Prodigal King of the Serpents

The cautionary parable of a snake-handling preacher.
Author:
Publish date:
Pastor Andrew Hamblin of the Tabernacle Church of God. (Photo: National Geographic)

Pastor Andrew Hamblin of the Tabernacle Church of God. (Photo: National Geographic)

Andrew Hamblin was 17 when he first discovered the Christian practice of snake-handling. Raised primarily by his grandparents in the Free Will Baptist Church in Tennessee, Hamblin was familiar with some of the more demonstrative, evangelist styles of Christian worship—in his church, congregants shouted, danced, and spoke in tongues—but the pastors never kept glass cases of venomous serpents behind the pulpit. So when he visited Jamie Coots' church during an August revival and saw the Pentecostal pastor pull out two rattlesnakes during services, holding them up in the air and brazenly placing himself face to face with hissing death, Hamblin was mesmerized.

Shortly after that first experience, Hamblin joined Coots' church, the Full Gospel Tabernacle in Jesus’ Name. It would take months before Hamblin even entertained the thought of handling the deadly vipers himself, but when the call came, it was clarion.

In an interview with the Christian Post, Hamblin described feeling the "anointing of God" compelling him to put his hand in one of the boxes and pull out a 45-inch copperhead during one of Coots' services. He never looked back. Within a few years Hamblin was ordained (online), established his own congregation at the Tabernacle Church of God in LaFollette, Tennessee, and began handling some of North America's deadliest reptiles—timber rattlesnakes, water moccasins, copperheads.

Hamblin is a rare figure, seemingly held together by a morass of contradictions and possessing a story that comes together at the strange intersection of Christian fundamentalism, social media celebrity, and the age-old fatal attraction to thrill-seeking acts.

Hamblin has been bit multiple times since taking up snake-handling, and on at least one occasion refused medical attention after a venomous bite. If the practice didn't straddle a razor-thin line between life and death, a tightrope act in the clouds with no safety net, then how would men of God like Hamblin test their faith?

THE SERPENT-HANDLING TRADITION dates back to the early 20th century. Although there is some evidence that its origins are more widespread, Pentecostal minister George Hensley is typically attributed with being the father of the practice. Ordained in the Church of God in Cleveland, Tennessee, in 1915, Hensley was, at the time, "struggling with his faith," says Ralph Hood, a psychology professor at the University of Tennessee-Chattanooga and an expert in snake-handling.

Hensley was wrestling with a specific passage in the bible, contemplating it on a hillside when he looked up to see a venomous snake, according to Hood. "He had been struggling with the Gospel of Mark, which says 'They shall take up serpents,' and he just went over there and picked the serpent up," Hood says. Hensley shared the news about his Genesis-like encounter with the serpent on the mountain, and the practice quickly spread through the Pentecostal movement. Before long it was a polarizing phenomenon in the Southeastern United States, with ministers and members of Pentecostal congregations taking up serpents whenever they felt anointed, and "scoffers" coming into churches with sibilant tangles of vipers in "milk jugs and gunny sacks," daring the believers to prove the power of their faith. Snake-handling fell under siege almost as soon as it caught on, with non-believers barging into churches and throwing down gauntlets, states legislating against the practice, and Georgia even issuing capital punishment for anyone who practiced snake-handling as a religious observance.

The one thing that's kept the tradition alive for so many years—its ace in the hole—is the scriptural evidence from which the practice draws its power. That passage that George Hensley was so hung up on in the Gospel of Mark? Chapter 16:17-18:

And these signs shall follow them that believe: In my name shall they cast out devils; they shall speak with new tongues; They shall take up serpents; and if they drink any deadly thing, it shall not hurt them; they shall lay hands on the sick, and they shall recover.

In addition to subscribing to the Pentecostal movement, snake-handling churches draw from the fundamentalist tradition, which often assumes literal interpretations of the bible. For them, Mark 16:17-18 is a commandment from Christ to those that believe to take up serpents. The highly specific, esoteric theology of snake-handling pastors dictates that reneging on these imperatives from Christ—to cast out devils, speak in tongues, lay hands on the sick, and take up serpents—imperils their eternal salvation. Better to die in obedience to the word of God than to live in defiance of it. This conviction goes a long way toward explaining why pastors often refuse medical attention after fatal bites: they were fulfilling their spiritual imperative to God and if He chooses to call them back with cytotoxic venom, that's fine with them.

Over the past two years, snake-handling has experienced a revival in the national consciousness. In April 2012 the Wall Street Journal covered Hamblin and the Appalachian serpent-handling tradition, focusing also on the pastor’s social media exploits and utilization of Facebook to grow his church. The buzz and cultural novelty of the WSJ profile segued into a reality TV show for National Geographic called Snake Salvation. Hamblin and his mentor Jamie Coots both starred. Although the show only lasted a single season, it brought plenty of attention to Hamblin's Tabernacle Church of God, with people traveling from all across Tennessee to visit the young daredevil.

hamblin-snake-1

Pastor Andrew Hamblin of the Tabernacle Church of God. (Photo: National Geographic)

Hamblin is a rare figure, seemingly held together by a morass of contradictions and possessing a story that comes together at the strange intersection of Christian fundamentalism, social media celebrity, and the age-old fatal attraction to thrill-seeking acts. Even though serpent-handling wasn't a tradition passed down in his family for generations, as is so often the case in the Appalachian region, Hamblin subscribes sincerely to the scriptural foundation of the act. While he was the star of a primetime reality TV show, Hamblin was unemployed and on food stamps, facts that the narrator never failed to underscore. Since the WSJ article in 2012 Hamblin has managed to court fame while snarled by poverty; has cultivated a faint but promising cult of personality while his wife and five children look on; and has continued to risk his life in front of a rapt and ardent congregation, following God's spiritual dictum while simultaneously pursuing the worldly ends of evangelist celebrity.

