Salvation on Sand Mountain
by Dennis Covington
Boston: Addison-Wesley, 1995. 272p
Dennis Covington was born in Birmingham, Alabama, in 1948. In Salvation on Sand Mountain he describes going to a relatively tame Methodist church when he was growing up, though the church was often visited by firey, Pentecostal type preachers. He began attending a Baptist church with his second wife shortly before the central events he describes in the book.
Covington earned an MFA from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop in the early 1970s and has taught both English and Creative Writing throughout his career. He is currently a professor in the English Department at Texas Tech University.
In between teaching assignments, Covington served as a reporter and columnist for several newspapers, including The New York Times. In 1983, he served as a freelance war correspondent in El Salvador.
Covington has published two YA novels, three memoirs including Salvation on Sand Mountain, along with numerous essays and short stories. Religion is a topic he revisits frequently. For example, in a 2007 review of Christopher Hitchens’ God is Not Great, Covington defends religion in general, and Christianity in particular by poking holes in Hitchens’ theory that “religion kills,” holding up Martin Luther King Jr. and Dietrich Bonhoeffer as positive political figures whose faith Hitchens misinterprets.
In the tradition of new journalism by Michael Herr and Norman Mailer, Covington investigates the small snake handling community in the Appalachian mountains that is connected to an attempted murder trial. Glen Summerford, the former Pastor of the church, is tried and convicted of trying to kill his wife with snake venom.
It isn’t long before the trial recedes into the background. The real story here is the snake handlers themselves and Covington’s involvement with them. Covington provides detailed, sympathetic descriptions of their services where participants speak in tongues and handle snakes.
Gradually, Covington becomes part of the community. He speaks in tongues, even handles snakes, and experiences the same ecstasy he sees others experience. The experiences prompt him to dig into his own past, desperately searching for a hereditary connection to the snake handlers. AT the same time, Covington always distances himself from the group; he never fully describes himself as one of the snake handlers.
Covington's internal struggle becomes external when he preaches gender equality in the church. The male authorities in the church reject him, and Covington leaves the community for good.
The snake handling church Covington investigates is a Pentecostal-Holiness church. Members of the church practice glossolalia, snake handling, become slain in the spirit, and demonstrate various other ecstatic experiences. The book is filled with descriptions of these experiences. The book also shows other elements of the community, including its suspicion of outsiders, its uneven gender roles, its tendency toward simple, modest dress, etc. Although these elements may be more common to other Pentecostal churches than snake handling, they are hardly universal to all Pentecostal churches.
Salvation on Sound Mountain was widely and generally positively reviewed when it was released. For example, in his review for The New York Times, Lee K Abbott calls Covington’s memoir “a book of revelation—brilliant, dire, and full of grace.” The book was a finalist for the National Book Award in 1995.
William Jolliff points out that some reviewers did quibble with the book because of the way it crosses genres. Reviewers who wanted more an anthropological study of the snake handlers were confused by Covington’s introspection.
Some academics are also confused about how to situate the Salvation on Sound Mountain. In his book Between Heaven and Hell, Robert Orsi critiques Covington for his rejection of the snake handling church at the end of the book. For Orsi, it represents the moralizing tone to many Religious Studies scholars take when writing about “radical others.” Russell T. McCutcheon takes issue with Orsi’s underlying thesis about methodology in Religious Studies, and comes back to Covington as an example. McCutcheon and Orsi both read Covington's book as a reflexive study of the snake handling community.
Unlike the two Religious Studies scholars, Jolliff, a literary scholar, reads Salvation on Sand Mountain as a spiritual autobiography which is supposed to be more about Covington’s spiritual journey than the community he is observing. Jolliff compares the book to Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises, making the argument that the earlier novel is the unconscious subtext of the more recent memoir. The paper is relatively simplistic and reveals little about the text.
Abbott, Lee K. “Death Rattle.” The New York Times 9 April 1995.
Jolliff, William. “Redeeming the Serpentine Subtext: Dennis Covington’s Appropriation of Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises in Salvation on Sand Mountain.” The Hemingway Review 30.2 (2011): 73-87.
McCutcheon, Russell T. “‘It’s a Lie. There’s No Truth in It! It’s a Sin!’: On the Limits of the Humanistic Study of Religion and the Costs of Saving Others from Themselves.” Journal of the American Academy of Religion 74.3 (2006): 720–50.
Orsi, Robert A. Between Heaven and Earth: The Religious Worlds, People who Make Them, and the Scholars who Study Them. Princeton: Princeton U P, 2005.