The Rhetorical Paradigm in the Service of the Snake Handling Cult

Thumbnail Image
Van Hoorebeke, Kala
Journal Title
Journal ISSN
Volume Title
Western Illinois University
A unique religious movement began in the rural area of eastern Tennessee in the early 1900s. The Snake Handlers, or Holiness people, took the Bible verses of St. Mark, Chapter 16, verses 17 and 18, as a literal commandment. Members of this group practiced the "five signs" of a true Christian discussed in the verses of St. Mark. The signs they practiced were: speaking in tongues, laying on of hands (faith healing), casting out devils, drinking poison and handling snakes. Their unusual practices drew media coverage in the 1930s which resulted in the passage of state laws prohibiting the handling of snakes in public. In 1976, the Snake Handlers took their case to the Supreme Court. They wanted the right to practice their religion as they saw fit. They lost. Though still outlawed, the Snake Handlers continue to practice the "signs" they believe in. This study investigates the rhetorical methods and responses found in the Holiness movement. Historical, political and sociological data are used to describe the forces that brought about the development of the movement. Book, newspaper and magazine accounts of services and deaths due to snake bites are used to document the spread of the movement throughout the southern states. Taped interviews with a Holiness preacher and tapes of Holiness church services are used to determine the kinds of rhetorical methods and responses found in a Holiness service. The rhetorical methods and responses are evaluated utilizing Lloyd Bitzer's theory of situational rhetorical responses. Findings and suggestions for further research are discussed.