La Follette, Here I Come

Even with a full month left in 2013, I’m already making my to-do list for the coming year. At the top of it? A visit to the Tabernacle Church of God, just up the road in LaFollette, Tennessee.

Chances are I won’t be the only curious visitor in the congregation. Twenty-two year old pastor Andrew Hamblin has recently made a name for himself and his church by practicing and defending the century-old Appalachian tradition of proving one’s faith by taking up serpents. In other words, handling snakes. Big poisonous snakes, primarily copperheads and rattlers.

Why do Hamblin and an estimated 1,000 other snake-handling practitioners do it? Because of what’s written in the last chapter 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.”

Last month, Hamblin entered a not guilty plea in Campbell County General Sessions Court to the charge of possessing Class I wildlife, a misdemeanor punishable by up to 11 months, 29 days in jail and a $2,500 fine per count. Though he admitted he kept dozens of poisonous snakes at his church building for use during worship services, Hamblin argued that the “free exercise of religion” clause of the first amendment of the U.S. Constitution gives him the right to do so.

Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency officials disagree. They cite TCA 39-17-101, passed in 1947 after five snake-handling worshippers were killed over the course of two years, which makes it illegal to “display, exhibit, handle or use a poisonous or dangerous snake or reptile in a manner that endangers the life or health of any person.” Outlawing snake-handling has nothing to do with religious persecution, they maintain. It’s a matter of public safety.

Though all 50 of Hamblin’s snakes were confiscated and taken to the Knoxville Zoo on November 7, his church services on November 8 and 10 included snakes, presumably donated by church members and other supporters.

“I can always get more snakes,” Hamblin said.

As to the matter of his own snakes being taken away by the law, he argued that “It’s no different than if they come into your church and rip the Bible out of your hand.”

I became interested in the subject of snake handling years ago when I read Lee Smith’s wonderful 1995 novel “Saving Grace” for the first time. Then I read “Salvation on Sand Mountain” by Dennis Covington. “Taking up Serpents” by David Kimbrough. “Serpent Handling Believers” by Thomas Burton. “The Serpent Handlers” by Fred W. Brown and Jeanne McDonald.

I’ve watched You Tube videos of snake handlers and several episodes of National Geographic’s reality TV show “Snake Salvation,” starring none other than Andrew Hamblin himself, along with his mentor Jamie Coots, pastor of Full Gospel Tabernacle in Jesus Name in Middlesboro, Kentucky.

But I’m certain that reading books and watching videos is not the same as seeing someone take up serpents in real life. Depending on what happens at Hamblin’s preliminary hearing on December 17, I plan to head over to LaFollette early next year. Not to gawk or to make fun. And certainly not to pick up a copperhead or rattlesnake myself. I simply want to watch and listen and try to understand.

And to share with you the things I discover.

(December 1, 2013)

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