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Snake-handling believers find joy in test of faith

1:59 PM, Jun 5, 2012   |    comments
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Andrew Hamblin, 21, pastor of Tabernacle Church of God in LaFollette, Tenn., says serpent handling is "the closest thing to heaven on earth that you could get." Shelley Mays, The Tennessean

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LAFOLLETTE, Tenn. -- Andrew Hamblin's Facebook page is filled with snippets of his life.

Making a late-night run to Taco Bell.

Watching SpongeBob on the couch with his kids.

Handling rattlesnakes in church.

Hamblin, 21, pastor of Tabernacle Church of God in LaFollette, Tenn., is part of a new generation of serpent-handling Christians who are revitalizing a century-old faith tradition in Tennessee.

While older serpent handlers were wary of outsiders, these younger believers welcome visitors and use Facebook to promote their often misunderstood - and illegal - version of Christianity. They want to show the beauty and power of their extreme form of spirituality. And they hope eventually to reverse a state ban on handling snakes in church.

Since the early 1900s, a handful of true believers in East Tennessee and other parts of Appalachia have practiced the so-called signs of the gospel, found in a little-known passage in the King James Version of the Gospel of Mark:

"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."

While other churches ignore this passage or treat it metaphorically, serpent handlers follow it literally. Their intense faith demands sinless living and rewards them with spiritual ecstasy - the chance to hold life and death in their hands.

Began with a tingling

Brother Micah Golden felt it first while standing in the parking lot with other worshipers, waiting for church to start during a three-day revival in early May. It began with a tingling in his hands that spread over his body. Then he began to moan and pray.

"There's still an anointing from heaven. ... Glory to God," shouted the 22-year-old convert, holding the first syllable of "Glory" out for 10 or 12 seconds and stomping his feet. "He'll still let you do the signs of God."

Then he flipped the lid of a small wooden box by his feet and pulled out three Southern copperheads, all entwined together.

Golden lifted them about his head, then swung them back and forth in front of him before handing them to Hamblin, who took the snakes in one hand and lifted the other in prayer.

Other men took out timber rattlers, putting one hand by the midsection, the other by the head and neck. They held the serpents up in front of their faces, almost staring them in the eyes for a moment, then lowered them down and up in a gently swinging motion. The snakes began winding and unwinding in their hands, forked tongues tasting the air, trying to get their bearings.

Women standing nearby raised their hands in prayer and wept.

Hamblin began to preach about Jesus: "The same man that walked upon the water, he said, 'They shall take up serpents.'... There's a realness in the signs of God."

That led to a cascade of prayers as the whole crowd began to speak in tongues. Then the shouts died down and Hamblin and other worshippers started a procession toward the door.

"Come on, people, let's go have church," he said.

Afoul of state laws

Hamblin and other handlers say the Bible tells people to obey the law. So he wears a seat belt while driving, obeys the speed limit and files his taxes on time.

But he won't give up serpent handling, which he says is a command from God - even though Tennessee outlawed it in 1947 after five people died of serpent bites at churches in two years.

Breaking the law can lead to a fine of $50 to $150 or up to six months in jail. The ban is rarely enforced, unless someone dies in a church.

Larry Crain, a First Amendment expert who runs the Church Institute in Brentwood, thinks serpent handlers like Hamblin should be able to practice their faith legally. But he doesn't think any court would overrule the state law.

"Challenging that statute would be a futile battle," Crain said.

Hamblin believes the Constitution gives him the right to practice his faith without government interference.

He wants the law to be changed and has asked state Rep. Dennis Powers, R-Jacksboro, for help. Faye Cashion, a staff member in Powers' office, said the representative would first need the Campbell County Commission to ask for the law to be repealed.

Because most handlers like Hamblin catch their own snakes and keep them for months at a time, they're also running afoul of other state laws.

In Tennessee it's illegal to capture wild animals or have poisonous snakes, said Walter Cook of the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency.

"As far as snakes being used in church, that'd be up to the district attorney whether to prosecute," Cook said.

Hamblin knows that people think he and other handlers are crazy. If more people experienced what he does when in church, they wouldn't mock it, he said.

"It is the closest thing to heaven on earth that you could get," he said.

"You can feel God's power in the flesh."

No longer in decline

For more than a century, serpent handlers have had a turbulent relationship with outsiders. Churches popped up around charismatic preachers, then faded after controversy or bad publicity. When the practice became illegal, true believers went underground.