When one considers the cultural and religious history of Appalachia, though, Hamblin's socioeconomic circumstances hardly come across as problematic. While the Appalachian region is frequently stereotyped as what Hood calls a "culture of poverty and deprivation," this definition is "probably inappropriate." Instead, Hood explains, Appalachia rejects the larger American culture of materialism and financial success in favor of a lifestyle devoted to God and the matter of one's eternal salvation. He even goes so far as to refer to Appalachia as “America’s Tibet.” What outsiders see as a "backwoods" culture sunk in squalor is really austerity by design; these are devout Christians that deliberately insulate themselves from mainstream American values (see: greed) and privilege service to God over affluence and material betterment.

It’s that iconoclasm and matter-of-fact martyrdom that has allowed snake-handling to thrive in the Appalachians for nearly a century. Their steadfast resistance to larger cultural trends sustained religious snake-handling even when the major Pentecostal churches began to abandon it in the 1940s. Over the past 60 years Appalachia has been the perfect bastion for what Hood refers to as the "renegade churches" that continue to practice their literalist, potentially fatal interpretation of the bible, including handling deadly snakes and drinking strychnine.

Considered in the context of Appalachia's cultural beliefs, being a young, charismatic pastor with a growing congregation while struggling to provide for one's family and receiving government aid are not really so hard to reconcile. Like so many of the snake-handling pastors before him, Hamblin's primary concern is serving God through Mark 16:17-18 and bringing more people to his church to be saved. What distinguishes him from his predecessors is his membership in the millennial generation and leveraging of social media to grow his fame as a young, audacious, death-defying preacher.

While Appalachia has historically eschewed mainstream America, Hamblin has enthusiastically appealed to it, speaking with the Wall Street Journal and Vice, taking a starring role in Snake Salvation—which, Hood tells me, earned the disapproval of many a viper-tussling believer—and inviting people from all over to join him at his Tabernacle Church of God. Hamblin was taking an arcane, fanatically guarded custom practiced in rural Tennessee and West Virginia and secluded enclaves of the Appalachian Mountains and unveiling it for the mainstream American media. He wasn't rebuffing the culture of worldly success but courting it.

After Hamblin's celebrity reached its zenith on Snake Salvation and the cavalcade of media coverage that followed, the backslide was precipitous. Two weeks after the finale of Snake Salvation, on November 7, 2013, the Tennessee Wildlife Resource Agency confiscated 53 venomous snakes from Hamblin's church, including copperheads, timber rattlers, and water moccasins. Shortly thereafter a grand jury deliberated on whether to take out an indictment on Hamblin for the litany of charges—53 counts of possession of Class I wildlife, with each count carrying a maximum sentence of a year.

What outsiders see as a "backwoods" culture sunk in squalor is really austerity by design; these are devout Christians that deliberately insulate themselves from mainstream American values and privilege service to God over affluence and material betterment.

On January 8 of this year the grand jury chose not to indict, effectively acquitting Hamblin of all the charges, but the damage to his church and reputation was just beginning. Just a few months later, in June, Hamblin was evicted from his church in LaFollette after the property owner, Clyde Daugherty, said he'd seen too many snakebites and deaths in serpent-handling churches in recent months. In little more than six months, Hamblin lost his reality show, his snakes, and his church, leaving his congregation and quest for fame fractured and likely irrecoverable.

Hood, who is not just a snake-handling expert but also an ambassador for the practice, willing to patiently explain its theological foundations and cultural heritage to all inquirers, has an explanation for Hamblin's downfall. "He was attracted to all the dynamics of handling serpents that had none of the deeply held religious beliefs by which that practice gains a spiritual significance," he says. "Serpent-handlers believe that serpent-handling is a sign of those that believe ... you should be living a holy life, you should be chaste, you should be faithful to your wife. And that's why you handle serpents, as a sign. But if you just handle serpents, because Wow look how exciting this is, how dangerous and risky, and you have none of that other framing, well then it's just silly. It's like giving a kid a powerful motorcycle and he goes out and kills himself."

All of the recent efforts by the media to exoticize snake-handling notwithstanding, the practice is chiefly a display of obedience to God and a manifestation of belief. Like speaking in tongues or laying hands on the sick, it's a passionate, visceral way of expressing one's relationship with the Holy Trinity. Lose sight of that spiritual core, though, and the gauzy line between Holy Roller awash in God’s glory and secular adrenaline junkie vanishes.

The serpent-handling preachers of Appalachia were never meant to bubble up to the surface of American pop culture; answering the siren calls of celebrity and notoriety goes against their deep-seated religious integrity. But the tension between spreading Christian revivalism while abjuring the accompanying fame goes at least as far back as the advent of Protestant mega-churches in the 1950s. The narrative of Andrew Hamblin may just be the first instance of us moving from the morally and spiritually fraught age of televangelism to one of social media revivalists, spreading the word of God laced with the gospel of the self.

Related