It’s the morning of Nov. 7, 2013, and Andrew Hamblin, a 22-year-old pastor with ordinary, boyish looks and extraordinary ambition, is behind the wheel of his family’s black Windstar minivan driving toward his church. It’s 52 degrees, warm for autumn but made to feel colder by a northwesterly wind ruffling fallen oak and maple leaves. Along the road ahead, Cove Lake’s rippling surface reflects the Cumberland Mountains. Heading west on Jacksboro, Hamblin makes a left onto a smaller, tighter road as four game wardens from the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency follow him.
Hamblin has led the Tabernacle Church of God in LaFollette, Tenn., since late 2011. The building is squat and brick. Concrete crosses are inlaid in its walls. Across the street, an emphatic WELCOME! is scrawled in red, loopy script on the side of a blue mailbox, which is gently rusting at its hinges. Beside the mailbox, a sign nailed to a juvenile maple reads POSTED: NO TRESPASSING. At the base of a dirt driveway, a slim marquee lists Hamblin’s name under PASTOR, above service times: Friday at 7:30 p.m., and Sunday at 1 p.m. The church sits at the top of the driveway, adjacent to a gravel parking lot, at 345 Longmire Lane.
At 10:31 a.m. Hamblin posts to Facebook from his Android. “Anyone and everyone that will please begin to pray now. 4 game wardens have me at my church now. I don’t know what the out come [sic] will be but Liz” — his wife — “will keep everyone posted. Mark 16:18 is still real.”
Hamblin’s is one of an estimated 125 active serpent-handling churches. He and his congregants handle venomous snakes in the name of Jesus — a century-old practice inspired by the verse Hamblin mentioned in his post and outlawed in every state but one. You’d think a church where supplicants risk their lives and break the law would keep itself small and secret. Hamblin’s is anything but. After a write-up about the church in The Wall Street Journal, Hamblin and his mentor, a fellow serpent-handling pastor named Jamie Coots, became the stars of a new National Geographic Channel reality-television show called Snake Salvation.
Standing beside the church door, Hamblin kicks at some desiccated cacti in a stone planter. Redheaded, round-nosed, and dressed in gray slacks and a tucked-in, purple button-down, he stands just over 6 feet tall. Stuffing his hands into his pockets, he sighs and watches the wardens load their SUVs with aquariums full of writhing copperheads, cottonmouths, and timber rattlesnakes. In total, the TWRA agents confiscate 53 venomous snakes that morning, and cite Hamblin to court for the illegal possession of Class 1 Wildlife — an offense that carries a fine of $2,500, and a potential sentence of up to 11 months and 29 days in jail, per animal: $132,500, five decades, and three years in total. When the wardens knocked on the Hamblins’ door earlier that morning, they said, simply, “You know why we’re here.” And Andrew Hamblin did. “I wasn’t gonna lie,” he later tells me.
Historically, “Appalachia” — which is not just a range of mountains, but a culture — has curated a backwoods and backward image thanks, in part, to its association with poverty, coal mining, and illegal moonshine production. Moonshine is hardly the problem of the day: LaFollette, Tenn., is just one of an increasing many towns notching both the Bible Belt and the newly buckled Meth Belt. The bond within a church like Hamblin’s is forged on a crucible of danger and trust. If someone is bitten, the congregation prays; if someone dies, the church looks after the family that person leaves behind. Among converts, that sense of community is strengthened by their choice to take up serpents and by everything they forsake: premarital sex, alcohol, and, of course, drugs.
“There were a lot of people who had struggled with addiction, had been on the wrong side of the law, had been involved in drug dealing and crime, and really wanted to reform their lives,” Snake Salvation executive producer Matthew Testa told Time before the show premiered last fall.
In December, Duck Dynasty’s Phil Robertson let his controversial, if unsurprising, thoughts about same-sex marriage and race slip to GQ. Suddenly, he was either redneck bigotry personified, or a guardian of traditional values. (In a post on Facebook, Andrew Hamblin called him the latter.) Like Robertson, Hamblin is a product of reality TV’s special brand of prestidigitation: Stars start out as people and end up caricatures, defined by whatever fans and foes do or do not want them to be. To some, Hamblin is a hillbilly with a deadly hobby, but to others, he’s a man of faith in a godless time.
Which is why, 15 days later, when Hamblin stands outside the Campbell County Courthouse, he stands as a soldier in the Lord’s army. He’s fighting America’s most dubious battle: the War on Christianity. And he’s brandishing the First Amendment like a flaming sword.
“I won’t ever stop taking up serpents,” he says. “I’ve got God’s law on my side.”
