Snakehandling

Of all the Christian denominations that have made their way through the Ozarks, the Holy Rollers are probably the most interesting for me. I grew up in what at one time would have been a Holy Roller church, although when I was there the crowd was much more subdued that when my parents were young and going there. I won’t mention the denomination, but will say it was a part of the Wesleyan movement of churches, with an emphasis put on the working of the Holy Spirit and the manifestation of that working in very physical ways like speaking in tongues, shouting, shaking, running around the church, dancing furiously, etc. When I was still going to that church the congregation, in an effort to fit in with other more modern denominations, let fall many of those old traditions, although there were still always shouts of “Amen!” and the occasional long spirit-filled screaming session led by a few older women in the congregation. The wailing women, we used to call them.

The term “Holy Rollers” is used to encompass several different Charismatic Church traditions, mostly from the Methodist/Wesleyan , Holiness, and Pentecostal churches. They were called “Rollers” because of their tendency to roll on the floor when filled with the Spirit. A favorite quote of mine comes from gospel singer Andraé Crouch who said, “They call us holy rollers, and what they say is true. But if they knew what we were rollin’ about, they’d be rollin’ too.”

Vance Randolph mentions the Holy Rollers several times in his “Ozark Magic and Folklore,” although never really in a good light. The Holy Rollers, as well as many other denominations of backwoods Christians, were often seen as strange and uneducated because of their practices and beliefs. Not much has changed today, and while for a time I myself was ashamed of my church background I’ve come to see how important the working of the Holy Spirit is in the work I do, and how those traditions that I grew up with all point toward a deep spiritual well that people in the Church had tapped into.

Here are some passages about the Holy Rollers from Vance Randolph:

“Some backwoods Christians of the wilder Holy Roller cults adherents of the so-called ‘new ground religion,’ ‘pokeweed gospel,’ or ‘lightnin’-bug churches’ do not believe in doctors and will riot take any sort of medicine. Their preachers say that the Word is ag’in physicians, and quote James 5:14-15: ‘Is any sick among you? Let him call for the elders of the church; and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord; and the prayer of faith shall save the sick.'”

“I have seen seven or eight backwoods preachers kneeling about a sick man’s bed, shouting the gibberish they call ‘the unknown tongue.’ As soon as these fellows knew that I was present they stopped yelling, since they believe that the presence of an unbeliever breaks the charm. They claim some remarkable cures of inoperable cancer and the like. I know personally of cases where they have attempted to raise the dead; in one instance they ‘wooled the corpse around’ for several hours, even pulling the body off the bed by their frenzied ‘laying on of hands.'”

“In Taney county, Missouri, I knew an old woman who was very ill and sent word to the nearest meetin’ that she wanted the preachers to pray for her, but did not want them to come to her house because the family was opposed to the “pokeberry religion.” Several of the preachers knelt down in the church, took bottles of holy oil from their pockets, poured a little of the stuff on a handkerchief, and prayed over it in the unknown tongue. The old woman applied the handkerchief to her abdomen next the skin and wore it for several days; then she announced that she was miraculously healed, and the preachers claimed to have effected the cure at a distance of two and one half miles, without even seeing the patient. The woman died a few weeks later.”

“These Pentecostal fanatics do not patronize the backwoods herbalists or power doctors or granny-women, at least not openly. Sometimes it may be that a Holy Roller weakens under the lash of pain and visits a nonreligious healer in secret. But when a ‘new ground’ religionist calls a doctor he generally insists upon a licensed M.D. from town. Physicians in the Ozark communities tell me that when they are called to a Holy Roller cabin they usually find somebody at the point of death. ‘Such people don’t want treatment,’ one doctor said grimly, ‘they just want me to examine the patient, so that I can sign a death certificate!'”

“Some of the Holy Roller preachers are accustomed to bring poisonous snakes into the pulpit, declaring that God will protect His servants from all harm, and quoting various Biblical references to such matters, usually the statement in Luke 10: 19, where the saints are given power to tread on serpents and scorpions and assured that nothing shall hurt them, or the passage about taking up serpents in Mark 16: 18. I have not seen this performance myself, but I once called on one of these ‘snake-wavin’ preachers’ and was shown two large copperheads in a cage. The man of God refused to handle them in my presence, although I offered to make a substantial contribution to his church. He said that he claimed nothing for himself, but that a temporary immunity to snake venom was sometimes given him by God Almighty for the purpose of impressing His poor sinful children. ‘I don’t believe in temptin’ Providence,’ he added, ‘an’ I don’t never touch no sarpints only when I feel the Power a-comin’ on.'”

“The vagaries of some nude Holy Rollers near Forsyth, Missouri, have also been connected in the public mind with the initiation of a witch. I have examined the Rutledge photographs which were given so much publicity by the late Lou Beardon and others, but have never been able to find out just what happened at the Roller camp when these pictures were made. My opinion is that the White River nudists were merely religious fanatics, together with a few thrill-seeking young men from the nearby villages. There is no evidence that they have anything to do with witchcraft.”