Reviewed by Meygan
Dennis Covington is a journalist just trying to make a living. In the past, he has put himself in dangerous situations to cover stories, but he hasn’t been scared enough to quit his job just yet. He becomes intrigued by a story about snake handler and pastor who is accused of attempting to murder his wife by rattlesnake, and decides to do his own investigation.
Glenn Summerford is the pastor of The Church of Jesus with Signs Following, a church in situated in a rinky-dink gas station in Alabama. In spite of being someone who preaches the word of God, there is a dark side to Mr. Summerford. In a drunken rage, Mr. Summerford puts a gun to his wife’s head, forces her to stick her hand in the cage of rattlesnakes he keeps for his church services, and refuses to take her to the hospital when she asks medical attention after she has been bitten. His wife had participated in the snake handling services before but only at church. Willingly accepting a rattlesnake from someone in a holy ritual is one thing, but being forced to pick up the deadly reptiles is another. She manages to escape after her husband passes out from the amount of alcohol he has consumed.
It doesn’t take long for the trial to become national news. Even more than the sensational murder attempt, people are riveted to reports about Summerford’s religious beliefs. Trying to delve into more information about the church and its people, Covington and his photographer friend begin to attend The Church of Jesus with Signs Following. Covington was raised in a Methodist church, so he was taken aback by the usual rituals of a snake handling service. But still he found something fascinating about the handling of rattlesnakes and what exactly causes the people to get so close to death just to feel Jesus within their presence. The longer Covington spends at the church, the more engrossed he becomes. Most of the people at the church have accepted him as a member, referring him to as Brother Dennis. Some hint that they wish he would handle snakes and participate in their rituals but not in a forceful or demanding way.
While Salvation on Sand Mountain does provide minimal coverage about Glenn Summerford’s trial, the book mainly focuses on Covington’s spiritual awakening and the people of the church. Although I enjoy reading about religion, this is not a book I thought I would appreciate due to Covington’s journalistic viewpoint. However, my wariness was laid to rest as I flipped through the pages, captivated by Covington’s “voice.” I enjoyed reading his spiritual memoir, and I can see why this book was a National Book Award Finalist.