Saturday, July 24, 2021

Today on the Almanac, we remember George Hensley and consider the American Holiness tradition of snake handling.

It is the 24th of July 2021. Welcome to the Christian History Almanac brought to you by 1517 at, I’m Dan van Voorhis.

Ooh boy. Too much show for today and the topic is bizarre: let’s get into it.

There was a guy named George Hensley from Grasshopper Valley in Tennessee.

Born in 1881 he was dodgy about his past, we later learned he was on the lam after escaping prison.

Before his prison sentence for bootlegging he had become a minister in the Holiness-Pentecostal tradition, and despite being illiterate found the spurious “long ending” of Mark to be the true test for Christians, that is: could they handle snakes and not be harmed.

Yes- that weird ending in Mark inspired Hensley who would thus help inaugurate the American tradition of religious snake handling.

[As for the end of Mark, it doesn’t appear in the oldest manuscripts. Many of the arguments for keeping this longer text, unfortunately, seem to come down to “the people we don’t like want to get rid of it, so we are going to hang on to it tighter to spite them”.]

The escaped convict Hensley resumed his ministry and began traveling in the region promoting the handling of snakes and the drinking of strychnine as the true test of one's anointing. As deaths mounted many states enacted or enforced laws against the use of snakes in worship.

So this raises the question: why isn’t this a 1st Amendment freedom of religion issue?

It has never made it up to the Supreme Court

In the heyday of snake handlers (the 40s and 50s) a number of cases made it to state supreme courts in Tennessee and Alabama. The rulings against the snake handlers made the distinctions between “freedom to believe” and “freedom to act” as well as the standard protection of “peace, good order, and morals of society”.

And can we ask why, even if not massively popular, it was?


The allure of sectarianism (“we know we are doing it right because we are so small!”)

The allure of snake-handling (apparently it is a thing. I read a story about a nonreligious snake handler who spoke of the practice as mood-altering)

The allure of Russian roulette.

Well, back to Hensley (who was married four times and was a deadbeat dad to literally dozens of children and stepchildren).

It was on this day, the 24th of July in 1955 that George’s luck ran out. IN an attempt to test God he slathered lard on his face and put a snake around his neck. The snake bit him. The dude died.

The last word for today comes from the Gospel of Matthew:

Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. 2 He fasted forty days and forty nights, and afterwards he was famished. 3 The tempter came and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.” 4 But he answered, “It is written,

‘One does not live by bread alone,

but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’”

This has been the Christian History Almanac for the 24th of July 2021 brought to you by 1517 at

The show is produced by a man who has had it with these *dang* snakes in his *dang* church. He is Christopher Gillespie

The show is written and read by the longtime fan of professional wrestling’s Jake the Snake Roberts, I am Dan van Voorhis

You can catch us here every day- and remember that the rumors of grace, forgiveness, and the redemption of all things are true…. Everything is going to be ok.

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