November 2007

Thomas Burton


Thomas Burton This marks an author's first online publication Thomas Burton is professor emeritus of English at East Tennessee State University with a Ph.D. degree from Vanderbilt University. Among the books he has published, two with the University of Tennessee Press are relevant to the subject of his essay: Serpent-Handling Believers (1993) and The Serpent and the Spirit (2004).

Sign-Following Believers

At the conclusion of my first visit to a Pentecostal Holiness "sign following" church, one of the members drew me aside and somewhat apologetically said, "I didn't drink the poison tonight, but when you come back, I will." The comment struck me with awe.

Held in a small former hunting cabin at the head of a little cove, where a single-track dirt road terminated, the service I had attended continued for some three hours. My senses were overloaded. Everything had been full of power. Guitars, loud and vibrating, synchronized with cymbals. Prayers, pleading and praising in a collective chorus of individual utterances, some in "tongues." Voices, strident and fervently singing. Heads, mouthing the Word of God and swaying behind corded microphones. Hands, laying on the sick and applying the healing oil. Faces, numbing with the "anointment of the Holy Ghost." Mason jars, brimming with mixtures of water and the "deadly thing." Boxes, screened and periodically emptied, then locked to prevent the pit vipers from emerging precipitously.

Then as I exited the building, "When you come back, I will" not only handle serpents (as he did that night), but also drink the "deadly thing"—all for the purpose of "confirming the word" to me and to others in a world of unbelievers.

As I learned more about members of that church and others similar to them, I realized that I could not simply "pluck out the heart" of their mystery. I did learn, however, a great many things about them. I learned that sign followers are fundamentalists, that is, they interpret literally and independently the scriptures, principally the King James Version. They are influenced greatly in exegesis, homiletics, rituals, gestures, and public worship by tradition, which is established by oral, aural, and demonstrative means. They come generally from low-to-moderate social-economic-educational sectors of white southern communities. They are modest in dress and appearance, pursuant to St. Paul's directive—particularly the women, who characteristically wear retrogressive clothing, adornments, and hairstyles. They are restrictive in consumption and use of all substances, such as alcohol, that are considered harmful to the body because the body is viewed as the "temple of the Holy Ghost." Similarly, they are restrained in private and social activities deemed "worldly." They are given to expressivity in informal, emotional, and participatory worship services—but not given to emotional and psychological instability. They are reinforced in their religious and church commitment by various means, including family ties, frequent attendance to services, testimonials of personal experiences affirming both physically and spiritually God's direct power. They are deemed Pentecostal in terms of the biblical description of Jesus' disciples receiving the gift of the Holy Ghost and speaking in "other tongues" on the day of Pentecost following the Crucifixion. They are known as "sign followers" after the text in Mark 16: 17-18, 20: "And these signs shall follow them that believe; In my name shall they 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; they shall lay hands on the sick, and they shall recover. . . . And they went forth, and preached every where, the Lord working with them, and confirming the word with signs following."

Along with learning these qualities of "sign followers," I recognized that any description of them varies individually and is subject to change, as that of many other conservative religious groups, particularly with the increased liberalization and secularization of contemporary American culture. Also, I felt that whereas these qualities help to identify what sign followers are, they are external factors and do not reveal what the essence of sign followers is. What I have come to realize as the essence of these people is not what they do, rather it is their belief, their state of mind in which absolute trust is placed in the word of God. It is explicit in their seminal text: "these signs shall follow them that believe," and it is implicit in that member's statement to me on my visit to his church: "I didn't drink the poison tonight, but . . . I will"—I believe in God's word, and I will confirm it.

Regardless of varied personal responses of outsiders to this belief, there are many instances of rituals ensuing from that belief that are performed without bodily harm and evidently efficacious physically, spiritually, and socially. For example, not being burned by sources of heat exceeding 675 degrees Fahrenheit, customarily not being bitten by venomous serpents they handle, being apparently unaffected by consuming doses of poison, being seemingly restored to health from minor and mortal diseases, experiencing epiphanies of their relationship to divinity, having ecstasies that effect changes in blood chemistry and cortical activity, and being redeemed from lives of desperation. The force behind their rituals is not easily verifiable, whether it comes externally, as they say, from a supernatural being or internally from the act itself of believing—but the effects of their belief in some cases are undeniably remarkable and certainly substantiate the power of belief.

The most eloquent expression that I have heard of this power of the belief of sign followers is from an elderly preacher, Perry Bettis, who lived in Grasshopper Valley, Tennessee, the matrix of Christian serpent handling in modern times.

Jesus Christ come, brother, and he granted them a mission to go out. He sent them out, brother, two by two. And he give them power, hallelu, to cleanse the leprosy and raise the dead and give sight to the blind, heal the lame, heal every kind of disease there was. Jesus give them the power to do it. Why there ain't no power like God's power.

Have you got the Holy Ghost? Huh? Yeah. You got the greatest power in you that's in the whole world. Right inside that body is the greatest power that's ever been known to man, is God himself. You that's got the Holy Ghost has got it in you. It's your fault for not usin' it. It's not God's fault. God give it to you to use, and if you don't want to get in shape to use it—hey listen, hold it, hold, let me tell your mind, listen to me. God give me the gift of ministry, the preachin' the word. I can't read, I know that; but, wait, when God moves on me, I can preach. God give me that gift. It's in me. I'll preach on the street corner, I'll preach on top of this building, I'll preach anywhere that God—hallelujah, I'll preach it right in the Devil's face. I don't care. But God expects me, me, me, myself to live the life to be proud of there to do that job.

When I hear such affirmations of belief by sign followers and observe their confronting death in confirming it, I am struck with awe. At the same time, I am aware that the world in general sees sign followers as simply snake handlers, and "how unworthy a thing" it makes of them. Although it cries out against them, as Matthew Arnold describes in another context, "Your faith is now / But a dead time's exploded dream"—that world, ironically, is largely one of "light half-believers of our casual creeds, / Who never deeply felt, nor clearly will'd."




Thomas Burton: Fiction
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