Until last year, serpent-handling churches were in decline, said Paul Williamson, professor of psychology at Henderson State University in Arkadelphia, Ark., who studies serpent handlers.

"Most of the people who were in leadership back in the 1990s have gotten older, and there was a concern for several years that no young people were taking their places," he said.

That's changed as the children of older leaders have grown up and started handling serpents. Converts, like Hamblin and Golden, have joined them.

Like many younger people, they post photos about their lives - including handling snakes - on Facebook, and they share word about the times and places of services online.

Visitors are common at the Tabernacle. During the May revival, several photographers were on hand, along with a documentary filmmaker from Florida and a graduate student from the University of Tennessee.

By inviting outsiders to his church, Hamblin hopes to show that serpent handlers practice their faith in a responsible manner.

His one rule: Visitors stay away from the snakes.

Poison and fire

Pop culture has rediscovered serpent handling as well. A New York Times best-seller called A Land More Kind Than
Home revolves around a snake-handling church.

Its author, Wiley Cash, said people want a sign that God is real.

"Everyone wants to believe that God has given them some kind of providence," he said. "What better proof than to pick up a timber rattler and not have it bite or to survive a bite?"

During the Sunday morning homecoming service, Silas Crawford, who has appeared on Animal Planet's Snake Man of Appalachia, played lead guitar as a soloist sang, "Well, I believe in the Bible signs - taking up serpents and drinking strychnine."

On the wooden pulpit was an empty Mason jar that's usually filled with strychnine and water. All the poison was drunk at a previous service and they've not had time to get more.

The same passage in Mark that talks about serpent handling also says that "if they drink any deadly thing, it shall not hurt them." Most serpent handlers think drinking poison is optional - it's not required in the way that handling snakes is.

During the service, more than a dozen men stomped on the left side of the platform at the front of the church and danced with each other, passing rattlers back and forth and sometimes draping the snakes over their necks.

Four or five women singers beat on tambourines by the organ on the right side of the platform and kept the music driving. Few women handle serpents during services; when they do, it's only for a moment and then they hand the serpent back to one of the men. Women can't preach but can testify or prophesy.

Then came the fire.

Torches made from Coke bottles filled with denatured alcohol were lit. "Big Cody" Winn danced with the fire, sometimes holding the bottle up to his face, where the flame lit up a nasty scar - a reminder of major surgery he'd had after a copperhead bite.

Winn grew up in a serpent-handling family but dropped out of church as a teen. He says he got caught up with the wrong friends and started dealing drugs. That led to a 14-month prison sentence in Kentucky.

After prison he went to rehab and then back to church. Drugs can't compare to the joy he feels while handling serpents, he said.

"When I was on drugs, I was always chasing that exact high - the first one. You never can catch that again," he said. "With God ... it never dulls."

Hamblin and Golden, along with elder Tammy Jordan and other women, walked through the congregation, anointing heads with oil and praying with people, who would then jump in place or speak in tongues.

Hamblin called for a prayer line up front. He was first. Recently laid off from his job at a local grocery, he needs a new one to support his wife, Liz, and their four young children.

More than 20 people put their hands on his head and shoulders and began crying out in prayer.

Laurie Harrington, a retired visitor from West Virginia, asked for prayer as well.

"This is real," she said later. "God is wild."

'Death in that box'

Serpent handlers say the Holy Spirit keeps them from harm when handling snakes. But they aren't reckless.

At Hamblin's church, kids stay clear of snakes. Provoking snakes is banned as well.

When new people - or women - handle a snake, a more experienced handler watches over them.

Hamblin begins each service with a warning - "There's death in that box" - pointing to a pile of serpent boxes. He's also careful about which snakes are handled.

On a Saturday night, a latecomer brought a newly caught rattler into the service. Its buzzing tail was heard between the songs and prayers.

That snake stayed in the box.

Despite the precautions, serpent handlers do get bitten.

Hamblin almost died at 19 when a bite from a yellow timber left him hospitalized with internal bleeding. Rattlesnake venom is hemotoxic, meaning it destroys blood cells and makes it hard for blood to clot.

Serpent handlers see it as a badge of honor to refuse medical care when bitten and to rely on prayer. But it's no shame to go to the hospital for younger believers like Hamblin - though he didn't get treatment after being bitten on New Year's Eve and on Good Friday.

