Test of Faith
Signs, Serpents, Salvation
- ISBN: 9780822370345
- Published By: Duke University Press
- Published: November 2017
Pond is freelance photographer, with a M.A. from Ohio University who was awarded the Center for Documentary Studies/Honickman First Book Prize in Photography for Test of Faith: Signs, Serpents, Salvation. The book began as a photo documentary of the serpent handlers of Appalachia but ended up as a visual ethnographic story of forgiveness and redemption as much about Pond as the serpent handlers she photographed.
Pond set out to provide a window into a tradition more maligned than understood. Appalachian mountain religion is steeped in direct religious experience including, for those known as “sign followers,” experiencing God through handling fire, drinking strychnine, and taking up deadly serpents. These are but some of the signs that are the perceived as the proper response to Mark 16: 17-18 among those that believe. The wounds and bitterness of this world, despite death and maiming from serpents, do not hide the joy and they find in obedience to their God and in the assurance of eternal salvation. A sense of this comes through in Pond’s photographs in which her absence is ever present.
The actual text in this book is minimal. Brief comments before four sets of photographs (some captioned, others not) and an afterword (none of the text pages are numbered) tell a story of Pond and Mack Wolford’s family of serpent handlers that emerged unexpectedly and transformed Pond’s documentary.
At only 26 years of age, Pond was perhaps fortuitously thrust into what became her own test of faith. The story is simply enough. Pond’s curiosity about sign followers in an anthropology class in 2010, led her to Jolo, West Virginia. It is in a church in Jolo that Pond meets and is quickly befriended by Wolford, his wife, Fran, and their family. Wolford’s own struggle with faith includes the death of his father from a serpent bite in 1983 when Wolford was only 15. Wolford subsequently “backslid” (left the church), eventually to return in 2011 to establish his own Full Gospel Apostolic House of the Lord Jesus Church in Matoaka, West Virginia as the Jolo church was waning. Wolford’s history largely accounts for the documentary photographs in the first two sections of the book.
In the third section Pond’s photographs are of the lethal bite Wolford received the day after his forty-fourth birthday in May 2012 while preaching a revival at Panther State Park in West Virginia. The lethal bite he received from “old yeller” (a rattlesnake he had owned for years) was not Wofford’s first bite. This one was different though; he would not survive. Pond’s photographs in section three document his death almost hour by hour. Pond is there most of the time, knowing only to continue to take pictures. She is after all a documentarian.
Section four contains over 60% of the photographs and they are more than simply documentation. Wolford’s wife, Fran, had asked Pond to not take pictures of Wofford with his shirt removed, but Pond ignored her and soon Pond herself succumbed to temptation as national press media contacted her and persuaded her to let them use some of her photographs, including ones of Wolford dying shirtless. A rift between Fran and Pond follows, with Fran rebuking Pond for her shirtless photos being released to the media against her explicit wish. Here is the test of faith for Pond.
Invited back to the anniversary of Wolford’s death in 2013, Pond is shown forgiveness by Wolford’s family and documents their life in visits that become at least a yearly sharing of thanksgiving holidays. There are serpent handling photos of Wolford’s brother, who continues with his own church, and of “old yeller” who continued to be handled until his death on the exact date of the third anniversary of Wolford’s death. But mainly the photos are of Wolford’s surviving sign following family at home, loving one another, forgiving and accepting Pond as one of their own. In the process Pond is no longer a documentarian, but simply another human in dialogue with and seeking to understand those once so distant as to be only “others.” She has become, in her own words, a visual ethnographer.
There are few words in this book to help understand a tradition as integral to Appalachia as Buddhism is to Tibet. Appalachia is in many ways America’s Tibet. Photographic books on Tibet abound, many with no words. Even the few words in Pond’s book are often in error. The unfortunate title of the book can suggest that sign followers consider handling serpents a test of faith rather than simply an act of obedience. Not only is handling not a “test” of faith, neither do all, as Wofford did, handle by anointing, as Pond claims. Many handle simply by faith. Baptism varies even among sign following traditions. The “Jesus only” tradition of Wolford’s family is at odds with the trinitarian tradition of mainstream Christianity.
But the few words of the text matter little. It is the pictures that define this book. Open the book, and whether you are of faith or not, see what Pond came to see: people of faith, enduring to an end we all face. See sign followers seeking only to be obedient to their God. See people believing, loving and caring, backsliding and returning to be baptized again. And yes, dying. See people so human in their failings and need for re-baptism that a common saying among believers (however baptized) is that even the fish know who they are. Pond’s magnificent book will introduce them to you. There is another common Appalachian saying amidst the debates over baptism that outsiders find baffling. Sign followers will ask you, despite what believers say about baptism, have ever seen it? Pond’s book will not make you believe in sign following, but perhaps you will see it. Perhaps you will come to see that sign followers do need not to be explained away in yet another documentary. They need to be seen. Test of Faith lets you see them. What then is tested?
Ralph W. Hood, Jr. is Professor of Psychology & LeRoy Martin Distinguished Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga.Ralph W. Hood, Jr.Date Of Review:March 8, 2018