Pastor Andrew Hamblin Would Rather Die Or Go To Jail Than Give Up Handling Snakes

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.”

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