Kingston, Ga. -- The congregation was on its feet singing the old Gospel favorite "I Saw The Light" when Rev. Carl Porter put aside his Bible and reached behind the pulpit for the wooden snake box.
The 56-year-old Georgia preacher slipped his weathered hands inside and, moments later, lifted a 4-foot (1.3 metre) timber rattlesnake into the light. Stroking his deadly cargo, Porter began to hop and strut across the altar.
"Save me, Jesus," shouted a worshiper, his face streaked with tears. Several others, sensing the presence of the Holy Spirit, uttered strings of indecipherable sounds, a practice known as speaking in tongues.
Porter, too, was shouting praises and singing, even as the rattler slithered in between his hands, darting its head back and forth in menacing fashion. Several minutes passed before another worshiper stepped forward to receive the snake.
Returning to the pulpit, the preacher wiped his forehead with a handkerchief and grabbed a mason jar full of strychnine-laced water. He swallowed a mouthful of the clear liquid and smiled.
"I felt the Spirit move on me," Porter explained hours later as he stood in an empty pew in the Church of the Lord Jesus Christ in Kingston, Ga., one of about 40 churches in the southeastern United States that actively practice snake handling.
"God was in the house tonight," the bearded preacher said in his soft Georgia lilt.
An estimated 75 people have died in the United States from handling snakes during religious services in the past 80 years. The practice has so unnerved authorities that it has been banned in every Appalachian state except West Virginia. In Georgia, it remains a misdemeanor to handle a snake without a permit, but the law is rarely enforced.
A retired long-distance truck driver who was known on the circuit by the radio tag "Sneaky Snake," Porter began handling serpents about 30 years ago after becoming disenchanted with mainstream Christianity.
He found comfort within the Holiness Church, a charismatic Christian sect that is home to the estimated 2,000 worshipers who regularly attend snake-handling services in Alabama, Georgia, Kentucky, Tennessee and West Virginia.
Early followers were suckled on the teachings of the traveling preachers of the late 19th century and were attracted, like their descendants, to ministers who preached of miracles and summoned the Holy Spirit.
The Holiness Church, as it did in its infancy, still encourages its worshipers to lay hands on the sick, speak in tongues and provide testimony of miracles. It has no central governing body and does not train its preachers formally.
When they gather in the converted filling stations and other dwellings that often pass for churches, the faithful tend to adhere to strict dress codes -- uncut hair and ankle-length dresses for women; short hair and long-sleeve shirts for men.
But it is their rigidly literal interpretation of the Scriptures, in particular a passage in St. Mark's Gospel, that sets the Holiness apart from Christians elsewhere in the world:
"They shall take up serpents, and if they drink any deadly thing, it shall not hurt them..." Mark 16:18
Those words, attributed to Jesus, are seen as an unequivocal commandment by many of the Holiness faithful. Although no one is required to handle snakes, a traditional symbol of Satan, or drink poison, many eagerly do so.
"I'm hungry to pick up that thing because Jesus told me to do it," Rev. Junior McCormick, who preaches alongside Porter, told the congregation during a Saturday night service last month.
McCormick was pointing at a rattlesnake that only moments before had been draped around his neck. "You can call me a holy roller, but I would rather roll for God than roll for the Devil," he said.
Both men have fingers are that twisted grotesquely from the neurotoxic venom of such encounters.
Occasionally the practice exacts a heavier price.
Hensley, the man christened as the founder of modern snake handling in America, died vomiting blood from a snakebite in 1955.
"I don't believe it's God's will that people get bit. Maybe the Holy Spirit wasn't upon them at the time," says Porter, who watched one of his own congregants die from snakebite during a 1990 service.
The Spirit certainly appeared to be missing in action one night in 1998 when John Wayne Brown Jr., a rising star on the snake handling circuit, was preaching to the faithful in Alabama.
The rattlesnake that Brown was handling turned, sinking its fangs into his flesh. Five minutes later, the preacher's five children were orphans. Their mother, Melinda, had succumbed to snakebite during a service three years earlier.
Police rarely bother the handlers and emergency personnel only intervene when called to do so. Medical attention is always offered to those bitten by snakes, but in most cases it is refused. Antivenom is generally not kept on hand in snake handling churches.
Many handlers will happily endure hours, even days, of swelling, nausea, vomiting and debilitating pain that often accompanies snakebites.
"God didn't say it wouldn't hurt," said Marie Hobbs, a 45-year-old Georgia woman who was bitten by a snake three years ago while in church. "I count it an honor to die for the Lord."