Snake Handling

Snake Handling June 3, 2012

By Bob Smietana:

Andrew Hamblin’s Facebook page is filled with snippets of his life.

Making a late-night run to Taco Bell.

Watching SpongeBob on the couch with his kids.

Handling rattlesnakes in church.

Hamblin, 21, pastor of Tabernacle Church of God in LaFollette, Tenn., is part of a new generation of serpent-handling Christianswho are revitalizing a century-old faith tradition in Tennessee.

While older serpent handlers were wary of outsiders, these younger believers welcome visitors and use Facebook to promote their often misunderstood — and illegal — version of Christianity. They want to show the beauty and power of their extreme form of spirituality. And they hope eventually to reverse a state ban on handling snakes in church.

Since the early 1900s, a handful of true believers in East Tennessee and other parts of Appalachia have practiced the so-called signs of the gospel, found in a little-known passage in the King James Version 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.”

While other churches ignore this passage or treat it metaphorically, serpent handlersfollow it literally. Their intense faith demands sinless living and rewards them with spiritual ecstasy — the chance to hold life and death in their hands….

A week ago, the Rev. Randy “Mack” Wolford of Bluefied, W.Va., one of Hamblin’s mentors and friends, was bitten by a timber rattler during an outdoor Sunday service held at Panther State Park in West Virginia, the only state where serpent handling is legal.

He was pronounced dead Monday morning. Wolford’s father, also a preacher, died from a rattlesnake bite during a service in 1983.

On Friday, Hamblin and his wife, Elizabeth, were driving to West Virginia so he could preach at Wolford’s funeral. He was still reeling from the shock that the friend he called Brother Mack was gone. Hamblin will tell mourners not to lose faith in their grief.

“The only thing I know to do is to encourage the people of God to keep on, keep doing the signs of God.”



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  • gingoro

    It is one thing to be protected from snake bites and another to tempt God. Growing up in East Africa I saw God protect and heal but no one went out of their way to court injury.
    Dave W

  • Joe Canner

    Why isn’t there any interest in practicing the second part of that verse: drinking deadly poison?

  • DRT

    Joe Canner – You have to read the whole article. In the week prior to this they drank the whole bottle of strychnine laced water that they keep in the church, in case the spirit moves them.

  • Travis Greene


    They do drink poison. And sometimes put their hands on hot stoves, fire, etc.

  • DRT

    This article is a veritable treasure trove of material, thank you so much for this! I don’t think i have ever seen a single article with some much stuff I did not currently have that I will be able to use.

    Some of the great stuff

    – women can only hold the snakes briefly under male supervision
    – the strychnine article on wikipedia makes no mention of its use in worship services, I think I might need to add that part.
    – “Most serpent handlers think drinking poison is optional — it’s not required in the way that handling snakes is.”
    – “Few women handle serpents during services; when they do, it’s only for a moment and then they hand the serpent back to one of the men. Women can’t preach but can testify or prophesy.”
    – A gentle handler who doesn’t make fast motions near a snake’s head is unlikely to get bitten. Dancing with a snake or handling a snake and fire at the same time is a different matter.“That’s a little more risky — it’s more likely that they’ll get bit,” he said”
    – This next one is quite the gem. After the one guy dies, they say ““The only thing I know to do is to encourage the people of God to keep on, keep doing the signs of God.””
    – Then there is irony built in, he will drink poison but draws the line at soda “Hamblin drank water — he swore off soda three years ago.”

    and much more. What a gem.

  • DRT

    AND, I forgot the absolute best factoid that will enhance my reptroire of West Virginia jokes [I live in VA so I end up meeting a lot of folk from W VA]

    ….was bitten by a timber rattler during an outdoor Sunday service held at Panther State Park in West Virginia, the only state where serpent handling is legal.

