Credo. This one-word sentence, “I believe” in Latin, is a simple, powerful declaration of faith without qualification or reservation. The photographs in Credo document moments in the religious lives of a small congregation of Signs Following believers and their pastor, Reverend Jimmy Morrow, at a Church of God in Jesus’ Name Only in the southern Appalachian Mountains. The practices of Signs Followers are based on New Testament scripture from Mark 16: 17-18:
And these 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.
Worship services at the church are characterized by expressionistic preaching by the pastor and believers, ecstatic dancing, lively gospel music, and the Signs Following practices as described in Mark 16. Their worship often includes the healing “laying on of hands,” and the practice most distinctive of these believers, the handling of serpents. Some believers take up serpents only under certain conditions—the handler must have entered an ecstatic state called “anointment.”
Those who have experienced anointment often describe it as “God moving on me.” Believers who handle serpents without experiencing anointment are said to handle “on faith” alone and are thought to be at greater risk of snakebite. The act of handling serpents is not viewed as a test of faith or of God’s grace, but rather as a willingness to place one’s life in God’s hands according to the literal interpretation of God’s Word. Although serpent handlers often say, “God gave us victory over serpents,” they are very much aware that a bite from the poisonous snake is not only possible; it may be fatal.Since the early 1920s, ninety Signs Following believers in the U.S. have died from poisonous snake bites received during religious services. Nine others have died from drinking poison. Because of these practices, law enforcement officers, the courts, and the media have portrayed Signs Followers as demented, dangerous zealots and have sensationalized their practices, especially serpent handling.
Historian Deborah V. McCauley, writing in Appalachian Mountain Religion: A History (1995), notes that these forms of worship still practiced in the southern highlands are among the very few uniquely American forms of Protestantism. Today, Signs Followers occupy a prominent place among the diminishing number of believer groups who challenge the dominant religious culture. Signs Followers exist on the far margins of American religious life, yet resolutely maintain their cultural and spiritual identity through their distinctive art, music, language, and worship practices.
In Varieties of Religious Experience (1902), William James defined religion as “. . . the belief that there is an unseen order and that our supreme good lies in harmoniously adjusting ourselves thereto.” Consistent with this definition, Signs Followers profess passionate faith and dramatically demonstrate it as prescribed in the King James Version of the Bible. Of relevance to the marginal socio-economic status of most Sign Followers, James also warned against “. . . the assumption that spiritual value is undone of lowly origin” (pages 57, 32).
Historically, the regard of the mainstream denominations toward Signs Following has been much less liberal than that of William James. McCauley quotes Ellen Myers, a 19th century mainstream Protestant missionary who reported to her sponsors, “Unless these people have help, they will prove a fretting leprosy in our nation.” Despite the American tradition of valuing religious liberty, this attitude persists.
During my work with the Signs Followers, I found them to be authentic, independent people who are committed to their religious traditions and deeply embedded in the rich culture of the southern Appalachian highlands. Reverend Jimmy Morrow possesses a profound spirituality and a magisterial knowledge of his historical and religious origins. He produces artworks inspired by his faith and writes about his prophetic dreams, the history of the serpent handling tradition, and of other practices, including incongruously, cock fighting.
My work as a documentary photographer is rooted in my academic training in both photography and in the psychology of art. My primary interest is in making images that convey the lived experiences of real people, in real time, in a real place, doing real things that are meaningful to them. I never orchestrate the activities of my subjects, and I am present among them with their consent. I work to make images that, although they are subjective reflections of finite moments, may serve as texts that embody universal human experiences, or least fragments of them. I value any formal beauty in my work, but my goal of capturing, in the authentic moment, the immediacy of people’s lived realities supersedes art’s time-honored goal of producing conventionally composed, gorgeous and easily-read photographs that ensure mass appeal.
I am grateful for any good fortune that the light gives to my photographs.