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Spencer Evans was 20 minutes into his sermon when he felt the Spirit "move on him". He leaned over, reached into a handmade wooden box and brought out 4ft 5in rattlesnake. The congregants were still on their feet, their arms waving to and fro in celebration of the Lord, their bodies damp from the dank north Georgia air. Evans never saw the snake strike, but he remembers the feeling. "It hit my wrist. It was like a baseball popped me."

Two hours later, 23-year-old Evans was found slumped in a nearby trailer, his arm black and swollen, his blood pressure plummeting, hours from death. He said that he wanted to let the Holy Spirit take over. None the less, he was taken to hospital, where they "cut my arm and laid it open, cleaned and sewed me up."

Nine days later, he had rejoined his friends for a service at the Holiness Church of the Lord Jesus Christ in Kingston, Georgia. Again he was moved by the Holy Spirit; again he handled snakes. "I done took 'em up. I still believe it's right. The Bible didn't say they wouldn't bite."

Mr Evans is one of an estimated 100 snake-handlers at some 35 Holiness churches scattered throughout the Appalachian mountains across the South- eastern states. Glenn Adkins, pictured above, is another. He has been handling snakes for 33 years and has never been bitten. He attributes this to his strong faith and the power of the Holy Spirit. These handlers firmly believe that Scripture instructs them not only to handle snakes but also to drink strychnine. ("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..." Mark 16:18, Authorised version)

Nowhere else in the world are there congregations like these. In the broadest terms they are fundamentalists, interpreting the scriptures literally. They recognise only the Authorised King James version of the Bible and consider themselves fiercely independent of mainstream Christian denominations. Though similar to the Pentecostals in that they also speak in tongues, these churches are not part of any global denomination or governing body and do not recognise earthly authority - preachers "rise" or are "called upon" to preach.

The Holiness Church was founded 80 years ago by a preacher called George Hensley. He came from the Church of God, based in Cleveland, Tennessee, but broke away in the early 1920s, when it stopped embracing serpent handling. The tradition had grown up among the subsistence farmers of the Appalachians, driven off their homesteads when mining speculators found vast reserves of coal on their land. Simple and uneducated, to be drawn to faith in God these families needed to see something demonstrative, which roving preachers offered through this and other "miraculous" methods, such as healing through the laying on of hands.

Today's 2,000 Holiness congregants concede that theirs is not a church for mainstreamers or part-timers. There are strict rules of conduct and dress, and their faith is at times tested by death: there have been 77 recorded serpent-related deaths since the 1920s. Spencer Evans's own snake bite has not shaken his belief: it will be months before he has any movement in his arm, he has lost his job at the textile mill, and he has no insurance; but his faith sustains him. "When I got bit, I was kind of afraid of passing over to the other side, or staying alive. God is so powerful. God told us to fear him. He said: `The beginning of wisdom is to fear the Lord.' He knows every serpent I ever took up and why I got bit. God had control over his mouth - God knows why."