ON A WARM summer evening several years ago, congregants jammed the front of the Tabernacle Church of God in LaFollette, Tennessee. It was homecoming time, and scores of Pentecostals, hailing from throughout Appalachia, had gathered to worship God in a ritual that risked bodily harm.
Dancing around the pulpit, Tyler Evans, whose family has handled serpents for five generations, held a Coke bottle with a flaming wick to his skin, a practice called “handling fire.” The teenager suffered no burns. Next, he took a swallow from a Mason jar containing a mixture of water and strychnine—a bitter poison made famous in Agatha Christie novels. He let out nary a cough. From a few feet away, Pastor Andrew Hamblin nodded in approval. On his arms dangled two venomous copperhead snakes, mottled in brown and tan.
Six Appalachian states, including Tennessee, outlaw religious snake handling on a variety of grounds, but Hamblin’s enthusiastic congregation paid no mind to such strictures. Men in dress shirts and black pants linked arms around each other’s shoulders and shuffle danced, forming and reforming circles as they wove across the pulpit’s small platform. Praying and singing, they passed sharp-fanged serpents from hand to hand or waved them slowly in the air.
For Andrew Abrams, 18, the evening was an initiation. He’d been praying for a sign from God when his father approached him with two copperheads. “Lord, I can’t do this,” Abrams said he immediately thought. But he accepted the sinuous creatures. “There’s no feeling like that on Earth,” he said with a grin afterward, “knowing you’re holding death in your hands and it won’t do anything to you.”
“They shall take up serpents”
The Tabernacle Church of God has since closed, but at the time it was one of roughly 125 churches in the United States that follow the “signs” described in chapter 16 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.
In other words, those who believe the word of God and preach the Gospel will be empowered to send demons packing, speak in unknown languages, heal by laying on hands, and—like the young men in Hamblin’s congregation—safely drink poison and handle venomous snakes.
The roots of modern-day Pentecostalism lie in the “Holiness” revival of the late 19th century, when Methodists, with sprinklings of Anabaptists, Presbyterians, and Quakers, demonstrated their devotion to God by avoiding worldly pursuits like dancing, drinking, gambling, and attending the theater. Many scholars trace the birth of the modern Pentecostal movement to a prayer meeting held in Topeka, Kansas, on the first day of 1901, where congregants resurrected one sign—speaking in tongues—after nearly 2,000 years of disuse. Laying hands on the sick and casting out demons soon followed. Adherents would not drink poison or take up snakes, however, until several years later, when George Hensley, a Tennessee revivalist, popularized bringing reptiles into his church, convinced that the Bible mandated following all five signs.
Most Pentecostals denounced this interpretation, which is why the practice is confined mostly to remote Appalachian chapels in backwoods hollows, far from the gaze of other Christians and law enforcement. Hamblin preached, however, just six miles from Interstate 75.
He was different in other ways, too. While old-timers in this movement avoided such vices as smoking and swearing, dressed modestly, eschewed divorce, and never spoke to reporters, Hamblin openly enjoyed cigarettes, never insisted on a dress code, and welcomed media. His congregation was just as likely to include grandmothers in floor-length skirts and chignons as recovered drug addicts and women in denim, rhinestones, and white leather boots. Ironically, it is this latter group—younger and far more worldly—that now breathes new life into this controversial practice.
“They call this the Land of Misfits Church,” Michelle Gray, who’d driven 90 miles to attend the homecoming, told me. “People with a past come to Andrew’s.” Gray introduced her teenage daughter, Madison, who’d just started handling snakes, an experience she described as “overwhelming and exciting.”
For sure, she’d be coming back.
Click here to read more.
SOURCE: National Geographic, Julia Duin and Stacy Kranitz