LaFOLLETTE—A serpent-handling preacher is expected to star in an upcoming reality series produced by National Geographic. The show — titled “Snake Salvation” — is expected to begin airing 16, half-hour-long episodes, with back-to-back shows debuting 9 and 9:30 p.m. on Sept. 10. Producers of the show have been tight-lipped about details, but it’s expected to center around the life of 22-year-old Tabernacle Church of God pastor Andrew Hamblin and his controversial congregation.
In addition to taking up serpents for religious reasons, worshippers there have been known to handle fire, drink poisons, speak in tongues and engage in demon-casting rituals.
A National Geographic camera crew filmed onsite in Campbell County from March to June and are reportedly finalizing footage for the upcoming show.
“I won’t say it was invasive,” said Hamblin, whose been profiled by USA Today and a number of other media outlets. “It was fun — but it was aggravating at times.”
The crew filmed parts of Hamblin’s home life and also captured services at his small Pentecostal church, located just outside of LaFollette.
“After awhile [the congregation] got used to it,” Hamblin said of the documentary crews.
While Hamblin has previewed only limited Internet clips of upcoming series, he hopes it will show him as a husband, a father and a friend.
“I wanted to show the world my life,” he said. “It doesn’t always revolve around snakes. The world is going to see the whole 9 yards of it.”
A producer from the National Geographic channel contacted the LaFollette Press earlier this spring to obtain certain licensing rights from articles and photos formerly published in this publication about Hamblin’s snake-handling practices at the church, where he’s pastored since fall 2011. It was then Hamblin introduced the congregation to serpent handling, along with other practices he believes are directed by scripture.
Hamblin said the Christ-centered congregation is sometimes misunderstood by outsiders and non-believers.
“I’ve had people stand and talk to me like a dog about [my beliefs],” he said. “But the greatest [Christian] commandment of all is to treat your neighbor like you want to be treated.”
Hamblin maintains many naysayers change their opinions when they come and witness one of his services — which attract as many as 100 attendees and can last as long as four hours.
“They like the message,” he said of those who attend. “We’re not preaching that if you don’t believe like we do, you’re not going to heaven.”
ABOUT THE SERVICES
On Friday night, about 40 attended a revival at Tabernacle Church of God. Inside, the church is filled with traditional wooden pews that lead to a pulpit, from which Hamblin typically addresses the congregation on Friday nights and Sunday afternoons.
“How many’s ready to have church tonight?” Hamblin asked the crowd, raising his voice to a bravado unexpected from his smaller frame, before the service began. “How many’s ready to feel the spirit of the Lord? If you’re ready to be uplifted you need to get out of your pew.”
Then, the building began to vibrate with pulsing guitars, tambourines and additional accompaniments from the stomps and claps of the congregation.Worshippers sang and testified as they jumped along a patch of new hardwood floor — recently replaced, Hamblin said, after it collapsed under the weight of one particularly intense worship service.
Hamblin — who played electric guitar — wiped sweat from his brow, neck and forehead as he sang and encouraged the others to rejoice with him in fellowship.
Later, Brother Derrick Ames — a visiting pastor from Kentucky — testified of his ailing Mamaw who was reportedly healed by the power of prayer. The ailing woman had reportedly been in a hospital suffering from a boil on her neck as wide as two fists.
“But Mamaw wasn’t having a pity party,” Ames testified — part singing, part speaking, as softer music continued to fill the sanctuary. “Because Mamaw was brought up in the old time way. She didn’t have a lot of money. She got new shoes once a year, and when they got holes she put cardboard in them and wore them home.
“Mamaw didn’t have her driver’s license — and still doesn’t have one today,” he said. “To my knowledge, she’s never drove a car. When Mamaw wanted to go to church, she’d pray for a ride.”
That life-long belief in prayer is what also saved Mamaw from her ailments, Ames testified.
Later, members gathered by the alter for a prayer circle, and Hamblin anointed their heads with oil as they asked God for strength, compassion, healing and forgiveness. Some shook back and forth, while one member spoke in tongues — a fluid vocalization of syllables that lack conventional comprehension.
