Anthropology -- Salvation on Sand Mountain: snake handling and redemption in southern Appalachia by Dennis Covington
Salvation on Sand Mountain: Snake handling and redemption in southern Appalachia by Dennis Covington tells the story of religious snake handling and strychnine-drinking in Appalachia. Though the author was a journalist covering the 1992 attempted murder trial of a snake handling preacher, the author's Southern background and religious search drew him to these dangerous religious practices. Beginning as an observer, the author eventually became a snake handler and write about the background, meaning and his own experience of religious snake handling. The result was a book that was good in some aspects but bad in other aspects.
Dennis Covington's Salvation on Sand Mountain: Snake handling and redemption in southern Appalachia is a story of the author's spiritual journey in the early 1990's. Covington was a writer for the New York Times who was covering the 1992 trial of Glenn Summerford, a snake handling preacher convicted of attempting to murder his wife with snakes and sentenced to 99 years in prison (Covington, 2009, p. 1). While covering the trial, Covington met some members of Summerford's church and was drawn to them because of his unique background. Covington was raised in Appalachia and knew of snake handling before covering the trial. As Covington and the snake handlers to explain, snake handlers hold venomous snakes and drink strychnine due to a quotation from the Bible: "In my name they shall 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" (Covington, 2009, p. 17). For snake handlers, handling venomous snakes and drinking strychnine are apparently ways to express their faith in God and in the belief that God protects his faithful followers from harm. In addition, while they are handling the snakes, the believers sometimes "speak in tongues," (Covington, 2009, pp. 24-5) which seems like babbling, and have expressions of ecstasy on their faces because they are so caught up in religious fervor (Covington, 2009, p. 79). As Covington explained, this practice came about because immigrants, particularly Scotch-Irish immigrants, left Eastern cities and moved into Appalachia the 18th Century (Covington, 2009, p. 84). In Appalachia, which tended to be removed from modern life, some of these people developed fundamentalist religious ideas. As Industrialization began to seep into Appalachia in the 19th Century, some of these fundamentalists reacted against this modernism and became even more fanatical in their beliefs. One facet of this fanaticism was snake handling, which survives to this day but is dying out due to the increasing modernization of the South (Covington, 2009, pp. 84-88).
At that point in his life, Covington felt lost and was drawn to the members of that church because he was seeking "what I had experienced growing up in that odd Methodist church in East Lake" (Covington, 2009, pp. 55-6). Consequently, Covington attends some of the services at Summerford's church, "The Church of Jesus With Signs Following," housed in an old, converted gas station in Scottsboro, Alabama, and is drawn into their type of worship (Covington, 2009, p. 110). In fact, Covington become so interested in snake handlers that he eventually also attends snake handling services in Georgia, Kentucky, Tennessee and West Virginia. Through the book, Covington moves from being a journalist covering a trial to being a deeply interested observer of snake handlers at their church services to being a genealogist who studies the possibility of snake handlers in his own family's past, to being a snake handler himself, to being driven out of the church because he stands up for women. In the end, Covington abandons the idea of snake handling because "Knowing where you come from is one thing, but it's suicide to stay there" (Covington, 2009, p. 206).
Covington's approach to this subject is good in some ways. First, due to his unique background as a Southerner of Scotch-Irish heritage, Covington respects the snake handlers rather than just treating them like crazy fanatics. Secondly, Covington can give an educated insider's insights into the reasons for this dying religious practice among poor, uneducated people who handle deadly snakes because "The more faith you extend, the more power is released. It's an inexhaustible, eternally renewable resource. It's the only power some of these people have" (Covington, 2009, p. 168). Third, Covington speaks frankly about his own…