‘Snake Salvation’: Inside the World of Christian Serpent Handlers

The National Geographic Channel isn’t known for religion-themed programming, but this fall they’ve created an edgy docu-drama about one of America’s least-understood Christian groups. “Snake Salvation,” their 16-part reality series on two Pentecostal snake-handling families, starts this tonight at 9 pm EDT.

You’ll see a lot of believers slinging about a ghastly collection of timber rattlesnakes, water moccasins and copperheads while praying in tongues and dancing “in the Spirit.” A crew spent much of this past spring on location with these Pentecostals and their congregants in northeast Tennessee and southeast Kentucky.

The title is pretty cringe inducing for one of the stars: Andrew Hamblin, the 22-year-old pastor and father of five from LaFollette, Tenn.

“It puts a lot of people off,” he says. “I don’t believe people go to hell because they don’t handle snakes. What I mean to say is that if I said snake handling is wrong, then I would be lost because I denied the Word of God.”

He and fellow pastor Jamie Coots, 42, of Middlesboro, Ky., believe Christians must obey a phrase in Scripture – specifically Mark 16:17-18 – that they say mandates the handling of serpents and the drinking of poison as signs that God has power over evil.

“I don’t say anyone has to handle serpents to go to heaven,” said Coots in a recent Facebook post touting the coming show. “As for myself, God has opened this up to me and if I don’t do it, I will go to hell.”

Unsurprisingly, the series terms all this “A Hell of a Way to Pray.” Filming begins with a typical church service in a blaze of ear-splitting gospel-and-blues rock while a collection of pit vipers hiss away in glass-covered snake boxes near the pulpit. Once these pastors feel God’s anointing is present, out come the reptiles, sometimes in clumps of three or four wriggling bunches held aloft by these men and other church members. The women – all wearing long skirts but no makeup or jewelry as part of an unspoken Pentecostal Holiness modesty code – handle them too. Sometimes these serpents bite. Most times they don’t. The episodes also concentrate on the more mundane aspects of life as a serpent handler: Raising the five rambunctious Hamblin children, conflicts among the Coots clan over a daughter’s divorce and frequent trips to the woods in search of snake dens to replenish their stock.

The show’s producer, Matthew Testa, says he likes snakes and has found that the folks who handle them aren’t cardboard fundamentalist cutouts.

“They are very intelligent, very well spoken and very deeply committed,” Testa says. “They opened their lives to us in a very trusting way. You expect a lot of fire and brimstone but they are very easy to communicate with.”

The show’s pretty sympathetic to these pastors and their followers and – at least during the first two episodes – provides no counterbalance from other Pentecostals who thoroughly disagree with the snake handling. And plenty do, which is why most of the dozens of serpent-handling churches in six Appalachian states stay hidden from the media. Finding these handlers is “like an anthropological discovery,” Testa says. “You go into Appalachia and feel like you’re recording music out of the archives of the Smithsonian. That music has been handed down for many years. Only a small niche of people can play music in this style.”

Well, you hear plenty of it and see some of these folks get bit, although no one dies, except for a West Virginia handler who perished in May 2012 and is shown in a brief film clip. He is one of about 100 people who have perished from snakebites in church services over the past century. A spate of deaths in the 1940s and 1950s led legislatures in several Appalachian states to pass laws against the practice on the grounds that it endangers oneself or others.

“I feel it’s a specious argument,” says Ralph Hood, the University of Tennessee/Chattanooga professor who advised the National Geographic series and has written two books on the movement. “As a consenting adult you are allowed all sorts of high-risk activities. You can hang glide or rock climb or play football. All those activities produce more deaths than snake handling. So the argument you’re protecting people from high-risk activity doesn’t work. The serpent handlers handle serpents because it’s part of their obedience to God.”

And Testa reports they’re harder on themselves than any outsiders who venture by.

“People are vying for their own happiness and trying to adhere to these rules they believe very deeply,” he says of a dispute over divorce and remarriage that appears in two episodes. “It’s hard to balance the whole thing.”