By Sonny Scott
It has happened again – a preacher has died after being bitten by a snake he was handling in a worship rite. No doubt many Americans are surprised to find that snake handling is still being practiced in America.
For a thousand years, the Latin Church regulated European society, defining its morals and shaping the lives of the faithful through its sacraments. Authority emanated from the Bishop of Rome, and was shaped by Scripture, the traditions of the Church, and councils convened for the purpose of standardizing doctrine.
By the 14th century, European society was in a state of flux. Nation states led by ambitious secular princes were willing to challenge the power of the Vatican, and a series of weak Popes allowed the institution to come under the power of the French monarch. Resentment of the wealth of the Church and its sanctioned monastic orders simmered among the people, and fed the avarice of the princes. Educated priests like Wycliffe in England and Hus in Bohemia criticized the venality of the higher clergy and traditional, non-scriptural parts of its doctrine. Dissent was suppressed by interdict, excommunication, and the pyre of the heretic, but the power of an idea whose time has come flows like the tide. By the time of Martin Luther in the 16th century, the reform movement had become a tsunami.
As Europe was divided by the Protestant Reformation, the Protestant churches needed a source of authority to slow the pace of schism. The reformers embraced the idea of the Bible as the sole authority in matters of faith and practice.
As the general level of literacy increased and the application of rigorous scholarship to the scriptures became common, Protestantism faced a crisis of authority. Serious readers found discrepancies in scripture, and scholars questioned the authorship of several works.
Some Protestants adopted creeds and liturgies that accommodated scholarship, but others became what we now call “fundamentalists.” The latter insisted on literal interpretation, verbal inspiration and inerrancy of the scriptures as articles of faith.
Fundamentalism took root in North America, and spread rapidly in the wake of the Great Awakening. It is still influential here, especially in the South. The 20th century was a tough time for fundamentalism as a belief system. Wide-spread literacy brought New Testament scholarship to wide audiences. Some affiliated with groups more amenable to new ideas, and some left the faith altogether. Hard-core fundamentalists, however, simply made belief in inerrancy and literal, verbal inspiration of the scripture a litmus test for fellowship.
Reconciling modern life and fundamentalism is a publisher’s dream. Book stores feature religion sections laden with works defending fundamentalist beliefs by explaining away apparent discrepancies in scripture through assorted “harmony of the gospels,” commentaries, etc. Millions of church members simply reach accommodation in their personal lives by professing belief in fundamental tenets while living just like everyone else.
They send their children to public school, make pre-nuptial agreements, divorce at the same rate as non-church members, carry fire insurance on their church buildings, and pledge allegiance to the flag of the empire in their sanctuaries. A friend of mine once admitted, “I am a pragmatist in the classroom, a realist when I have a stomach ache, and an idealist on Sunday morning.”
There is a certain subset of fundamentalists, however, who are committed to their belief system. In a ham and egg breakfast, they are the ham. Their churches are located mostly in the upland South.
The buildings are likely one-room frame or cinder block, or converted service stations. They sometimes meet outdoors. The names vary, but the phrase “Signs Following” is clue that this is as fundamental as it gets. They handle snakes.
I have heard Quakerism described as “Protestantism carried to its logical extreme.” Well, the “Signs Following” churches are fundamentalism carried to its logical extreme. The term comes from the Gospel of Mark, chapter 16, verses 9-20. Scholarly consensus is that these verses were added to the work by a redactor who found the closing of the narrative insufficient in the post-resurrection story. You cannot get more fundamental than to stake your life on the veracity of such a passage.
These people are consistent, and worthy of admiration as far as consistency goes. Emerson has noted, however, that “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines.”
Sonny Scott is a Chickasaw County resident and a community columnist. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.