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TEST OF FAITH: SIGNS, SERPENTS, SALVATION (2016)

Lauren Pond

Pentecostal serpent handlers, also known as Signs Followers, hold a literal interpretation of a verse in the King James Bible’s Gospel of Mark which states that, among other abilities, true believers shall be able to “take up serpents.” For more than a century, members of this uniquely Appalachian religious tradition have handled venomous snakes during their worship services, risking death as evidence of their unwavering faith. Despite scores of deaths from snakebite and the closure of numerous churches in recent decades, there remains a small contingent of serpent handlers devoted to keeping the practice alive.

Who are the serpent handlers? What motivates them to continue their potentially lethal practices through the generations? Documentary photographer Lauren Pond traveled to West Virginia in search of answers to these questions. There she met Pastor Mack Wolford, one of the best-known Signs Following preachers in the region, and spent the following year documenting Mack and his family. The course of her work changed dramatically in May 2012, when Mack, then forty-four years old, suffered a fatal rattlesnake bite during a worship service she attended. Pond photographed the events that followed and has continued her relationship with Mack’s family.

Test of Faith provides a deeply nuanced, personal look at serpent handling that not only invites greater understanding of a religious practice that has long faced derision and criticism; it also serves as a meditation on the photographic process, its ethics, and its capacity to generate empathy.

“Lauren Pond’s beautifully intimate portraits of spiritual yearning and loss should be reminders to all the rest of us that ‘feeling after God’ is dangerous business and was never intended to be otherwise.”—Dennis Covington, author of Salvation on Sand Mountain: Snake Handling and Redemption in Southern Appalachia

“Lauren Pond plunges us into the hothouse atmosphere of the Wolfords’ faith. Through her photographs, I can almost feel the physical strain of Mack’s worship, and I long to hear the song that his mother, Snook, sings as he accompanies her on guitar. Who are these purposeful, vibrant people so different from myself? Test of Faith commands this question and prompts me to consider the basis and limitations of my own worldview.”—Peter Barberie, prize judge and Brodsky Curator of Photographs, Alfred Stieglitz Center, Philadelphia Museum of Art

“I no longer see my images as documentation of serpent handling practice and culture. Instead, they serve as a record of my rich friendship with the Wolfords, our shared experiences, and the valuable insights they have given me into the tenets of their faith—namely, forgiveness and redemption.”—Lauren Pond

“Mack Wolford and his family are holiness people who take up serpents as a simple act of obedience based upon their understanding of the Gospel of Mark. Lauren Pond’s wonderful photos are visual windows into their lives. They may test your own faith. And while no holiness handler would urge you to violate your faith, all would urge you simply to pray for, and perhaps, like Lauren, with, those whose faith seems distant from your own.”—Ralph W. Hood, Jr., Professor of Psychology and LeRoy A. Martin Distinguished Professor of Religious Studies, University of Tennessee, Chattanooga

Test of Faith: Signs, Serpents, Salvation
Photographs and text by Lauren Pond
Foreword by Peter Barberie
144 pages | 11 x 10 | 96 color photographs
$45.00, hardcover | ISBN 978-0-8223-7034-5

Available in November 2017 in bookstores or by ordering from Duke University Press

 

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