A man spoke to God on a mountain, then carried down new rules. The man was George Went Hensley. The mountain was White Oak, in south-central Virginia. The year was (probably) 1910, the tinnitus end of the Pentecostal boom, a decades-long fundamentalist trend in American religious fashion. The movement catered to the working-class poor — migrant workers, and the children of former slaves, especially — and anyone else seeking an extreme expression of faith to counter their extremely devastating daily lot. The movement insisted upon literal readings of the Bible; intense, spontaneous, and demonstrable sacred experiences called “gifts of the Holy Spirit” were paramount. Early Pentecostal congregations screamed in agony and danced for joy. They spoke in tongues and, in the absence of divinely rendered miracles, they performed their own — faith healings and exorcisms — and scared the shit out of a whole lot of milquetoast middle-class white folks in the process. In the years leading up to serpent handling’s near-nationwide banning, horror stories of wives lost to Pentecostal frenzy and children suffering bites fueled public outrage and legislation.
Like early Pentecostal worshippers, contemporary serpent handlers defer exclusively to the King James Version of the Bible. The sect Hensley started draws inspiration from Mark 16:17–18: “(17) And these signs shall follow them that believe; in my name shall they cast out devils; they shall speak with new tongues; (18) 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.” And Mark 16:15–16 says: “(15) And He said unto them, Go ye into all the world, and preach the gospel to every creature. (16) He that believeth and is baptized shall be saved; but he that believeth shall not be damned.” Serpent handling, in other words, is an evangelical tool — evidence, however suspect, that God both is and is great.
Even though Pentecostal churches “spoke in (new) tongues,” “laid hands on the sick,” and “cast out devils,” they tended to skip the Book of Mark’s lethal suggestions. Maybe George Went Hensley was extra gung ho because he’d only just been saved. He’d been a boozehound, a layabout, a notorious Lothario; by some accounts, he was out to prove his conversion’s sincerity. Then again, he might have always been an all-or-nothing type. If some of the signs in Mark 16:17–18 were worth following, Hensley figured all of them should be, snake handling and drinking “deadly things” included. (Most snake-handling churches have a jar of strychnine or liquid lye resting on the altar.) So Hensley found a rattlesnake on top of White Oak Mountain. He prayed to God for protection so he could handle the snake unharmed, and did. Then, snake in hand, he bounded back down, found an audience of receptive ears, and got to preaching.
Hensley died of a snakebite in 1955. For serpent handlers, that fact is totally beside the point. The scholarly consensus is that most verses after the eighth chapter in the Book of Mark were way-late additions, not remotely present at the text’s inception. The point, as Ralph Hood Jr., who literally wrote the book on serpent handling,Them That Believe, puts it, “is that a powerful charismatic personality can unveil a text for a receptive audience — a text in which a potential role has heretofore been ignored.”
Hood, a professor of religious psychology at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, has spent 25 years conducting research in serpent-handling churches and church members’ homes. In the process, he’s become a friend to many snake handlers and something of an ambassador on their behalf. Lately, that ambassadorial role includes religious-rights advocacy.
“To date and at present, serpent handling is the only New Testament-based Christian practice that is actively legislated against in the United States,” Hood tells me. Some of that legislation has been draconian, to say the least. Anyone caught preaching a literal interpretation of Mark 16:17–18 in the state of Georgia, for example, was eligible for capital punishment until 1968. Federal laws would have overridden a death sentence in such a case, but still — that’s how long the law stayed on the books. In 1947, after five people died in two years from snakebites in serpent-handling churches, Tennessee passed a law (which is still in effect) forbidding “a person to display, exhibit, handle, or use a poisonous or dangerous snake or reptile in such a manner as to endanger the life or health of any person.” The only state that hasn’t made serpent handling illegal is West Virginia.
Despite laws prohibiting the practice, and the obvious, grievous bodily harm practitioners face, adherents remain devout, defiant, and capable of converting new members who grew up outside the sect — like Andrew Hamblin.
On a Friday night in late October, the parking lot outside Hamblin’s church is a mayhem of out-of-state cars. Dark blue palmetto trees grow under a gibbous moon on South Carolina license plates; on Kentucky’s, a thoroughbred bolts. One family of five traveled to LaFollette from Georgia for the weekend — all big fans of Snake Salvation.
Hamblin greets me outside with a handshake, smiling wide. “Welcome, welcome, glad to have yinz here,” he says, swapping y’all for the same nasal yinz (“you ones”); his is a bottlenecked, Appalachian accent that’s hard to ignore. In a way, it’s fodder for anyone critical of Hamblin who wants to discredit his defense of his faith.
“I’d just love to get a Ph.D. in theology, you know?” he tells me. “That’d be the coolest.” But between the snakes and his five children (Liz and Andrew have a set of twins, and their first child was born when they were 16), his hands are perpetually full. Hamblin never graduated from high school, and he doesn’t have a GED, which is not to say he isn’t scholarly. I grew up in a born-again household — church three times a week, no alcohol in the house, Bible camp, the whole package — and I have never heard anyone quote scripture as lengthily or as accurately as Andrew Hamblin can. After we talked, I checked my tape recorder against my own King James Bible. At one point, he monologues a chapter of the Book of Job — the entire chapter. And he doesn’t miss a verse.
