I recently read a compelling and vivid book about snake-handling congregations in Appalachia, especially in West Virginia and Tennessee. The book is "Salvation on Sand Mountain" by Dennis Covington. In it he describes his assignment as a journalist to visit and write about small churches who practice these bizarre and death-courting behaviors in the name of God and holiness. After a while he gets personally involved and eventually takes up the venomous snakes himself. At the end of the book he renounces the practice out of common sense and a desire to stay alive.
I have visited Tennessee many times and my friends there are aware of snake-handling churches. In fact one of my good friends in that state has fond memories of a preacher she once knew; she said he was a good and holy man and she had much respect for him, even though he handled poisonous snakes at the holiness services. The practice has been illegal for some time but it still takes place in secluded rural areas where congregants risk (and sometimes lose) their lives proving God's power (or, to non-believers, tempting God).
While reading this book I had a fantasy about what the religious world would be like if snake-handling had become a mainstream form of Christianity. In the early days of Christianity there was a Gnostic sect called the "Ophites," who were said to have venerated the serpent that taught Adam and Eve the knowledge of good and evil, as well as the Brazen Serpent which Moses set up among the Israelites in the wilderness in order to heal them from real serpent bites. There is no record of the Ophites actually handling real snakes, though. I don't think snake handling would make a good mainstream religion. You can't afford to lose so many members.
Black gel pens on sketchbook page, 5" x 4", July 2013.