Bites are rare because timber rattlesnakes and copperheads would rather flee, said Vince Cobb, a herpetologist at Middle Tennessee State University.

While the snakes can't be tamed, they can become used to being handled. A gentle handler who doesn't make fast motions near a snake's head is unlikely to get bitten.

Dancing with a snake or handling a snake and fire at the same time is a different matter.

"That's a little more risky - it's more likely that they'll get bit," he said.

A week ago, the Rev. Randy "Mack" Wolford of Bluefield, W.Va., one of Hamblin's mentors and friends, was bitten by a timber rattler during an outdoor Sunday service held at Panther State Park in West Virginia, the only state where serpent handling is legal.

He was pronounced dead Monday morning. Wolford's father, also a preacher, died from a rattlesnake bite during a service in 1983.

On Friday, Hamblin and his wife, Elizabeth, were driving to West Virginia so he could preach at Wolford's funeral. He was still reeling from the shock that the friend he called Brother Mack was gone. Hamblin will tell mourners not to lose faith in their grief.

"The only thing I know to do is to encourage the people of God to keep on, keep doing the signs of God."

Scruggs to snakes

Joining a serpent-handling church offered Hamblin what was missing in his life - a stable and disciplined lifestyle.

Growing up in rural Clairfield, Tenn., he wanted to play music. He picked up his first guitar at 6 and not long afterward took up the banjo, mandolin, dobro, piano and organ as well.

It was a gift he'd inherited from his mother.

"She could make a piano talk to you," Hamblin said.

By 13 he was playing banjo professionally. By 17, he'd played shows with Ricky Skaggs, Ralph Stanley and the late Earl Scruggs.

A photo of Hamblin performing with Scruggs is posted on the wall of his grandfather's church and on Hamblin's My-Space page.

But music isn't the only thing he'd inherited from his mother. Hamblin says she has struggled with substance abuse. He worried he would repeat her mistakes after drinking and experimenting with drugs while on the road.

So he gave it all up.

"If I was to pick up an instrument today and play what I once played, I would be in danger," Hamblin said. "It would be sin to me."

Part of the Pentecostal Holiness movement, serpent handlers have a strict moral code. No drinking, drugs, cursing or going to bars. No shorts or short-sleeve shirts, no sex outside of marriage. Women wear skirts or dresses, can't wear earrings or cut their hair.

If they mess up - known as backsliding - other church members will get in their face and tell them to live right. If backsliders repent, they are forgiven.

Because serpent-handling churches are small - the Tabernacle usually draws about 25 people - they are more like families than congregations. Worshippers often drive hundreds of miles to attend church together.

"It's not just the snakes," said Jamie Coots, Hamblin's mentor and pastor of the Full Gospel Tabernacle in Jesus Name church of Middlesboro, Ky.

"What people don't realize is that church is our life."

Preachers like Hamblin and Coots don't collect a salary. The Tabernacle's collection plate is filled mostly with small bills - ones and a few fives, which go to cover the rent. But people look out for their ministers.

After a recent service, someone set a plastic gas can by Hamblin's car, to make sure he'd have enough fuel to get home.

'We believe'

After all the snakes were packed away and the prayers said and the songs sung, worshipers from Tabernacle piled into their cars for a church picnic at nearby Cove Lake State Park.

The menu was burgers and hot dogs and barbecued chicken.

Hamblin drank water - he swore off soda three years ago.

At one table Cody Winn held up two ice-cold Cokes, dripping with condensation, to Hamblin.

"Want one?" he asked.

Then he smiled with mock realization and said, "Oh, you can't have one."

A few minutes later Winn threw Hamblin over his shoulder and headed to the lake for a game of dunk the preacher, with a host of kids in tow.

Among the 50 or so people at the picnic were Adam Gibson and his wife, Ashley, both childhood friends of Hamblin.

Like him, they didn't grow up in the serpent-handling movement. They first attended a service in November after Hamblin agreed to do their wedding.

Gibson used to think serpent handlers were crazy. But during a service he knelt at the church's tiny altar and prayed for God to save his soul.

On New Year's Eve the onetime scoffer took up his first serpent, a 4-foot-long canebrake rattler.

"It's a great feeling to know that God is on your side," he said.

Gibson hopes more people will join the church.

"I would like to let everyone know if you don't have a home church, come to the Tabernacle," he said. "We believe in the Bible, we believe in the signs - and if you come out we will treat you like family."

The Tennessean

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