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The Serpent Handlers: Three Families and Their Faith

Fred Brown and Jeanne McDonald

John F. Blair, Publisher
$15.95 paperback
6 x 9    
356 pages
black-and-white photos throughout
Published in 2007

“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.


  • Winner of the Harry Caudill Award for Journalistic Reporting
  • Finalist in Religion from Benjamin Franklin Awards
  • Finalist in Religion from IPPY Awards


“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. Neither charlatans nor lunatics, the sign followers have intense faith and absolute conviction, and their readiness to die for their beliefs is impressive. A real insight into this unusual aspect of American religion, this book is recommended for academic and public libraries.” —Library Journal
The Serpent Handlers: Three Families and Their Faith tells the stories of three families of the Signs Followers faith—a branch of Christianity originating in 1910, whose members take Mark 16: 17–18 as a central tenet of their belief. Known for the sensational aspects of their belief—picking up poisonous snakes, drinking strychnine, and speaking in tongues—Signs Followers have often been negatively portrayed by the media. Journalist Fred Brown earned their trust through longstanding respect, and offers The Serpent Handlers as a counterbalance. Great pains have been taking to present the stories of the serpent handlers in their own words, without extraneous editorializing, though each individual's memoir is prefaced with a summary of who he or she is and his or her role in the movement. A must-read primary source highly recommended for anyone interested in learning more about Signs Followers and their faith.”
Midwest Book Review