Salvation on Sand Mountain: Snake Handling and Redemption in Southern Appalachia
by Dennis Covington, Addison-Wesley, 240 pages .
Dennis Covington, a novelist and New York Times stringer, got his introduction to the snake-handling faith in 1991, when he covered the trial of a preacher in Scottsboro, Tennessee, who had forced his wife at gunpoint to stick her hand into a rattlesnake’s box. She survived the snakebites and charged her husband with attempted murder, dividing the congregation of the Church of Jesus with Signs Following. Covington discovered a fascinating world of snake-handling services in converted gas stations and in fields, marathon services with blaring guitars, people speaking in tongues, and preachers proving their righteousness by drinking strychnine and handling vipers.
The author never saw these seekers as merely freakish, and so he wrote an extraordinary book, not just a sensational one. He gradually came out from behind his reporter’s notebook and was clearly altered by the experience, as he discovered his own roots in Sand Mountain culture and found his friendship with Brother Carl Porter eventually leading him to hold a six-foot timber rattler before the congregation: “I felt no fear. The snake seemed to be an extension of myself. And suddenly there seemed to be nothing in the room but me and the snake. . . . The air was silent and still and filled with that strong, even light.” The two years that Covington spent as Brother Dennis uniquely qualified him to speculate on why, at least since early in this century, mountain people have mixed deadly snakes into their religion. When the descendants of Appalachia’s eighteenth-century Scotch-Irish settlers came out of the hills to find work, writes Covington, “they confronted a largely urban culture that appeared to have lost its concept of the sacred.” Salvation on Sand Mountain shows its subjects’ astonishing efforts to reconnect.