Since Snake Salvation premiered on Sept. 10, 2013, Hamblin says, services attended by fewer than 75 people are rare. One hundred, even 120 worshippers jockeying for standing room is more common. Compared with the numbers he preached to just months before — 10 people, maybe 20 during revivals — the difference is profound. “People who see the show find me on Facebook ‘n’ want to know where the church is, can they come to the service — all that,” Hamblin says, “and I tell ‘em, ‘Yes. Of course. All are welcome.’”
Hamblin shares links and pictures and updates his Facebook status three or four times a day. Most call people to worship (“Service starts at 7:30 tonight. Come EXPECTING a blessing!”) or keep friends and fans keyed into his plans. “I’ve had Facebook messages and friend requests — lord! I’ve had so many I can’t even keep up with them all.” It’s a new platform, but an old technique; Hamblin uses Facebook the same way Billy Graham used TV. He had to make a fan page to keep his updates going around. A sermon podcast is in the works. He’s been talking to a local jail about starting a prison outreach ministry. (“We’ll have to leave the snakes at home for that,” he concedes.) His grandest goal: to one day lead an international megachurch.
When Hamblin’s cell phone goes off, I recognize the ringtone — the reality show’s theme song, “My Salvation” by the band Hendricks. Before excusing himself to take the call, he makes a request: “I’ll ask you to sit a ways back from the front, just like in Jolo.”
Catholics have Vatican City. Elvis Presley fans have Graceland. For serpent handlers, the Church of the Lord Jesus with Signs Following in Jolo, W. Va., is synonymous with the practice, mostly because it can be practiced there legally. Far from keeping fringe religions’ typical low profile, Jolo’s former pastor, Mark Randall “Mack” Wolford, was famous for opening his church’s doors to writers, photographers, or anyone curious about snake handling. In fact, it was there, in Wolford’s church, in late 2011, where I first met Andrew Hamblin. I was 22 and had just graduated from college, Hamblin was 20 and had just become the pastor of his own church in LaFollette, and Mack Wolford was still alive.
“Nobody’s been bit since I’ve been pastor here, and that’s the way I want to keep it,” Hamblin says, pressing redial on his phone. “Kids are kept away from the serpents,” he continues, eyeing me like he’s assessing my potential derring-do, “and neither do visitors.” I solemnly swear I’ll keep away from the snakes. Hamblin nods, presses his phone to his ear, and steps inside to take his call.
The sanctuary walls in Hamblin’s church are lined with scripture-quoting placards in various states of humidity warp. A drum set, keyboard, and guitar are set up behind the altar, each hooked to standing amps wedged into the corners at the church’s northernmost wall. On the wall is a mural of people clinging to rocks, buttressed against sponge-painted waves in an angry sea.
Like Coots’ church in Middlesboro, the snake-handling church in Jolo is old-school; women there wear their hair long enough to sit on (1 Corinthians 11:15: “But if a woman have long hair, it is a glory to her: for her hair is given her for a covering”) and don’t show much skin that isn’t on their face or hands. By comparison, Hamblin’s congregation looks wildly progressive. In a pew perpendicular to the pulpit, Elizabeth Hamblin is wearing a floor-length skirt and a long-sleeve shirt, as are a few sweet-faced teenage girls sitting with her. Everyone else is dressed like they got off work 10 minutes ago (some of them have) or plan on going out when church is done. Flannel or camouflage prints and work-stained blue jeans seem to be the men’s standard uniform. Several women wear jeans and denim jackets pocked with rhinestones, and one girl is wearing a truly fabulous pair of fringed, white leather cowboy boots. Not even the hoop through my septum marks me out: The tips of Tabitha Bennet’s short black hair are dyed a hot, violent pink; the jewels in her nose ring and the stud through her upper lip match.
Bennet lives in LaFollette, where she works as a hairstylist. She started coming to the church in September with her ex-husband, Shawn, who isn’t a recovering drug addict, but fully recovered, she says. Shawn saw “Andrew’s show” and was baptized shortly after during a church revival: “Since he got saved, it’s like he’s a whole new man. He has truly been healed.” Before that, he was addicted to an unfathomable list of prescription stuff, Tabitha tells me proudly, pointing Shawn out — a clean-cut guy in a pressed collared shirt, standing with a crowd of men talking to Hamblin.
Just before the service starts, a couple from Maryville, Tenn., sits down on my right. The woman tells me they found out about the church from the show. “We don’t take up serpents ourselves,” she says, “but we respect what he” — meaning Andrew Hamblin — “believes.”
I ask them why they attend if they don’t hold with the practice. Her husband answers: “It’s his passion. Pastor Hamblin has true spirit, a true love of God. We belong to another church, the both of us, but we come here once before on Friday nights for that.”
Hamblin was raised by his grandmother and grandfather, a minister of a Freewill Baptist Church. He grew up feeling more like a brother than a son to his mother: “My mother was a meth addict. Meth, pills, booze — she looked like somethin’, like a monster from a zombie movie.” He says painfully little about his father. Hamblin learned the guitar by playing gospel music at his grandparents’ church, and he learned to play it pretty damn well: When he was just 13, he started playing bluegrass professionally. By 14, he’d played banjo for several bands in Knoxville and Nashville. At 15, he performed at Dollywood, Dolly Parton’s theme park in Pigeon Forge, Tenn., while Elizabeth Marie, the pretty blonde girl he’d marry three years later, rode the rides and watched him play from the theater’s stands. When he moved his fingers, he could “make it rain,” a pawn shop clerk said not long ago, when Hamblin tested a banjo he eventually bought for $50 cash.
