It’s 1 PM, and Sunday services at the Tabernacle Church of God are about to begin. The band — two electric guitars, bass, drums, tambourine, organ — has been playing softly for several minutes. But now, as 22-year-old Pastor Andrew Hamblin strides in, they crank it up to a fever pitch, the rockabilly beat driving the faithful into a celebratory mood.
That's when the rattle snakes appear.
They're unlocked from Plexiglas carrying cases near the pulpit, and Hamblin grabs them seemingly without fear. He jigs to the music, moving his hands and feet in time, flinging around the venomous snakes in his hands. Though he always keeps one eye on them.
Venomous snakes in a church are always notable, but this afternoon they're especially notable. Fifty-three snakes — including rattlers, copperheads, and cottonmouths — were seized from the locked "snake room" at the church on November 7 by Tennessee Wildlife Resource Agency officials backed by sheriffs from Knox and Campbell counties. The next evening, Hamblin thumbed his nose at the law and held regular Friday-night services with donated snakes. VICE attended Sunday services two days later.
“I was raised in a free-wheel Baptist church, and I’ve been handling snakes since I was 18,” Hamblin tells us. “I seen it on television when I was 16 years old and that is how I first found out about it. Finally, one day God moved on me and allowed me to do it.”
Photo: Shawn Poynter
Hamblin's windowless church lies on a rutted gravel road, not far from a few working-class houses and mobile homes in LaFollette, a mountain community in the eastern part of the state north of Knoxville. The young pastor has been married since he was 18; he's now the father of five children.
His wife, Elizabeth, rushes around the church barefoot, corralling the kids running inside and outside the church. Other women walk around barefoot too, even though the temperature hovers near 60 degrees. There are nine rows of worn pews. The wall behind Hamblin is painted with a scene of Noah's ark floating solitary atop the great flood, God's light shining down upon it.
Hamblin says he has never been scared handling snakes, though he admits to having been bitten once while cleaning cages. He was featured on National Geographic Channel's show Snake Salvation, but his legal troubles have brought him far more attention.
“I have been swamped with messages on Facebook and on my phone from people who support the way I want to worship,” he says. “What are they going to do — make praying against the law? They call me a snake handler, but there’s been people taking up serpents in these mountains for years. It's been going on a longer time than any Tennessee law has.”
Before Hamblin begins the service, congregants continually tug at him, asking him to pray for sick family members or to bless them. He's not unlike a rock star here. Once the service is in full swing, the flock claps and waves their hands in the air. Contrary to what some may assume, the congregation is not all white; an elderly African-American woman and a young African-American girl are among the faithful. Hamblin and the other men pass the rattlesnakes around, working up a sweat as they dance and sing. “This world don’t understand, I work for God, not for man!” Some people begin speaking in tongues.
“They took the Ten Commandments off the school walls," Hamblin begins, addressing the congregation when the music dies down. "But they messed with the wrong Christians when they separated church and state. All them other things is legal — homosexuals. Gay marriage. Abortion. But they taking away snakes from us? Do you believe in freedom of religion?" The flock cheers. "All them godless people out there. We snake handlers — we’re a-comin’ out of the woodwork! … No man has a right to tell us how to worship our God. That serpent is symbolic of our adversary.”
The service is a grueling two-and-a-half-hours long. At one point a woman lights a butane torch and begins running her hand and fingers through the flame to demonstrate that the devil’s fire can't hurt her. When she's done,an elderly woman shuffles over and does the same.
The music only lets up when worshippers gather around someone who has an affliction, placing their hands on the person's head and closing their eyes, deep in prayer. One of the afflicted is Hamblin’s wife, who says she's been bedeviled with stress since the circus began to swirl around her husband. She cries as everyone gathers round, lending support. Hamblin simply looks on, mic in hand, jigging.
Five days later, Hamblin is in the Campbell County Court House in Jacksboro, the county seat, three miles down the road from LaFollette. He preaches with his Bible in hand outside before pleading not guilty to the possession charge, which could be stacked for every snake seized, totaling more than 50 charges of misdemeanor possession of Class 1 Wildlife. Each charge can carry a $2,500 fine and up to a year in jail.
Dozens are outside the courthouse, where he tells a gaggle of reporters, “This ain’t no longer a fight for snake handling. This is a fight for freedom of religion.”
Tennessee outlawed snake handling in 1947 after five people died from bites within two years, all of them from the same congregational church. Nevertheless, last week a grand jury declined to indict Hamblin. But the state won't be returning his snakes.