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Freak show or spiritual test? Book explores world of snake handlers

Andrew Hamblin preaches while holding a snake above his head in LaFollette, Tenn. Photo courtesy of National Geographic Channels

(RNS) — When Andrew Hamblin walks into church to preach on a Sunday morning, he brings along death in a box.

If the Holy Spirit moves him during the service, he will open the box’s hinged glass lid and remove a poisonous snake — one of several he keeps at his house — and dance with it, sometimes wearing it, sometimes jerking it about, as his small Tennessee congregation sings and chants.

Hamblin, who is in his mid-20s, is one of a handful of pastors at the center of “In the House of the Serpent Handler: A Story of Faith and Fleeting Fame in the Age of Social Media,” a new book by Julia Duin. A freelance religion reporter, Duin embedded herself in multiple Appalachian snake-handling congregations like Hamblin’s to discover what drives people to what she calls “the radical edge of Christianity, where life and death met every time you walked into a church and picked up a snake.”

Snake-handling churches have dotted Appalachia for a hundred years and are generally secretive. Members tend to be older and born into the church, rather than converts. But Duin’s book focuses on a new breed of snake-handling preachers — young and adept at using social media to attract attention, including teenage and 20-something members and television crews, to their dangerous services.

“I feel like these young people want a belief system that calls for sacrifice,” Duin said from Seattle, where she is based. “They want to give themselves for something. They feel the church has lost an important teaching, that we should be handling serpents, so they are willing to put their lives on the line to get what they call the ‘whole gospel’ back to the church. That if they did this, more people would be accepting Jesus.”

Julia Duin and her daughter, Veeka, attend a service at Andrew Hamblin’s snake-handling church in Tennessee on May 4, 2013. Photo courtesy of Julia Duin

Duin gives a lot of ink to the preachers themselves, letting them explain why handling snakes and endangering their own lives (and those of others, including the family members who live in homes with as many as 20 vipers) is vital to their faith.

“There is such a power coming over you and you are obedient to the spirit of God,” one of the preachers tells Duin. “You are compelled to do what He tells you and you know it will be all right.”

Snake handling traces its roots to the Pentecostal fervor that swept the U.S. in the early 20th century. Pentecostals believe in “signs and wonders” — that speaking in tongues, prophesizing and faith healing are spiritual gifts endowed by the Holy Spirit.

Snake-handling Christians believe in signs and wonders, too, but they also believe taking up snakes is something God commands them to do. They point to Mark 16:17-18 as the source:

“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.”

They also routinely drink poison — strychnine is the usual cocktail — and apply flames to their hands or feet to show the power of God.

As Duin documents, snake handlers don’t always recover after they’ve been bitten. Most snake handlers place their faith in God, not doctors, to heal them and don’t seek medical treatment.

“In The House of the Serpent Handler” by Julia C. Duin. Image courtesy of University of Tennessee Press

The list of deaths is long — more than 100. Two of the preachers Duin featured died before she completed the book. Jamie Coots, a Kentucky preacher, was bitten by a rattlesnake in February 2014 and died two hours later, his family having refused medical treatment. West Virginia preacher Mack Wolford was bitten by a yellow timber rattler at a service in 2012 and died 10 painful hours later. He was 44 — five years older than his father, also a snake-handling preacher, who died of a bite in 1983.

Both Coots and Wolford — like Hamblin in that they wanted to draw more people to the sect — were the subjects of National Geographic’s short-lived reality show “Snake Salvation.” While that 2013 show ushered the curious into some snake-handling churches for the first time, few seem to have stayed.

“The traditional (snake handling) churches are doing fine,” including ones in North Carolina, West Virginia and Kentucky, Duin said. “They are actually growing. It is the ones that went the reality show route that have really burned out a lot. It didn’t help them that Jamie Coots, who tried to be a statesman for the group, died.”

Ralph Hood, a professor of psychology at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga and an expert on snake-handling churches, said Duin’s book documents the divide between snake handling’s old and new guards.

“Elders that carry on the tradition are disturbed by … ‘Snake Salvation’ and marvel at the appeal (to a broader audience) that fails to understand the depth of what it means to handle serpents,” he said in an email. New preachers attracted only by the showmanship of handling snakes are missing the point of the ritual, elders say.

“It is as if an alcoholic converted to Catholicism to drink wine on a Sunday morning in a dry county,” Hood said. 

Duin, a Christian, disagrees with the snake handlers’ interpretation of the biblical verse about taking up serpents. She, like the vast majority of mainstream Christians, believes it is a hypothetical or even a metaphor — but says it is a mistake to ignore or disparage them.

“These people have a drive and zealousness for their faith and I feel like other churches could really take some lessons from them,” Duin said.