“I was good,” Hamblin says of his own talents. And yet, he chose to leave the musician’s life behind him before he was old enough to vote. “I knew that I could be one of those men that has a tour bus, that has a mansion home in Nashville, yet I felt a calling in my life to the church.”
When he was 17, Hamblin saw the pastor of a church in nearby Middlesboro, Ky., featured on CNN. At that point, Pastor Jamie Coots wasn’t a celebrity, or even the head of a prominent church. In fact, his church was tiny; about 15 people attended on average. CNN featured Coots because of his small church’s peculiar, if old practice. Like his father and grandfather before him, as his son after him will be, Coots is a snake-handling preacher.
“Growing up at our church, we spoke in tongues,” Hamblin told an interviewer at The Christian Post last September, “even at a Free Will Baptist church — we spoke in tongues, we shouted, danced, believed in baptism of the Holy Ghost, just like a Church of God or Pentecostal church would.” So when he saw people handling snakes, speaking in tongues, he thought, Hey, they ain’t much different than we are and I want to know if this is real or not.
Hamblin handled a serpent for the first time in Coots’ church when he was 18, shortly after he and Elizabeth married. The snake he picked up — a black rattlesnake — hadn’t been handled before. “I just went numb all over,” he says, “I only handled it for 30 seconds before I put it back in the box, but it felt like a lifetime, like time stopped.” He assumed responsibility for the Tabernacle Church of God a few years later, after being ordained online.
At the front of the church, Hamblin warms up, tapping out an upbeat tempo with his foot. His guitar is a Squier Bullet Strat with tremolo — a Fender known not for having the best sound, but for staying in tune for hours on end. Capped with a maple neck and a rosewood fretboard, its basswood body is a shade Fender calls Daphne blue. “Praise the Lord, everybody!” Hamblin cries, starting the service. Unless he is preaching, music plays ceaselessly during the service — gospel only, because snake-handling churches consider other forms ungodly — but what songs I couldn’t say. The amp’s feedback is extreme; the woman who sings along — a miniature blonde with curiously sunken cheeks — sings from her throat, too close to the mic.
Six people speak in tongues during the service, which lasts about four hours. It sounds like some long dead language, like guttural, vowel heavy panting. I lose count of the number of people who weep. Pentecostalism began as a heavily emotive brand of worship, and like crying, speaking in tongues — glossolalia — can be thought of as an expression of emotion, and evidence of a faith strongly felt if inexplicable. In serpent-handling churches, feeling is doubly important. “It’s a belief better felt than told,” as Hood puts it. Congregants “take up” serpents (which can mean anything from holding them in their bare hands to whirling, or even juggling them) in one of two ways: by faith — saying a prayer and hoping for the best, essentially — or when they feel what they call “the anointing.” By most accounts, the anointing is a bulletproof vest with a get-out-of-jail-free card pinned to its front — a palpable blessing from the Holy Spirit, God’s tangible, protective hand.
Or, as Hamblin sums it up: “When you feel the anointing and God moves on you to take up serpents, even if one of ‘em lays fangs into you, you shall not be harmed.”
Unslinging his guitar strap, Hamblin hands his Fender to a congregant and reaches under a bench by the altar for the snake box — a hinged-topped, handmade pine affair with a plexiglass window below the carved warning WAIT ON GOD. If I had to guess, I’d say Hamblin wears a 29-inch inseam. If it weren’t coiling itself up into a lasso around his forearm, I’d guess the timber rattlesnake he pulled out of the box is almost as long. “If anyone should see this here — if an unbeliever could see this power, then there ain’t no way on earth they could keep from shouting with joy,” he says. “This is real, children, and there must be a God for man to do a thing like this.”
The snake’s scales are mottled, yellow, and brown. Its head is shaped like a heart.
Rattlesnakes, like copperheads and cottonmouths (aka “water moccasins”), are vipers. Their venom is partially neurotoxic — meaning it’s a paralytic, freezing a bite victim’s diaphragm until one suffocates — but also hemotoxic. The hemotoxic enzymes in rattlesnake venom lyse proteins, snapping them down to their constituent polypeptide chains and amino acids by dissolving the molecular bonds that make and keep their shape. Rattlesnake venom stops blood from clotting and all but dissolves soft tissues, allowing the venom to spread. It is widely recognized as they most painful sort of snake venom.
