And the barbarous people shewed us no little kindness: for they kindled a fire, and received us every one, because of the present rain, and because of the cold. And when Paul had gathered a bundle of sticks, and laid them on the fire, there came a viper out of the heat, and fastened on his hand. And when the barbarians saw the venomous beast hang on his hand, they said among themselves, No doubt this man is a murderer, whom, though he hath escaped the sea, yet vengeance suffereth not to live. And he shook off the beast into the fire, and felt no harm. Howbeit they looked when he should have swollen, or fallen down dead suddenly: but after they had looked a great while, and saw no harm come to him, they changed their minds, and said that he was a god. Acts 28:2-6
When the Church of the Lord with Signs Following got busted up, the preacher’s daughter watched her father being led away in handcuffs and tried to decide whether or not to be disappointed that he was going quietly. As the arresting officer, a lean, clean-cut Baptist, prepared to start the patrol car engine and drive down to the station, he turned to the preacher in the backseat. “I just don’t understand what you Holy Roller types are thinking when you get up to those crazy things,” he said, shaking his head. And the preacher, getting some of his color back for the first time since the police were called in, replied, “If you knew what we were rolling about, you’d be rolling, too.”
You could tell Simon was a preacher without being told: it was his great beartrap of a jaw, the thick, syrupy quality his voice had, like the coffee at the bottom of the cup. He spoke the way a preacher spoke, and in his walk there was the walk of a preacher.
He had founded the Church of the Lord with Signs Following as a young man out of the front room of his family’s home, called one day from his life of idleness and loose intentions. The Spirit bore down upon Simon, and the words of its message streaked like lightning across his mind, and there came a sound as of rushing waters or of an army camp, and he fell upon his face; and when Simon rose again, the path he would wend his life along was clear. On the following Sunday, he hauled the family’s bulky settee onto the back porch to make room for rows of fold-out chairs he’d scavenged from a burnt-out bingo hall in the next town over, and the Church of the Lord with Signs Following was born. Its Pentecostal meetings, lively with music and visions, steadily drew away congregants from the brick-and-mortar churches across town, where worship was quieter and more settled: the sleepy Church of the Nazarene, Mount Zion Baptist with its following of hollow-cheeked grandmothers. Slowly, Simon acquired a string of modest miracles to his name: a woman with an angry swelling around her eye that had calmed gradually under his touch until she could open the droopy lid again to see. A hobbled store clerk who, after attending a service at the Church of the Lord with Signs Following, was able to wean himself off his cane and walk anew. Year by year Simon’s reputation acquired more heft until the man who had once been viewed as a two-bit charlatan playing God from his front step could no longer be so easily dismissed. Ten years before the church got busted up, when his influence had yet to crest, he was the one the natural gas developers approached first as they tried to woo the people of Pine Slopes into signing their land away and letting the company drill––Simon and not the buttoned-up Methodist minister who gave communion down the road. The developers drove up from the lowlands in their long, sleek cars that gleamed like the pelts of gazelles; they stood politely at the back of the room as Simon preached and sang and swayed. And when the allotted moment came, the developers were beckoned up to the front of the room, and as they knelt there, meek and mild, he stood over them and all the people who had crowded round––some still trembling and giving sudden cries as the Spirit dropped away from their bodies––and the preacher declared the men’s plans for the town to be true and righteous altogether, and he gave them his blessing and asked that the townsfolk do the same.
At each and every service Simon spoke in tongues. He laid his hands upon the sick; he drank poison and lived; and at the climax of every service, when the singing and dancing had drawn people’s minds away from their worldly selves and into some swirling mystic Elsewhere, he took out box after box of snakes and before the shaking, praying masses was seen to hold their writhing bodies in his hands and suffer them to move over his chest, his shoulders, his face, with as little thought to them as he would give to a child’s touch. Such is the custom among Pente-costal serpent-handlers of Central Appalachia.