalachia
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 A meandering journalistic testimony of the author's experience with a strange southern Christian sect. Reporting for the New York Times on the case of Glenn Summerford, a snake-handling preacher who attempted to kill his wife with snakes, Covington (Lizard, 1991) attended a ``homecoming'' meeting at the Church of Jesus with Signs Following, Summerford's converted gas station church. He wanted to observe firsthand the phenomenon known as ``signs following.'' The practice is based on the literal interpretation of Jesus' prophecy: ``And these signs shall follow them that believe...they shall speak with new tongues; they shall take up serpents; and if they drink any deadly thing, it shall not hurt them....'' In order to fulfill the prophecy, believers worship with poisonous snakes, drink strychnine, and speak in tongues. After WW II the signs following cult came to insular places like Sand Mountain, Ala., where traditional life had been unsettled by the rapidly changing times. Covington became caught up in the religion. A recovered alcoholic and one-time war correspondent, he was attracted by the hypnotic effect the signs following service had on him and by the danger of handling four-foot rattlesnakes and deadly copperheads. He testified before the congregation, traveled the meeting circuit, and even handled snakes. After about two years, he realized--or remembered--that the people he was worshiping with were backward, petty, bigoted, and somewhat suicidal, and he decided to return to his more conventional Southern Baptist church in Birmingham. Covington's story is a mixture of sociology, history, and autobiography, but the parts never coalesce. Detours from the main tale add little interest: Covington's fruitless search into his past to understand his fascination with snake handling, for example, leads him to discover that Covingtons were arrested for snake handling in the 1950s; he finds this significant even after he learns that those Covingtons were not related to him at all. A piece of American exotica sadly mishandled.

Pub Date: Jan. 1st, 1995
ISBN: 0-201-62292-0
Page count: 240pp
Publisher: Addison-Wesley
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 1st, 1994


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