At Wolford’s church in Jolo, a handwritten sign on the altar reads: “The Paster [sic] and Congregation are not Responsible for anyone that handles the Serpent’s [sic] and gets out. If you get bit the church will stand by you and pray with you. And the same goes with drinking the poison.” Most serpent handlers choose not to see a doctor if they’re bitten. When Wolford was bitten in his thigh by a timber rattlesnake during a service in 2012, he refused medical treatment until it was too late. Imagine: Ten hours after being bitten, you’re lying on a couch in your mother’s home while she holds your hand. Imagine: Her husband, your father, died in that same house, from the same kind of bite, 30 years before. Imagine: The venom is destroying the flesh around your very nerves, and your best friend, who’s there with you, asks you if you want to go to the hospital. Imagine telling him no.
After the services end, Hamblin sits down next to me on a pew at the front of his church’s sanctuary, crosses his legs, and folds his hands in his lap. I can hear cars pulling out of the parking lot outside. He and I are alone in the church but it’s not uncomfortable. In fact, even though I know a rattlesnake is in a box under the altar, barely 10 feet away from us, I feel remarkably safe. There’s something about Hamblin — he’s just open. Wide-eyed, and totally candid.
“I miss Pastor Mack so much,” Hamblin tells me. He wasn’t there when Wolford was bitten, but he was one of several pastors at his funeral who preached and handled serpents over their friend’s open casket. “But, it was his time. God called him home and he went,” he says as he massages two fingers on his right hand, crippled from a rattlesnake bite. He cannot make a fist with that hand. “You know, he” — Wolford — “was the one who convinced me to let reporters come here. He always had journalists and photographers up at Jolo. Then we got wrote about in that article there,” Hamblin says, pointing to a framed Wall Street Journal article hanging in the entryway, “and it was after that we got asked to do the show.”
There are two more scars from snakebites on the back of Hamblin’s neck — milky pinpricks I wouldn’t have noticed if he hadn’t pointed them out. A copperhead latched on at the base of his skull, released, and sunk its fangs into Hamblin for a second time, lower down. When I ask him what the bites felt like, he says the rattlesnake bite had been the most painful thing he’d ever felt. “I was foolish. I picked it up from pride, not because God moved on me to.” The copperhead, though, “didn’t feel like anything. That’s the power of the anointing. I was not hurt. No harm done. No swelling or itching or nothing. Just a little blood was all.”
“The snakes that I use in my services are dangerous enough to kill you. If they couldn’t kill you, then there wouldn’t be no point in havin’ ‘em,” Hamblin explained on an episode of the show.
In early September 2013, before the show premiered, Hamblin told Time he didn’t want snake handlers to come off sounding like “illiterate rednecks that holler, ‘For God so loved the world, let’s handle a snake!’” Because of the “shall” in “they shall take up serpents,” most serpent handlers — including Coots — consider taking up serpents a commandment on par with “Thou Shall Not Commit Adultery,” and everything else Moses brought down from Mount Sinai. That’s how serious they are when they talk about “literal interpretations” of the Bible. But Hamblin doesn’t buy it, in this instance at least, and he doesn’t insist everyone at his church handle snakes. “This is about souls, not snakes,” he says. “What matters is getting people saved.”
Before the first episode aired, Testa, the executive producer of Snake Salvation, told NPR that snake handling fascinated him because it’s “such an extreme gesture of faith.” While filming the series, he said, “we set out to tell this story from the snake handlers’ point of view, to really humanize them, not to judge them, and to show how important religion is in their daily lives with their daily struggles.”
It is difficult to overemphasize how severely they missed the mark.
Between the deep-voiced narrator’s imitation of James Earl Jones, (multiple) shots of Coots’ son walking balls-first into a log, and the banjo music in the background (always, for comedic relief), the series played like a mockumentary of ethnographic voyeurism. Although church services and interviews with snake handlers did get airtime, the show’s focus was overwhelmingly on Coots’ and Hamblin’s hunts for snakes. The pastors were also shown trafficking snakes across state lines, and that same baritone narrator repeatedly mentioned that Hamblin was unemployed and on welfare, which embarrassed Liz to no end. Hamblin himself seemed all right with the way he and his faith were portrayed, so long as the show allowed him to spread the Word.
On Oct. 22, the National Geographic Channel aired the final four episodes of Snake Salvation back-to-back. “Unfortunately the audience for the series was not what we had hoped it would be,” a spokesman for the National Geographic Channel wrote to me, adding the series averaged 300,000 viewers. On Facebook, Jamie Coots updated his status: National Geographic contacted him to say it wasn’t renewing his contract and didn’t plan to shoot a second season.
On Oct. 27, Hamblin stalls Sunday service until 1:30 p.m., waiting outside the church for crowds that never show up. The family from Georgia doesn’t come back. That afternoon, I count 22 people in the pews.
Like the couple from Maryville, some people who attend Hamblin’s church on Fridays attend a different church on Sundays, which might account for the number of folks missing. But it’s an overcast morning, and causes are difficult to see, and their effect makes Hamblin nervous.
When the service finally starts, he paces the floor. “I’m sure yinz heard the news about the show, but I don’t want anyone to worry. Some people out in Middlesboro like to tell folks they’re bound for hell if they don’t do this and they don’t do that,” he says, walking faster, speaking louder. “Some people say, if you don’t handle serpents, you can’t get through heaven’s gates. Well I say, if you want to get to heaven, all you got to do is to get right with God!”
