[quote="ltwin, post:11, topic:339499"]
I'm not sure if it's really a "test of faith" for them.
I'm not a snake handler (snakes creep me out). But I am Pentecostal (so I have some insight into some of their worship practices), and I did just get through watching this youtube video of a snake handling Pentecostal preacher talking about it: youtube.com/watch?v=y2uGQ6B7HDM
Notice that he says, "This is something you can feel. It's not something that I wanna take a box of rattlesnakes and start takin' 'em out and puttin' 'em around my neck and all that unlessen the Spirit begin to move on me. See it gets on you, you don't know what you doin'. God's in control. He may tell you to run. If He said run, you gonna be runnin'. . . . "
In other words, this is not something you do to "test your faith." It's something you do "in the Spirit" or as the Spirit moves you.
It's very analogous to the more widely accepted Pentecostal practice of dancing in the Spirit, except that people who dance aren't putting their lives at risk. In dancing, Pentecostals aren't trying to "prove their faith" so much as they are being carried along by the Spirit.
IMHO, the same psychology is at work in snake handling, and I'd bet that most snake handling churches teach that you should only handle the serpents if you feel that there is an anointing on you to do it.
Based on Covington's book, that would be correct. The snakes only come out sometimes, "when the Spirit moves them" as they say. Many services ended with the snakes still in their boxes.
Empowerment can't be overlooked here. Most of the people Covington met had minimal social status, big personal problems, had suffered tragedy after tragedy. Handling deadly animals, normally without harm, is a way of exercising control over "the world" which has come down so hard on these people. It shows that God is protecting them (if you get bit and die or get ill, it means you "misjudged the Spirit" and shouldn't have been handling in the first place, if they get bit and the snake doesn't inject venom, it is seen as a sign that God is protecting the believer) and shows them to be brave about themselves and their faith in a way that people outside their church aren't. Insider/Outsider dichotomy is big here, as it normally is when looking at Appalachia.