This thesis, which contains an introduction and five chapters, has two primary goals. First, a history and description of the practice of Appalachian serpent handling have been compiled to better understand this practice in many rural Holiness churches. Unlike many other uncommon religious rituals, there is not much literature on Appalachian serpent handling. Therefore, much of the research used in writing this document is original. The second goal of this thesis is an attempt to give the reader a basic understanding of the sociology of religion. A brief history and explanation of the methods used by sociologists to study religion are included in the third chapter. As the perspective of a sociologist is presented in later chapters, one also becomes aware of some basic definitions and theories associated with the sociology of religion. A brief explanation of serpent handling by psychologists is also included to support both the findings of sociologists and to disprove some of the common misunderstandings associated with individuals who handle snakes. In order to study Appalachian serpent handling from a sociologist's perspective, there first must be a basic understanding of the practice. In the first two chapters of this thesis, a detailed account of the history and common practices of this ritual are explained in depth to attain this foundation. The life of George Went Hensley, the founder of contemporary Appalachian serpent handling, is presented. A discussion of Hensley's life is crucial due to the fact that he developed the techniques still used today by serpent handlers. He is also responsible for disseminating this practice throughout Appalachia during the first half of the twentieth century. The second chapter contains a detailed account of the many practices that occur during the worship services performed at serpent handling churches. Included in this chapter is a discussion of a typical service, the ~'holy kiss," music, dancing, sermons, and the handling of poisonous snakes. The final chapter of this thesis involves a conclusion and a brief account of my own experiences while studying Appalachian serpent handling.


Kammer, III, Charles L.


Religious Studies

Publication Date


Degree Granted

Bachelor of Arts

Document Type

Senior Independent Study Thesis

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