_Andrew Hamblin picks up a poisonous snake during a church service with Jamie Coots. Photo courtesy of Facebook _
It’s been one month since 22-year-old serpent handler Andrew Hamblin watched his mentor Jamie Coots die in his arms. Jamie, a third-generation snake-handling pastor and the star of the short-lived National Geographic reality show Snake Salvation, had been bitten by a four-foot rattlesnake during a service at his church, the Full Gospel Tabernacle in Jesus Name, in Middlesboro, Kentucky. He had been bitten by his snakes eight times before and survived, but the ninth bite, which had severed an artery in his right hand, killed him quickly.
“I didn’t think it was going to hurt him because I had seen him bit there before,” said Andrew, describing the night that Jamie died. Andrew and Cody, Jamie’s son, followed the preacher into the church bathroom, where he told them that his face felt like it was burning.
“As I was moving behind him he said—and he didn’t have any fear in his voice, he didn’t sound like he was in pain—he said, ‘Lord come by,’” said Andrew. “And then he said, ‘Oh God no.’ I thought that odd, and when I unbuttoned his right shirt sleeve, he looked at me, he looked me right in the face, and he said, ‘Sweet Jesus.’ Just as calm, just as peaceful as you’d imagine.”
“Then he looked past me, and his eyes glazed over, they shut, and Jamie never spoke a word again. He never opened his eyes again. He started to slump, and I said, ‘Dad.’ And I knelt behind him, and when I did, I felt something wet, and his bowels had released, and he was dead. He took his last breath in my arms.”
Jamie’s death was a shock to the small, insular world of serpent-handling preachers, an obscure, but growing, sect of American Pentecostalism that practices the century-old tradition of worshipping with venomous snakes during church services. According to ABC News, an estimated 125 churches practice serpent handling in the United States, most of which are concentrated in rural Appalachia, although some are as far away as Canada. Known as signs following Pentecostals, these churches believe in a literal interpretation of a pair of verses from the end of the Bible’s Book of Mark, in which Jesus tells his apostles: “And these signs will follow those who believe: In my name they will cast out demons; they will speak with new tongues; they will take up serpents; and if they drink anything deadly, it will by no means hurt them; they will lay their hands on the sick, and they will recover.”
And it’s not just snakes. Signs followers speak in tongues, handle fire, and drink a poisonous mixture of strychnine and water during church services. “They see these acts as obedience to God,” said Ralph Hood, a professor of psychology at the University of Tennessee in Chattanooga, who has written extensively about the practice of serpent handling. “The motivation is belief in eternal life. Not simply the here and now. Hence to be obedient to God, even in such a risky behavior as handling, assures eternal salvation.”
Successful snake handling, or “victory,” Ralph added, “is an emotional and sometimes ecstatic experience of perfect obedience and assurance of the protection of the Holy Spirit. Even bites and death are proof of obedience and a holy life.”
It’s an extreme and—in most states—illegal kind of worship, one that lives on the far-out edges of Christianity, where life, death, and eternal salvation are indistinct, and greet you together when you walk into the church house. After initially gaining popularity in the early 20th century, serpent handling fell out of fashion with Pentecostals around the 1940s, after a rash of lethal snake bites during church services. (About 90 pastors have died from snake bites since 1900, according to Them That Believe.) Most states now have laws against using snakes in religious practices, not to mention laws against housing and transporting poisonous reptiles. But despite, or perhaps because of, this risk, serpent handling is experiencing a resurgence driven by a new generation of young, charismatic pastors like Andrew, who post snake-handling photos on Facebook and invite strangers—including the media—to come watch their services.
On Friday I spoke to Andrew on the phone from Tennessee, where he was nursing a snake bite wound he had gotten at an evangelist revival in Kentucky the night before, to talk about his relationship with Jamie and to try to understand why young men are risking their lives to pick up snakes in the name of Jesus.
VICE: What made you want to pick up a snake in church?
Andrew Hamblin: I didn’t grow up in a serpent-handling church. I grew up in a Baptist church. We spoke in tongues, we danced, we sung, and we believed in the Holy Ghost, but we didn’t take up serpents. Then I saw it on TV one time, in a documentary, and I started getting books and watching videos—I wanted to know what makes these people tick. They were just like we were at my grandpa’s church, but they took up serpents, they handled fire, they drunk the deadly thing. I wanted to know if this was real or not. So when I was 17 years old, I convinced some people to take me to Jamie’s church, and he went into a box and pulled two rattlers out, and you could just feel the power of God in that church house. I said then, “This has to be real.” And I prayed and I fasted, and finally, a year to the day later, the Lord moved on me and let me do it, he let me handle them. And I’ve been doing it ever since.