“I feel like in some churches, if the Holy Spirit rushed in, he’d be ushered right back out. I would like to see churches bring them in to speak — just leave the snakes at home.”

About the author

Kimberly Winston

Kimberly Winston is a freelance religion reporter based in the San Francisco Bay Area.

23 Comments

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  • Now if we could only get some more good Christians to convert to a “snake-handling” denominations…How about it? …Franklin Graham, Fallwell Jr. Roberson, Perkins, Barton, Dobson, Cruz, Palin, Paula White, others?…Show us true faith…kiss yourself a serpent !!

    It’s idiotic of course…but at least these fools below put it all on the line…unlike the typical fundagelical hucksters…

    Quote:
    “…The list of deaths is long — more than 100… Jamie Coots, a Kentucky preacher, was bitten by a rattlesnake in February 2014 and died two hours later, his family having refused medical treatment. West Virginia preacher Mack Wolford was bitten by a yellow timber rattler at a service in 2012 and died 10 painful hours later… five years older than his father, also a snake-handling preacher — who died in 1983…”

  • Tempting as it is, I’m going to resist the impulse to crack wise about these people. I mean, I don’t mind taking a swing at a fat pitch now and then, but this is just too easy.

    But I will say that tempting fate doesn’t seem to me to be the same as faith. If God wants to put me in situations where I may be called upon to become a martyr, so be it. But until that happens, I intend to wear my seat belt, drive at a reasonable speed, watch my cholesterol and avoid poisonous snakes.

  • Matthew 4:7

    Jesus replied, “It is also written: ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.'”

  • Bear in mind just 2 EUREKAS, yeah?

    EUREKA 1: Mark 16:17-18, Luke 10:19 and Acts 28:1-6 – READ IT – weren’t written so you can form a snake-handling religion and congregation!

    EUREKA 2: Noone else but only George Went Hensley (1880–1955) came up with the idea!

  • This article makes me curious – scripturally curious as to the God-honest truth regarding them snakes and whatever (contrary to these rogue Pentecostals).

    (1) For some reason, because “the Eleven … [showed] lack of faith … [even] after He had risen”, Christ Jesus rebuked them this way: “Those who believe … will drive out demons … speak in new tongues … pick up snakes with their hands … drink deadly poison [and] not hurt … place their hands on sick people [to] get well” (Mark 16:14-18). That means He knew the forthcoming history of Christianity will be nothing but a history of faithless, borderline atheistic, Christians, like those 11 apostles!

    (2) For some reason, because “the seventy-two [professed that] demons submit to [them on account of His] name”, Christ Jesus explained (in Luke 10:17-18) how that was even possible: (a) Because the prophecy that envisions “Satan fall[ing] like lightning from heaven” is about to be fulfilled. (b) Because the “authority to trample on snakes and scorpions and to overcome all the power of the enemy” has been bestowed. And (c) because, as far as these 72 disciples were concerned, the believers’ “names are written in heaven.”

  • “Show … true faith … Kiss … a serpent”? But they did. And still do. All the time, in fact.

    The serpent’s name is Donald John Trump.

  • One wonders how many Christians, Pentecostals or otherwise, understand that snake handling represents joining two energy flows and moving that new energy up through the fourteen energy centers to attain God Consciousness.

  • This is the reality of the level of compartmentalization believers feel they need to indulge in. They are so desperate to appease their god that they are willing to deny reality. And yet at the same time, I have no doubt but that they look both ways before crossing the street. And wear a seat belt. And don’t stick their hands inside a running lawnmower, etc. They say their god will protect them, but, will he really?

    What would they do if their god said doing so was a sin? Jesus already told them that washing their hands before eating wasn’t necessary, which is foolish on its face.

    Give irrationality an inch, and it’ll take a light-year.

  • The last twelve verses, 16:9–20, are not present in two 4th-century manuscripts: Codex Sinaiticus and Codex Vaticanus, the earliest complete manuscripts of Mark. Their faith is based on a later addition to the text and is a grave error.

  • I agree with your overall point that it’s foolish for people to tempt fate in the name of faith. God isn’t in the business of saving people from dumb choices.

    That said, Jesus didn’t say it wasn’t necessary to wash one’s hands. He just used Jewish rituals concerning the washing of hands to make a point about how true corruption comes from within a person, not from externals. Besides, the Gospels aren’t a manual on personal hygiene.

  • The laws you referenced were written centuries before the Gospels. Besides, those things dealt mainly with ritual impurity, not personal hygiene, though there is a relationship.

  • I’m not dismissing the Old Testament. I just didn’t use it as a point of reference in my original post. And, as I’m not a Biblical literalist, I don’t get caught up in such discussions.

    In any event, I’m happy for you that you dropped your metaphorical mic. That must have been very satisfying. I’m moving on now. Enjoy your day.

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