38 pages 1 hour read

Dennis Covington

Salvation on Sand Mountain: Snake Handling and Redemption in Southern Appalachia

Nonfiction | Book | Adult | Published in 1995

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Summary and Study Guide


Dennis Covington’s Salvation on Sand Mountain: Snake Handling and Redemption in Southern Appalachia is a work of non-fiction, originally published in 1995. The narrative begins when Covington starts reporting on Glenn Summerford’s trial for the attempted murder of his wife, Darlene, by rattlesnake bite. Brother Glenn is a preacher in a snake-handling church in Scottsboro, Alabama, which is close to Covington’s home in Birmingham. Glenn is pleading that his wife tried to commit suicide and had received the snake bites of her own free will, whereas Darlene accuses him of forcing her hand. As background information on the trial, Covington decides to visit Summerford’s church, called The Church of Jesus with Signs Following.

After the church in Scottsboro shuts down, Covington is invited to attend services on Sand Mountain where three snake-handling preachers named Carl Porter, J.L. Dyal, and Charles McGlocklin would be preaching under a brush arbor. Covington begins to participate actively in the services himself, rather than as a journalist and observer, and earns the name Brother Dennis. A testament to their newfound trust in Covington, Brother Carl invites Covington and his photographers to attend their 20th annual homecoming in Jolo, West Virginia, over Labor Day weekend. Up in Jolo, the desire to testify seizes Covington. For the first time, he entertains the reality of the Holy Ghost. Some of the more rigid members of the congregation in Jolo, such as the ailing matriarch Barbara Elkins, do not approve of Covington’s participation.

Covington brings his family to a service at Carl Porter’s church, the Church of the Lord Jesus Christ, during which his daughter appears to be very enthusiastic about the services and Covington has his feet ritually washed. Afterward, he decides to research his own family history and discovers not only a direct line back to a Methodist circuit-riding preacher from Scottsboro on his mother’s side, but also evidence of several other Covingtons living in the area and practicing snakehandling.

A few months later, Covington visits Brother Carl at his home in Kingston, Georgia, before attending services at his church. Covington helps Carl load his snakes into his car for the service, prompting him to recall his own history with snakes, which he began catching as a child on East Lake. Since then, Covington has caught three rattlesnakes for sport as an adult long before Summerford’s trial had even begun.

In the spring of 1993, Glenn’s cousins, Billy and Jimmy, start a new church on top of Sand Mountain. Covington attends the first annual homecoming at the Old Rock House Holiness Church near Macedonia, where he handles a snake for the first time. Covington reflects on his own journey, saying that half the time he thinks everything about snakehandling is real and the other half he’s still not sure what he believes in. For the rest of that spring and summer, Covington leans into his role in the church and accepts himself as one of them, testifying whenever he can.

In May, he drives to Happy, Kentucky, to meet with Gracie McAllister, an elderly member of the church in Jolo, West Virginia, and begins to collect “war stories,” or personal experiences, that snake handlers have had either from witnessing fatal rattlesnake bites or experiencing near deaths themselves. During this investigative phase, Covington runs into a man named Dewey Chafin at a snake-handling homecoming at the Church of Jesus Christ in Middlesboro, Kentucky, just a few days after Dewey’s 117th rattlesnake bite. After the service, Covington encounters Elvis Presley Saylor, who has been referred to as “the Wicked One” during the sermon itself. Elvis has been outcast from the church but his faith in snakehandling remains. Covington is struck by how small the snake-handling community is and feels disgusted by its treatment of Elvis. He remarks how unbeknownst to him, he is close to becoming ostracized himself.

Covington’s final foray into snakehandling occurs at his first and only experience of a wedding within this community. He and his wife, Vicki, are invited to the wedding of Diane Pelfrey and Steve Frazier. During a second snake-handling service, held after a traditional wedding and reception, Brother Carl humiliates Vicki and Melissa Springer in an anti-feminist rant against women stepping out of place in the church. He then invites Covington up to preach, which ends in disaster after Covington attempts to convince the conservative audience otherwise. Covington knows he has moved away from his obsession with the church and these snake handlers. He leaves, happy in the knowledge that he wishes them no ill will and has even made lifelong friends with Aline and Charles McGlocklin.