Another young member lit a small torch on fire and paraded around with the flame for seconds before it was extinguished. The congregation looked on from all corners of the church, praising in their own individual style. Many raised hands and screamed “amen.” Many of the women wore ankle-length skirts — commonly adorned by female Pentecostals — while two of Hamblin’s five small children clutched each other and danced in circles with each other. Their mother, Elizabeth, captured video of them from her iPhone.
And then came the snakes.
After removing serpents from special crates kept behind the pulpit, some members of the congregation passed around multiple venomous cottonmouths and copperheads — clutching two and three at a time.
A snake slithered up Hamblin’s button-down shirt and onto his head before he eventually passed it to his wife and then to the piano player and other worshipers.
Serpent handling presumably began in 1909 near Cleveland, Tenn., and has been predominantly practiced ever since in many regions of Appalachia. It is biblically based on Mark 16:17-18, which says that Christians “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.”
“People ask me, ‘Do you believe Jesus himself took up serpents?’” Hamblin said. “Yes, I do.”
Hamblin grew up in a small Baptist church, the grandson of a Baptist preacher in an otherwise very religious family.
“My granny could out dance anyone in the Church of God,” Hamblin said.
Hamblin was first exposed to serpent handling through his religious readings and saw the practice on TV when he was about 16. In August of 2008, he personally witnessed it for the first time at a snake-handling service in a Middlesboro, Ky. church. A year to that day, he handled his first deadly snake and has handled them hundreds of times since.
“It’s as real the first time as the millionth,” he said.
While some purport his practices to be sensationalized and believe the snakes have been drained of their venom, Hamblin rebukes that and describes the experience as a spiritual transcendence that requires the “anointing of God.”
“A lot of people say it’s fake — it’s not,” he said. “You just don’t pick up two rattlers in your arms and they don’t bite you.”
But that doesn’t mean Hamblin — who’s been bitten at least four times — hasn’t had close calls with death.
In July 2010, Hamblin was bitten on his right hand by a 23-inch yellow rattler.
“It almost killed me,” he said. “It felt like you hit my hand with a hammer. I started to tingle. I went numb.”
After seeking anti-venomous treatment at a hospital, Hamblin said he was still vomiting blood. He was feverish and his blood platelet count dropped dangerously low.
“But God had mercy on me,” he said of his survival. “I was young and ignorant. I disobeyed the voice of God. If you get bit and suffered, God has not told you to handle that snake. Now, I can’t make a fist with my right hand, but it’s a constant reminder of what ignorance will get you.”
Exactly one month, one week and one day after that near-death experience, Hamblin said he was bitten by a cottonmouth on his head and the nape of his neck.
“For eight seconds, he was gnawing on my head like a dog,” he said.
Blood gushed from his head and four fang marks were visible, he said.
How did he escape death or serious injury?
“I was anointed,” he said.
Since that time, Hamblin said he and members of his congregation have handled cottonmouths, vipers, diamondbacks — and just about every other potentially deadly snake.
“The only thing we haven’t handled is a cobra or a mamba — and that’s because no one has ever brought one [to a service],” he said.
Many of the snakes are not native to this area, and while it’s illegal to transport snakes across state lines, Hamblin said he relies on others to bring in snakes and practices conservation when snake hunting.
“I don’t bring females or babies out of the woods — that’s a habitat,” he said.
The snakes are kept under lock and key at an undisclosed location away from his home, he said, and always kept safe distance from children — a number of which attend his services.
“This is a free will thing. No one makes people handle them. We are not endangering their lives with these creatures,” he said, noting that firearms are also dangerous when not handled responsibly. “I’m not under pressure from the law here. We’re safe. We’re not a cult. We’re not a bunch of idiots slinging snakes here.”
And that’s just one of the many messages Hamblin hopes will be broadcasted to the world when “Snake Salvation” debuts next month.
Hamblin hopes the series will be eye opening to those who haven’t been exposed to the practice.
“If every snake handler in North America would come out, there’d be more than Southern Baptists. This is as mainstream as anything else is,” he said. “It’s going to open people’s eyes. I believe it will bring people to the area. It will bring people here from all over the world.”
And those who disagree should take a lesson from Matthew 7:1, which advises against judgment.
“Don’t knock it. Don’t say we’re stupid. Don’t say we’re backward. Don’t say we’re hillbillies,” Hamblin said. “Because my main message is to see people saved. And the day I quit packing a box [of snakes] to my services is the day I stop believing.”