A couple weak “amen”s sound back at him from the pews. “Well those people, those people who’re all fire and brimstone, they’re the ones got their contract canceled. Ain’t nobody from National Geographic called me. No, sir.” Stomping in circles around the altar, swinging his arms wide, Hamblin yells until he’s red in the face: “You know what I think, children? I think we’re gonna see a new sort of show, with more preaching and less runnin’ around in the woods after snakes! They know, the producers — they know what people watch for, what’s been filling this church every week!”
Serpent-handling pastors aren’t seminary educated; they’re “called” to the church, and they build and keep their congregations solely on the strength of their message and charisma. When they sermonize, they do so extemporaneously, in keeping with the Pentecostal notion that religious experiences, including testimony, should be spontaneous. The way they see it, if acts of faith can be preplanned, then they can be also faked.
Panting, Hamblin stops in front of the altar. His shirt sticks to his back, soaked to translucence with sweat. Just watch, he tells the few and faithful sitting before him, stammering and repeating himself. Just watch, he promises. The pews will fill again.
Within two weeks, his snakes would be gone too.
The night of the TWRA raid, Hamblin crashed a fundraiser at a country club in nearby Oak Ridge, trying to speak to Bill Haslam, the governor of Tennessee. Depending who you ask, it was either a “stunning,” “pathetic,” or “shameful” display of bravado. According to the LaFollette Press, a Republican representative from Jacksboro, Dennis Powers, was surprised to see “someone on food stamps” (which Hamblin is, despite the show on Nat Geo) at the event. Apparently admission cost $100 a head. The Press also quoted Powers saying, “This is about endangerment,” highlighting the public safety issue venomous snakes might pose.
Later, the TWRA tweeted: “PSA for the day: Please please leave venomous snakes alone!” According to the law, Class 1 Wildlife are animals that “pose a significant danger” to humans. Although Hamblin tried to create a safe environment for his snakes and his congregation by keeping the snakes in their own containers (either an aquarium or stackable Tupperware) and by feeding them regularly, the 53 animals confiscated from his church certainly weren’t kept to the standards trained professionals maintain.
“You do not want to go in there,” Liz Hamblin told me when I asked to see the church annex where snakes were kept, pinching her nose to demonstrate: It smelled. “They shed and he” — referring to her husband — “just leaves them skins around like worn socks.” In Tennessee, only zoos and circuses may be issued permits to keep Class 1 Wildlife; private individuals are ineligible. Because Hamblin was cited to court on these charges and not Tennessee’s direct ban on snake handling, Powers says, “This is not about First Amendment rights.”
Andrew Hamblin and his lawyer disagree.
“Of course my client maintains his innocence as the case against him is not cut and dry and reaches a little deeper than it appears on the surface,” Mike Hatmaker, Hamblin’s defense attorney, told the Christian Journal-Leader. Hatmaker also told the Journal-Leader that he and his legal team had uncovered “at least four” arguable defenses, adding, “I think that one of our defenses that I am willing to share is separation of church and state.”
“It’s unconstitutional is what I think,” Hamblin says when I ask him about the TWRA’s raid. “They just walked right into the church and took every snake I had. There’s supposed to be a separation between church and state! I mean, what’s next? Who’s to say they can’t come in and take away our King James Bibles too?”
Supporters and members of the congregation planned to rally at the courthouse before the hearing, set for 9 a.m. on Friday, Nov. 15, and Hamblin started a petition — as a means for what end, exactly, I never could find out.
Over the weeks before his hearing, Hamblin’s Facebook friends left posts on his wall with various degrees of capitalization and an almost unanimous use of multiple exclamation points. Most posted about the TWRA, calling it villainous and corrupt. Some confused the wildlife agents with police officers, asking questions like: “Why don’t they leave Andrew alone and go after the drug dealers in town?” Others referred vaguely to the “War on Christianity,” while one or two foretold divine comeuppance for the “snitch” or “rat” who “sold out” Andrew Hamblin to the TWRA.
Meanwhile, the TWRA already announced its source: Snake Salvation, it said, provided all the proof it needed of Hamblin’s illegal animal possession.
After the raid at Hamblin’s church, Matthew Cameron, a TWRA spokesman, commented on the agency’s wildlife restrictions: “The list just goes on and on for the qualifications you have to meet to possess these species. Obviously a small church building with a locked door doesn’t qualify. Anyone could get inside the building and let the snakes out as a joke.” Andrew Hamblin, Cameron said, “doesn’t have the knowledge to possess these things and care for them as they need to be cared for.” Local herpetologists said much the same. Speaking to NPR, Kristen Wiley, the curator of the Kentucky Reptile Zoo, said that snakes rehabilitated from snake-handling churches were often sick, and far less likely to strike than a healthy animal. Churches like Hamblin’s were “setting themselves up for a safer encounter during their services when they [used] a snake that [was] in bad condition to begin with,” said Wiley.
