24 October 2013

Serpent Handlers

One of the more interesting groups that has arisen in American church history since the arrival of Europeans over 500 years ago is the serpent handlers of Appalachia. I grew up less than a dozen miles from a congregation that was reputed to be an authentic serpent handling church in West Virginia, although I have never been to one of their services in my nearly four decades of life. This church is no longer in operation, according to relatives (although I've since moved away from my hometown). Not surprisingly, these groups have never had a large following. Some states have attempted to shut them down and have laws on the books against the practice.

A few years ago, I read a book on the practice that took a relatively sympathetic approach. Fred Brown and Jeanne MacDonald's The Serpent Handlers: Three Families and Their Faith looked at three of these congregations and the families that dominated them. Some family members had actually died of snake bites, yet their relatives were not deterred. While many people might find their faith well outside mainstream Christianity, few could doubt the sincerity of their faith, as most people tend to think that the only good snake is a dead snake.

I was flipping through the television channels a few weeks ago when I happened upon the National Geographic Channel. I rarely go above channel 48 (the History Channel), but nothing much was on this particular Tuesday night. I ran upon a show called Snake Salvation that was a sort of reality show on two serpent handling pastors. With my interest in American religion, I stayed with it--and watched additional shows on the next two or three Tuesdays.

A National Archives image of Serpent Handlers in Kentucky, 1946, via Wikimedia Commons

The show looks at Jamie Coots and Andrew Hamblin. The former is a member of the Coots family that was included in Brown and MacDonald's The Serpent Handlers, and the latter is a protege of Coots who moved from Kentucky to Tennessee to take over a serpent handling church. The show allows the serpent handlers to tell their story in their own words and follows them around church and on their snake hunts. As of 1997, it was estimated that only 1,000-2,000 of this group existed in the United States in between 25-45 churches, although the legal issues could possibly keep some groups underground. Both of the churches depicted on "Snake Salvation" appear to have between 20 and 40 attenders at most of the church services.

Not only do the serpent handlers pick up poisonous vipers, they also take the additional parts of Mark 16 in a very literal sense. While speaking in tongues is a common, although debated, practice in American (and world) Christianity, serpent handling is not. Neither is "drinking any deadly thing." Yet, the serpent handlers also drink toxic mixtures and handle fire. In one of the latest episodes of "Snake Salvation," an overalled fellow by the name of "Big Cody" drinks strychnine and also mixes up some lye for his co-religionists. He lives to tell his story. I checked the TV schedule for the next week, and it appears that this particular show might be over. Regardless, it was somewhat enlightening as it continued the work of The Serpent Handlers and other works on this system of belief that exists on the fringe of Christianity. I must say that I'll keep watching and reading because I have no real desire to attend a serpent-handling service.


13 September 2013

Getting a Doctorate and a Full-time History Gig

The last few months have been a whirlwind. I've just finished the first month of what I started out to get just over three years ago. I started my doctoral program at the University of North Dakota in August 2010, and the three years flew by. I was able to graduate on time with a Doctor of Arts in history. My dissertation looked at the early days of the Baptist communities in North Dakota. The project focused upon archival materials that were in the Chester Fritz library and the state archives in Bismarck. I had a major chapter on the state-level church and one of the local Grand Forks congregation. Fortunately, my committee signed off on it in time for graduation in May.

Just before graduation, I had the second of two interviews that I got from about 30-40 applications to various private high schools, community colleges, 4-year colleges, Bible colleges, small universities with master's programs, post-doctoral fellowships, and just about anything else in between. The school was in a rural community in Northwest Kansas, and I fortunately got the job. I must admit that I was a bit concerned before getting an offer because of the common tales of those holding doctorates in the humanities that have to adjunct for years. I did not really want to become a freeway flyer and try to find as many adjunct jobs as possible.

While my position is basically geared at teaching, as was my terminal degree, I'm hoping to revise parts of my dissertation in the next few months for publication. I'm just happy that I've been able to achieve a goal of becoming a college-level instructor that I had starting back as an undergrad nearly two decades ago.