    Priceless 🙂

  • jinny

    In my NT background class, we learned that snakes were associated with the oracle at Delphi. It’s about fortune telling, like Acts 16:16 references in the Greek. Context is important. It’s not about showing off, but combating evil, like Moses did in Egypt. It’s kind of disturbing that people are saying it’s a spiritual experience. It’s misuse of miraculous signs, in my opinion. They are not for the benefit of believers, but for the benefit of unbelievers.

  • This is an absolutely fascinating subculture. I have a collection of books about snake-handling and visiting a handling church is on my “bucket list.” One of the best books, both from a stylistic and historical standpoint is _Salvation on Sand Mountain_. It tells the story of a writer who is sent to cover the trial of a handling preacher who tried to murder his wife by forcing her to stick her hand in the snake box. He was in love with another woman and his church did not allow for divorce, so what choice did he have, really?
    His wife survived and the preacher (Glen Summerford, though spelled a variety of different ways) is in prison for life. He has a book proclaiming his innocence.
    One interesting fact is that most of these churches do not believe in the Trinity. When pointed to the (very suspect) passage in I John that speaks of the Trinity they respond that this verse was not in the original. Kind of strange coming from a group that holds so strongly to Mark 16.
    At any rate, I was glad to see the article treat them like individuals rather than lunatics. After all we are all lunatics in someone’s eyes (dead people don’t really rise from the dead do they?). Not to say that what they do is normal or called for by the text, but only that we should be willing to give a little grace to those who are different.

    Anyone up for a trip to Jolo, West Virginia?


  • Patrick


    Yea, I think this passage is a late add on myself by an amateur who tried to emulate what had been recorded in Acts, this isn’t metaphorical, lots of it happened in Acts, accidentally. The older Mark manuscripts stop at chapter 16:8 and the finale is just missing.

    Plus, I noticed something that strikes me as fraudulent in that passage just now. Around verse 14 whoever wrote that used the term “THE 11”. We all know Judas is the minus 1, BUT, nowhere else in the Gospels is the term “The 12” changed after Judas. It’s always “the 12”. Not here.

    The poor fellow missed your point. He tempted God and paid the price. They really need to figure this out, they are not dying from lack of faith. They’ve got that more than I do.

    They’re dying because they’re doing what the Jews did in the wilderness.

  • DRT

    SamLam, Roadtrip! I will be there.

  • Larry Barber

    I always wondered why it had to be _poisonous_ snakes. “Mark” just says snakes, nothing about them being venomous. I think they need to adjust their hermeneutical approach just a bit. If you must handle a snake, why not let it be a garter snake or something else similarly harmless?

  • Chris

    DRT…Not sure where you are coming from, but there are some grieving brothers and sisters. I don’t agree with their biblical exegesis, but should we make fun of them? I like SamLam’s comment.

  • DRT

    Chris, that’s fair.

  • DRT

    But I do feel I must say that I was not making fun of the people who lost the loved one, I was making light of the state being behind everyone else.

  • Joe Canner

    DRT and Travis, thanks for the clarification. At least they’re consistent….

  • Ricky McCarl

    DRT, I am a Virginian as well and I remember all the West Virginia jokes (it should be noted my grandmother was a West Virginian) and all I have to say is that there are some really backwoods places in the commonwealth of Virginia too.

  • Jeremy

    Dateline (I think…maybe 20/20) did a special on this stuff in Georgia a bunch of years ago. They handled snakes and drank poisoned water (Arsenic, I think). They filmed the whole thing and even let the show takes some of the water to test. I remember the host reporting with a rather amazed look on his face that the water was extremely toxic and anyone who drank it should have died.

    I also remembered watching the video and feeling extremely disturbed by the ecstatic experiences happening. I grew up in a Charismatic church, but this looked…wrong.

  • DRT

    Ricky McCarl, yes, there are some really backwoods places in VA, and I live in one of them! That’s what is fun about this for me, it is a fair fight. I don’t pick on weaker people, there is plenty of the same sort of ammo to use with me. That’s why it is fun.