“If the animal is not able to cycle its body in the way it was created to, it’s totally disruptive to their life cycle,” Al Coritz, a biomedical engineer who has kept venomous snakes since 1973 (keeping but not handling them is legal in Pennsylvania, where he lives), tells me. “If humans weren’t allowed to sleep for several days, you wouldn’t be at the top of your game either.”
“I’ve been aware of religious snake handlers,” Coritz says. “I tend to ignore them because I hate to rain on anybody’s religious parade. Mostly, I’m worried about the animals. First of all, timber rattlesnakes are the most common snake they use, and those aren’t the easiest snakes to care for. They’re mucking with a species that’s not the best species for private individuals to keep.” What serpent handlers do with their snakes “really stresses them out,” Coritz says. “All that shaking, rocking, and rolling during the ceremonies. And they don’t feed well in captivity, even if you’re know what you’re doing.”
And timber rattlesnakes have a very short year compared with other species. In the wild, they’re active from April through September. That’s pretty much it, Coritz emphasizes: “These snakes have got to hibernate. People who don’t understand the natural history of the snakes don’t let them do this, and as a consequence they don’t live very long in captivity.” A healthy, wild snake’s typical parasites — tapeworms and roundworms, mostly — won’t harm their host terribly. But, if a snake isn’t allowed to hibernate, its immune system becomes compromised. Its parasites get out of control, stressing the animal. The snake stops drinking, its kidneys fail, and you have a dead snake shortly thereafter. “If these were cute little puppies or bunnies,” says an audibly angry Coritz, “people would be down on them like a ton of bricks, but because they’re rattlesnakes, nobody cares. The wildlife officials did the right thing in shutting them down. The Bible says we’re stewards of the earth, of plants and animals. You’d think a Christian group would know better.”
Currently, Hamblin’s snakes are held as evidence at the Knoxville Zoo, in facilities the TWRA sanctioned and built. Speaking with a local news station, Phil Colclough, a herpetologist in charge of special collections at the zoo, said that snakes could live up to 35 years in captivity, provided they are well cared for. Hamblin’s longest-living snake hung on for three years. It had been his favorite: a yellow timber rattler, like the snake that bit Mack Wolford. Hamblin keeps its corpse in his kitchen freezer. He wants to make a guitar strap out of it.
Outside the Campbell County Courthouse at 8:42 a.m. on Friday, Nov. 15, ribbons are tied to every still thing: telephone poles, stop signs, car antennas, the slim upper wrist of the lady to my right. The morning sun is mushed under a pallid gauze of cloud. The ribbons are red, and a man wearing a T-shirt in a matching hue tells me the color choice represents the blood of Christ. At the base of the courthouse steps, I count 56 matching T-shirts. Hamblin stands above them, shouting: “This ain’t no longer just a fight for snake handling. This is a fight for freedom of religion!”
An enormous white-haired man wearing an acid-washed denim jacket and matching jeans hands me his business card. His phone number and the line “Larry Watters, Tiger Trainer, Ponderosa, Tennessee” are printed in white Comic Sans over a picture of him wearing that very same blue-jean tuxedo, spooning an adult Siberian tiger. “The TWRA is out of control,” Watters says. “Who are they to say what animals we should and shouldn’t have?”
Two construction workers standing nearby remove their hard hats and bow their heads when Hamblin leads his supporters in prayer on the courthouse steps. When he walks inside, the rally’s attendants all try to follow at once, creating such extreme gridlock at the security checkpoint that exasperated guards, whose numbers were doubled in anticipation of Hamblin’s hearing, have to lead them like ducklings around to an auxiliary entrance at the building’s side.
Past the devoted sea of red shirts, I can make out Liz Hamblin through the courthouse’s open doors. Two days before the hearing, Andrew had to drive her to the emergency room. Terrified that she’d lose her husband, not to a snakebite, but to prison, she’d started having panic attacks. “I handle snakes plenty too. Yes, I worry, but it’s not for me to fear,” she said, when I asked her if she was ever afraid that her husband might, well, die. Compared with death by snakebite, the thought of Andrew in jail seemed to scare her more: “I just woke up in a panic like, you know, ‘You can’t leave me!’” The only time she lets go of Andrew’s hand is when she walks through the metal detector.
Hamblin pleads not guilty. The Tennessee grand jury will hear Hamblin’s case on Jan. 8. When he gets to the bottom of the courthouse steps an hour and a half later, Hamblin embraces Ralph Hood like a nephew greeting a favorite uncle. Slapping Hood on the back, he says, “Here’s a man that knows more about serpent handling and anyone alive and he ain’t never handled a one!” Hood places a wide, calloused hand reassuringly on Hamblin’s shoulder, smiling beneath a beard that almost reaches his chest: “Well, well, well, youngblood. You got yourself a battle plan?”
That night, outside the Tabernacle Church of God, mild light pollution from the turnpike stains the thick clouds a warm, pink tone. “If I were to be sent to prison, boy, I just think that would set off such a blast,” Hamblin says, shaking his head. “You’d just have a total rebellion on your hands.”
