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.”