Salvation on Sand Mountain:
Snake Handling and Redemption in Southern Appalachia
By Dennis Covington
A Review by Dwight A. Moody
“It’s not true,” he writes on page 166, “that you become used to the noise and confusion of a snake-handling Holiness service. On the contrary, you become enmeshed in it. It is theater at its most intricate—improvisational, spiritual jazz.”
It is the best three-piece suit in the most compelling chapter of this mesmerizing book.
It is not a new book—written in 1995—with an afterward by the author for the 15th anniversary edition. In it, Dennis Covington explains how he got into the snake-handling business and also how he got out. The latter was after he was called upon to preach his first sermon, in which he declared to a crowd of 200 that the resurrection of Jesus was first preached by a woman. That got him pushed out of the Church of the Lord Jesus Christ in Kingston, Georgia, “halfway between the mill towns of Cartersville and Rome.”
That is the most domesticated name of any church in this drama of southern religion. The action begins in a converted “filling station” (as such building used to be called) that carried the name of The Church of Jesus with Signs Following. That addendum, “signs following,” is a reference to Mark 16:17 which says “These signs shall follow them that believe … . They shall take up serpents.”
But the real action, described in chapter eight, occurs in Old Rock House Holiness Church outside Scottsboro, Alabama. He explains elsewhere that Holiness people emerged from Methodist churches (of John and Charles Wesley), and they, in turn, birthed both the snake-handling and the tongues-speaking movements. It was one wide stream of intense spirituality.
It was that kind of religion expressed with dancing and music, tambourines and timber rattlers that drew journalist Covington to the snake-handlers. He went first to write a story for the New York Times. But the explosive potential of the subject matter turned it into a book. It also turned Covington into something that surprised even him.
He began life as Methodist but later settled into the back row of a Southern Baptist Church in Birmingham. Both gave Covington access to the language and lore of domesticated religion but also left him hungering for more: more drama, more mystery, more danger.
Which he found on Sand Mountain.
The ridge spreads 75 miles wide and runs from Tennessee through Georgia into Alabama. It might be the hotbed of the “snakers,” but folks in Kentucky, Virginia, and Tennessee—anywhere the mountains dominate—would give them a challenge. Regardless, it was on Sand Mountain that, in the aforementioned church, our observer-turned-participant found what he sought.
Dennis Covington took up the snakes.
He describes how it all happened, even his premonition that it was his night to take a poison-fanged serpent and carry it around the small sanctuary. It was adrenaline pure and simple.
But when this other-worldly scene tangles with this worldly talent, we end up with a paragraph like this:
“One of my uncles by marriage was a Baptist minister, one of the kindest men I’ve ever known. I was fifteen, though, when he killed himself … . I believe he ran a high-voltage line from his basement to a ground-floor bedroom. He put “How Great Thou Art” on the record player. Then he lay down on the bed, reached up, and grabbed the live wire … . My uncle’s death confirmed a suspicion of mine that madness and religion were a hair’s breadth away. My beliefs about the nature of God and man have changed over the years, but that one never has. Feeling after God is dangerous business. And Christianity without passion, danger, and mystery may not really be Christianity at all.”
In the end, he gave up the snake-handling business, which he tells in the last chapter (and which I recount in paragraph three above). The anniversary Afterward explains more about that, and the back of the book tells us Covington now lives and teaches in west Texas.
I love this book, the way it reads, and how I feel when I put it down. But I have no use for the snake-handling rituals and rationales he describes. Which is where Dennis Covington was when first he called his editor in New York City. “That’s the one we want,” the Yankee said, after Covington added the murder trial of a snake-handling preacher to a list of possible stories.
It’s the one I wanted too, and I’m glad I finally got it. I suspect you will be also