The Serpent Handlers by Fred W. Brown
Three Families and Their Faith

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The Winner of the Harry Caudill Award for Journalistic Reporting and a Benjamin Franklin Award finalist in religion and an Independent Publisher Award finalist in religion

“And those 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.”

The believers who take Mark 16: 17–18 as a central tenet of their faith call themselves Signs Followers. Their churches are located mainly in the southern Appalachians, though people practice the faith in nearly every state.

Previous accounts of the Signs Followers have focused on the sensational aspects of the religion: picking up poisonous snakes, drinking strychnine, handling fire, speaking in tongues, healing the sick, casting out devils. The believers are accustomed to being called charlatans, to being mocked for a lack of education, and to having governments try to restrict their religious freedom.

The Serpent Handlers allows the Signs Followers to speak for themselves. It focuses on three families—the Brown family of Tennessee, the Coots family of Kentucky, and the Elkins family of West Virginia—each of which goes back several generations in the faith. The interviewees, both men and women, tell personal stories about their involvement in the church, the community, and family life. They tell how the Bible compels them to put their lives on the line by taking up snakes, and what it feels like to do so.

The Serpent Handlers seeks to record and preserve the customs and way of life of the Signs Followers. What emerges is a portrait of a group of people with deep faith and unshakeable convictions.


“Husband-and-wife team Brown and McDonald here introduce readers to the Elkinses of West Virginia, the Browns of Tennessee, and the Cootses of Kentucky. The book provides a fascinating foray into the life of these faithful snake-handling families. Especially absorbing are discussions of the miraculous healing of Gregory Coots's eye, which was damaged by gunshot when he was six years old; the poignant story of matriarch Barbara Robinson Elkins's 23-year-old daughter, Columbia, dying of a snakebite wound; and Joe Robert Elkins's testimony that he once died of a snakebite wound, ascended to the ‘most beautifuliest place I ever seen’ and was brought back to life because God listened to the earnest pleadings of his fellow church members. Interspersed throughout Brown and McDonald's analysis are passages, drawn from interviews, in which the snake handlers speak for themselves; these sections, without question, are the richest in the book.”
Publishers Weekly

“While snake-handling Christians, called sign followers, have been the subject of periodic media attention, they have rarely been allowed to tell their own stories without editorial comment. Brown and McDonald (coauthors of Growing Up Southern) have interviewed members of three families to create a clear picture of these believers. The text derives from taped interviews, and each of the participants was allowed to read and approve the final text to eliminate misconceptions or errors. What results is a remarkably unbiased presentation that avoids sensationalism while offering a vivid glimpse into the lives and beliefs of these people. Though the authors present the historic and doctrinal background of the sect, the most important part of the book is its firsthand accounts. Neith

About Fred W. Brown

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Fred Brown is a senior writer & columnist for the Knoxville News-Sentinel. He is the author, with Jeanne McDonald, of Handling Serpents: Three families & Their Faith & Growing Up Southern: How the South Shapes Writers. McDonald is an author currently on the Literary Board of the Tennessee Arts Commission.
Published February 26, 2013 by John F. Blair, Publisher. 342 pages
Genres: Biographies & Memoirs, Political & Social Sciences, Religion & Spirituality, History. Non-fiction

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Husband-and-wife team Brown and McDonald here introduce readers to the Elkinses of West Virginia, the Browns of Tennessee and the Cootses of Kentucky.

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