07 August 2013

August Christian Blog Carnival

I have the privilege of posting the Christian Blog Carnival this month. The submissions come from a wide variety of bloggers and cover a number of different topics. I hope you enjoy this month's topics and the perspectives that they contain in the following general areas:


Harry Neufeld submitted an interesting post on why we need some help to truly get the full meaning of Biblical passages at his Participatory Bible Study Blog. He writes: We all depend on others, such as scholars, in our Bible study. How effective this is depends on when and how you do that.


Karen Vaughn's blog Karen's Devotions includes a post on the absence of a call for grief over sin in much of current evangelism.

Ridge Burns questions where God lives in his personal blog on the InFaith website. Reading Ezekiel 43:7 caused him to ponder this question, but New Testament passages inform his conclusion.

Silas Eke posts a sermon on his Sermon Notes blog about Zacchaeus and his conversion. He writes: Many no doubt, were converted to the faith of Christ of whom no account is kept in the Gospels; but the conversion of some, whose case had something in it extraordinary, is recorded, as this of Zacchaeus. The name Zacchaeus means pure or justified. He is the man who overcame obstacles.


Dean at the Working on the Mission blog looks at how he was blown away by God's creation. The cause of his wonder is a pretty cool picture of an Indonesian frog. A very brief post, but seriously just stop for a moment and in the middle of all our theological thinking, our critical critiques and our academic understandings let's just marvel at the majesty of God through His creation.

Jennifer Vaughn-Estrada writes a book review on her Chic of Domesticity blog. This post gives a quick review of Douglas Foster's The Story of the Churches of Christ. The book is intended for a lay audience that wants a brief overview of how the Church of Christ began.  

Thanks to those who submitted blogs from July. Until next month, when Practical Proverbs hosts, I hope you enjoyed this small sample of Christian blog posts.

05 May 2013

Two Years Old--Thoughts on Gilded Age/Progressive Era Baptists

I just thought that I would note that this blog is turning two years old today. Over the past two years, I've posted 126 posts. This one makes the 127th. I have had over 27,000 page views according to the on-site stats.

Some of the things that I've found most interesting are the things that other people are searching for on the internet. Surprisingly, the most popular post that I've had is related to the Old Deluder Satan Act of 1647. I would not have figured that nearly 1,600 people would have an interest in this relatively narrow topic, although it is pretty interesting because of the fact that it shows that the Puritans were very interested in education and were actually willing to levy taxes to pay for it.

Much of my work on this site has focused on Puritans. I have other interests, and my recently-approved dissertation actually focused upon Gilded Age/Progressive Era North Dakota Baptists. These folks tended to emphasize many of the same things that the general Protestant establishment did. Prohibition, a Progressive Era reform (in spite of the idea that it was a conservative concept), showed up in the minutes of just about annual meeting of the North Dakota Baptist State Convention--even after Prohibition became the law of the land in 1918.

The North Dakota Baptists would have agreed largely with Rudyard Kipling's idea of the "White Man's Burden" as the idea of evangelizing and civilizing seemed to come together and get conflated at the time. Of course, it is interesting to note that Jesus said to make disciples, not Anglo-Americans, but in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, many believed that these two ideas were one and the same. Some would still seem to think that this is the case.

I'll be interested to see what the next two years has in store as I begin the transition from full-time grad student to full-time instructor.

14 April 2013

New Church History Resource from Baylor

I know that some who might read this blog from time to time might be interested in a new resource collection that Baylor University is about to publish. An individual from the publisher contacted me with the information.

This three-volume series is titled the Baylor American Church History Collection. It includes the following titles that focus upon 18th and 19th century American religious history:

  Preaching Politics: The Religions Rhetoric of George Whitefield and the Founding of a New Nation, by Jerome Dean Mahaffey
  Revivalism and Separatism in New England, 1740–1800: Strict Congregationalists and Separate Baptists in the Great Awakening, by C. C. Goen
 Shenandoah Religion: Outsiders and the Mainstream, 1716–1865, by Stephen L. Longenecker

The main site to purchase the series is available at the Logos Bible Software link here. For a limited time, the set can be purchased for a fairly large discount. I do want to note that I have neither read these, nor will I get any type of commission from any sales. I'm merely passing on a few titles that some might find of interest.