What does it feel like to handle snakes?
It’s an indescribable feeling to feel the power of God move on somebody to take up a serpent. I’ve seen the sick healed, I’ve seen devils pass out of people, I’ve seen miracles, I’ve seen unexplainable things happen—I’ve seen all sorts of things that God has done through people. It’s a way of life. We live this every day. We live close to God.
Do you think serpent handling is misunderstood?
I want the world to understand that we’re not crazy. We don’t tell people you have to handle snakes or if you’re not a Christian, you’re going to hell.
You were charged last year for violating Tennessee’s law against possesing Class 1 wildlife. Do you think the state government should lift its ban on serpent handling?
With the government, I can understand a law being there saying that you can’t endanger children. We don’t allow children to handle serpents. You have to be 18 or older—I’ve got five children, and I would never put them in harm’s way with snakes. I’d like for there to be some kind of law saying that in religious ceremonies consenting adults can do this as part of our religious beliefs and our religious practice. The government basically tells us that we can have our religious beliefs, but not our religious practice. It’s just not right.
A lot of people say, “Well, you’re endangering yourself. We’re protecting you from yourself.” I endanger myself if I go get in a vehicle! I’ve got more of a likely chance of getting killed on the highway in my vehicle than I am of dying from a serpent bite. I’m the kind of man that believes that when you die, that was how God wanted you to die. I might die of cancer. I might get in a vehicle and get killed.
What kind of snakes have you handled?
The Lord has let me handle various species of snakes. The Lord has let me handle puff adders, boon vipers, eastern and western diamondbacks, the list goes on. I’ve seen cobras handled. We believe the Lord can handle any venomous snake.
Have you ever been bitten?
I have. I’ve been bitten three times.
What exactly does it mean to take up serpents? Are you looking for proof of God?
No. Now this is a big stereotype. It’s a sign to the nonbeliever of God’s power. Now, the only way you take up serpents, you don’t do it by faith. You don’t pick it up and say, “Oh, God! Don’t let this snake bite me please!” That would be just ignorant. That’d be like stepping out in front of a train and saying, “Ok God, if you’re real, let this train derail and not hit me.” That would be stupid. We take up serpents through and by the anointing of God. It has to be the Lord who moves on us and instructs us, “Hey, get this serpent out, do this, and put it back up.” And that’s the way it works. The anointing will instruct you and take care of you. And actually you have to have faith in believing that God could let you do it. But the anointing and the Holy Ghost, the instruction of the Holy Ghost, is what teaches you to do it.
When the Lord does move on you and you do get bitten, is that also part of God’s plan?
When God moves on you, there are only one or two reasons that you are going to get bitten. One is that to get bitten and not suffer, and that’s a sign to the people for some reason. That was like me last night—I got bit, and I didn’t feel a whole thing. We had three people get saved last night, gave their hearts to God. Now on the way home, I fainted, and my finger’s a little sore this morning, but other than that, I am just fine. The second reason would be that it would be your appointed time to die that day. I believe that we all have an appointed time to die, whether it be by cancer, by snake bite, by car wreck, or by plane crash.
You were close to Jamie Coots, and you were there the night that he died. Does his death make you scared to take up snakes?
I was very close to him. He was just like a daddy to me. I always had him. And I don’t have him no more. I’m by myself now. It made me grow up a lot. After losing him, I realized, Jamie’s not around. I’ve got to do things on my own. It has not made me scared or nothin’—because the word of God is still real, and it’s still right. It’ll never change, and I’ll never stop doing it—I’ll always take up serpents. If that’s the way God sees fit for me [to die], that’s fine. I don’t want to die by snake bite. I don’t want to die in a car wreck. I want to die when I’m 109 years old.
Do you think serpent handling is becoming more popular?
It has. After the TV show, my church exploded. I run between 85 and 100 people every service—full-time members, people that pay their tithes. We run just a good-size church now. God really blessed my church. I see our ministry going, one day, maybe worldwide. Maybe having churches set up all throughout the country. People taking up serpents, and praying for people, and seeing the sick healed, and just showing this world that there is a realness in God.