It’s 9:35 p.m. and a handful of congregants have been laying hands on a newcomer inside the church — either to heal or exorcise her, depending whom I ask — for almost half an hour. A woman from the Channel 10 News tells me she was supposed to air a report on Hamblin at 10 p.m. But the parking lot looks like a frozen game of Tetris, and the reporter’s car is boxed in by at least two dozen others. “Think you’re gonna miss your deadline,” I say, unhelpfully. She nods.
The congregants include a mother, Judith Carolyn Rutherford, and daughter, Machelle Tinch, whom I’d met the night before. Their long hair is the same blonde shade of curl, and their upper lips have the same Kewpie-doll shape. I saw them both at the church in October, but this is the first time we’ve talked. “What part of Florida are you from?” Tinch had asked me; she’d seen the plates on my car. When I explained that the car is a rental, Rutherford wanted to know who I came to Campbell County with. I tell them I didn’t come with anyone, that I flew down alone that afternoon, and they look at each other, horrified, before turning to face me.
“You came to a meth county alone?” Tinch hisses, challenging me to explain my apparent death wish. “Honey,” Rutherford says to me, patting my arm with a chiding hand, “you’re in the middle of good ol’ boy country. The cops take enough bribes to leave most of the worst cooks be. Meantime, there ain’t hardly a family in town that don’t have somebody in it that’s a meth head — ”
“Or a pill popper,” Tinch adds, “or just a good old-fashioned alcoholic.”
Earlier during tonight’s service, Andrew raised a black timber rattler as thick as my calf over his head while preaching, one of two replacement snakes Coots had brought down. The snake flicked its black forked tongue, tasting the warmth emanating from incandescent bulbs in the ceiling fan above the altar. Alongside the ceiling’s unfinished wood paneling, the ill-secured fan wobbled in place like a dashboard hula figurine.
“I am a soldier in the Lord’s army,” Hamblin shouted, caressing the snake under its jaw, “and I will fight for our right to take up serpents!” When sweat broke out on his brow, he wicked it away with the snake’s back. That’s when I figured I could use some air.
I rub my hands together against the chill, blowing into them for warmth, and watch my breath curl. It was unbearably hot inside the church. There’s really no such thing as bad press. Attendance shot back up following the TWRA’s raid. Tonight, 98 people packed into the pews. “If you’re an addict, I’m telling you, you don’t need to take another pill,” Hamblin said to them from the pulpit. “If you’re an alcoholic, you don’t gotta take another drink. You just got to see this glory here, and get the Lord into your heart.”
Earlier that day I read a drug control report issued for the state of Tennessee that said 1,000 people died “as a direct consequence of drug use” — meth mostly, and opiates — in 2009 alone. Since serpent handling began over a century ago, there have been fewer than 100 documented deaths from snakebites.
That night, Jeremy Henegar, a 20-year-old convert with an infectious smile and piercing eyes, hung out and helped Andrew clear away tambourines and other odds and ends. “I can tell you now,” Henegar told me earlier, “until I started coming here a month ago and let God move on me, I was a raging alcoholic. If I hadn’t started coming here, I can promise you: I’d be dead or worse.” When he felt the anointing, “I knew I didn’t need drink anymore. It feels like a perfect calm.” Was it like being drunk, I asked. Or high? “Being drunk, being stoned,” he said, his face relaxing with remembered ecstasy, “that don’t even come close.”
Hood has his own theory of his about serpent-handling converts who struggle with substance abuse. “I think certain faith-based groups, depending on what they’re about and how they worship, are really good at appealing to certain kinds of people,” he says. “Serpent handlers happen to be very good at rehabilitating drug addicts and alcoholics, I think, because they can replace that high with another kind. They can give you that emotional high.” In the long history of religion, drugs have been used to facilitate highs, inspire visions, and cultivate physical sensations that transcend what the human body can achieve on its own. Some Native American tribes use peyote, for instance. “But here’s a group that doesn’t use drugs,” Hood says. “They use snakes.”
Around 10:30 p.m., the service winds down. Inside the church, the future dances in the center of the aisle.
The third-to-last episode of Snake Salvation starts with Hamblin pulling up to his church with his twin boys in tow. “I want my children to follow in this faith because we feel this is right. I do want my children one day when they come of age to handle serpents,” he says during the episode, taking a milk snake — small, gray, and nonvenomous — out of an aquarium in his church’s annex for his sons to play with. “You know,” he says, “they mimic everything they see in church when you handle ‘em. I mean, hangin’ it around their neck, shoutin’ with it, pattin’ his foot. They mimic what they see us do with it.”
While men and women around him keen and sing, a small boy stamps his feet between the pews. In either hand, he holds a red rubber coral snake. He doesn’t shout “amen” or “hallelujah” like Hamblin, but that makes sense. He can’t be much more than a year old, the age when most babies start to toddle, but not all have learned to speak. He raises the toy snakes out in front of him, up and over his head.
A man sitting in the row beside him watches. “Lookit him go!” the man says. “We got a pastor in training.”