08 March 2013

Conference Paper in Omaha

I started my "Spring Break" a couple of days early by canceling my last class before the break. I did this, not to skip out, but because I had a conference presentation. I note Spring Break with quotes because Grand Forks just got nearly a foot of snow last Monday, and there is snow in the forecast over the next week (tonight and tomorrow included).

My presentation took place at the Missouri Valley History Conference in Omaha, Nebraska. I've never actually been in town here before, and the downtown seems to be fairly interesting. My panel dealt with the Great Plains to some degree, and my particular paper tried to cram a few major ideas from about 100 pages of dissertation into ten pages.

I titled my paper "Sin, Superstition, and Socialism: Protestant Sermonizing in Early Twentieth-Century North Dakota. The paper detailed some of my work on the local Baptist history, and included some material from the North Dakota State Archives from the North Dakota Baptist Convention collection that I added to my dissertation work. The superstition in the title was related to the nativist and anti-Catholic worldview that the North Dakota Baptists held. The socialism dealt with the anarchism of the newer European immigrants and the activities of the Nonpartisan League (NPL) in North Dakota.

There was a major opposition to the NPL in the late 1910s, when the organization actually took control of the state government. I noted a couple of sermons that non-Baptists preached that I had the opportunity to come into contact with. The first was at a political rally advertised in the Grand Forks Herald. This rally promised to have a sermon from an ordained minister against the evils of socialism.

The second was a sermon published by F. Harley Ambrose of the First Presbyterian of Grand Forks. Ambrose is noteworthy in a not-so-good kind of way because of his holding the position of the Grand Poohbah (actually it was the "Exalted Cyclops") of the local chapter of the Ku Klux Klan in the 1920s. This "Sermon on Applied Socialism," from my cursory reading of it (I did not include it in the official copy of my paper or my dissertation, so I did not go to great lengths to deconstruct it) seemed to have quite a bit of economic theory, but not much that actually came from the Bible.

The main portion of my paper at the conference actually dealt with the "sin" in the title. Although evangelism was clearly the most important goal of the North Dakota Baptist Convention, moral reform was a not-so-close second. Every annual meeting of the NDBC dealt with the topic of prohibition. They even had a Committee on Temperance set up to promote the cause, and they called for ministers to preach sermons directly related to the topic. Additionally, desecration of Sunday and the "white slave" traffic aroused suspicion.

There were a few good questions related to the paper, and the experience was pretty enjoyable overall.

07 January 2013

Article Published and Next Class

Today, after a three week trip home and abroad for the inter-semester break, I received my latest edition of the journal Baptist History and Heritage. I've been getting this journal for about five years or so, but this edition was a bit different than the others I've gotten. I was looking forward to this issue because I have an article that they decided to publish.

My latest article looks at a conservative Southern Baptist theologian who was a part of the denominational establishment during the post-WWII era in American history. The article, titled "Social Justice and American Exceptionalism in the Writings of Southern Baptist Statesman H. Cornell Goerner" is very close (basically the same paper) to a paper I read at the Red River Valley History Conference last April. This article shows how Goerner was a conservative evangelical who called for Christianizing the masses and the importance of America in the world, but it also shows how the economic attitudes of many have shifted over the past fifty years or so based upon the writings that Goerner had published by the denominational presses.

This Thursday, I sent over my syllabus for printing. My latest class is a class that I am creating titled "Religion in American Politics and Culture." It will be a hybrid class that incorporates aspects of a lecture-based course and a seminar format. I am hoping to engage students with the important place that religion has had and continues to have on American cultural and political traditions. The course will not be a continuous narrative that attempts to be exhaustive, but will rather choose a few chronological topics to emphasize the importance of religion in American history.