The Pastor Behind Snake Salvation

A few years ago, Alex posted about kudzu, and I couldn't believe how many people were unfamiliar with it. There are other things that I've been aware of all my life, but only as an adult did I realize that not everyone else knows about them. For example: snake-handling churches. In my youth, I could take you down country roads and show you churches that practiced snake-handling. I've even attended one or two, although I never witnessed the snake ritual. See, the practice is outlawed in every state except West Virginia, and back then at least, the snakes would be skipped if there was anyone at the service who wasn't known by the congregation.

That was thirty or forty years ago. Today, any niche activity possible is made into a reality television show. For a couple of months last fall, the National Geographic Channel aired a series called Snake Salvation, which centered on Andrew Hamblin, the 22-year-old pastor of the Tabernacle Church of God in LaFollette, Tennesee. Hamblin and his congregation use venomous snakes in their services in response to Mark 16:18 (KJV) "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." Hamblin was inspired when he attended a church in Middlesboro, Kentucky, in which snakes were handled. After Hamblin founded his own church, he traveled to Jolo, West Virginia, to learn from Pastor Mack Wolford, who was possibly the most-publicized snake-handling preacher in recent times.   

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.”

Now, you've seen at least advertisements for reality TV shows that are clearly not reality. When a TV show purports to follow people who are breaking the law (think moonshine, marijuana, and a certain "mafia"), you would expect law enforcement to follow the production crew -if it were real. That's exactly what happened in the case of Snake Salvation, when the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency raided Hamblin's church and confiscated 53 snakes.

Meanwhile, the TWRA already announced its source: Snake Salvation, it said, provided all the proof it needed of Hamblin’s illegal animal possession.

I believe Hamblin allowed his church to be put on TV as an act of faith -almost the same kind of faith that leads him to take up snakes. While other Christians cite Luke 4:12 (KJV) "Thou shalt not tempt the Lord thy God," Hamblin relishes danger, from both snakes and the law. He appeared to almost invite a confrontation with authorities over snake-handling. While the TWRA says this is about the treatment of wildlife, not the separation of church and state, Hamblin considers it a First Amendment issue.

“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?”

Hamblin pleaded not guilty in November, and the Tennessee grand jury will hear the case this coming week. Buzzfeed has a longform article by Gemma de Choisy that looks at Hamblin, the history of religious snake-handling, and the TV show that led to the court case

(Images credit: Shawn Poynter)

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