anthropology english


Yongho Kim
October 27, 2003
Anthropology (248) of Religion

Members of the Holiness Church (the Sign Followers) of Eastern Kentucky, West Virginia, and elsewhere in the U.S., maintain that faith alone is not enough to prepare a believer to handle serpents, speak in tongues, heal through prayer, etc. Describe what is required of a believer before the person is fit to follow the mandate laid down in the New Testament Book of Mark, Chapter 16, Verses, 17-18. In our readings and discussions, have we encountered similar kinds of requirements in other cultural settings? What, where, and amongst whom?

According to Park Saylor, “Faith isn’t enough. You have to be anointed to handle snakes.” (Kimbrough 114) Anointing is the state occurring when “God transfers spiritual power to an individual”. Believers are careful in pointing out that the initiative does not come from the individual, but that it is “The Spirit [who] moves on you”, and you “cannot pump up [through music] for anointment” (25). Thus anointment is believed to be a passive process, in which the believer merely receives it from God.

This understanding is certainly a tautological one, for there is no way in which an argument may stand against the veracity of the theory. If a believer is not bitten by the snake, then it is claimed that it was because of the anointment. If a believer is bitten by the snake, it is argued that the believer acted without really being anointed, or that he or she acted under the false assumption of being anointed. And there is not a physical cue for an external observer to decide whether or not a person is anointed. Although Pack says that his hands start drawing and that he gets a warm feeling all over when he is anointed, he also is careful to point about that “everyone is different”. (25)

Often, it is argued that the person did not have enough faith. (26) Faith is seems to be understood as a prerequisite for anointment to be received, for some people are bitten for lack of anointment despite their faith, but no stories of people bitten for lack of faith while under true anointment are told. It is also sometimes argued that the person was bitten, and allowed to die, to prove the point that the handled snakes are actually dangerous against incredulous non believers. (119)

Kimbrough examines the common historical background shared between Tennessee, West Virginia and Kentucky: by the turn of the century, this area was a mostly subsistence farming society that quickly developed a mining industry during World War II. He observes the poor working conditions, the low wages, and company scrip regimes resulted in the overall deterioration of the socioeconomic environment in Appalachian states, and then claims that snake handling was “a response to the social anomie that had resulted from the emerging industrial capitalism” (93). From chapter six on, he sets on linking the socioindustrial antecedents of each one of the snake handlers and pastors with their involvement in the mining industry.

Thus I believe Kimbrough’s approach to the issue of snake handling is an essentially pragmatic one. Suspicion is sometimes raised by the practitioning mountaineers themselves: Ernest’s wife said “[he] just had too much faith” (138). Adkins affirms that “If you can’t get hold of the power of God, medicine is a wonderful thing.” (149)

The existence of an element, necessary for miracles to happen, which cannot be attributed to the practitioner but to other elements, is a common theme between the mountain Snake Handlers and the Mormon Water Witches of Homestead, Texas. Incidentally, both Vogt and Kimbrough take on a skeptical approach to the rites, while also finding social grounds for the emergence of miracle producing rituals.

The Mormons in Homestead, Texas, depend in farming and because water is scarce in the area with no nearby rivers, they have dug wells. In 1933, a farmer found out that he could witch to find out locations of water. The practice consists of carrying a Y-shaped stick loosely on the person’s hands, and the stick is to tilt if nearby water is found. (Vogt, Hicks 428-31) Two explanations are given: one says that the sheer magical power of the water witcher moves the stick; another says that underground water produces “electromagnetic fields” which stimulate the witcher’s water muscles, which respond to electricity by moving. (434-35)

Often, water may not be found in “witched” sites. Because of this, the magical explanation is implausible, unless the witcher holds that the well dried out while digging was going on. The second theory defends itself arguing that there were other pieces of metal which “confused the stick”. However, the theory amounts to a tautological argument, for there will always be some piece of metal somewhere – the witch does not say how far the object may be, he just states that there are such metal objects . (432) Theoretically, the theory is unsound, for physics observes no “electromagnetic fields” emanating from water sources. It may be said that the “fields” are not really electromagnetic but rather other non observable ones, but then it cannot dodge the accusation that the water witch is merely clinging to a widely known notion of electromagnetism that most people in the U.S. learn in high school to legitimize their argument.

Vogt observes that according to geologists, water can always be found if the well is dug deep enough, due to the structural formation of the area. What is hard to know is how much should the well be dug, and how much water will be found in it (whether or not it is worth to dig a well). This creates a social uncertainty in deciding whether or not to start a digging site at all, and also a psychological uncertainty in deciding when to stop when water is not found. (Should the diggers stop at 100 feet, when water may be found at 110 feet? Should they stop at 200 feet?) Local geologists, however, have been ineffective in relieving this stress afforded upon farmers, for they cannot provide the very specific information in deciding the spot in which to initiate the digging, and coming from the big cities, they are often not available. This is the gap that the water witch covers, by claiming that the farmer should dig in a specific site, based in his own reasons. (437)

Vogt has also compared statistical data on outcomes of “divined” wells and “non divined” wells, with the results that water witches do not improve the chances of divining a well, with a rate of success of 80% in contrast to an 89% rate for non divined wells. Vogt’s conclusion is thus that water witching is merely an explanatory system developed to alleviate the frustration of digging a dry well and the fears of initiating a failing digging, and that may even prove prejudicial for the randomness of the witched sites, while sites based at least in general geologic knowledge would not lead farmers to dig wells over hills. (438)

Both the Pentecostal Snake Handlers and Mormon Water Witches have created a tautological theory for explaining miracles that needs to justify instances when the miracle does not happen. Both also are reactions by the people to a pressing social problem. Should Kimbrough follow Vogt’s method in disproving the miracles, he would need a certain sample of non believers touching the snakes unharmed, and claim that those instances of failed cases (bitten practitioners) are merely the natural rate of failure in handling snakes, anointed or not anointed. But the proof becomes particularly complicated in its implementation, because failed cases do not lead to the loss of money as they do in well digging, but the possible loss of life.

Kimbrough’s got a tough one right there.

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