Sunday July 28, 2013
Reporter: PJ Madam
Producer: Ali Russell
In a handful of tiny renegade churches across rural Appalachia, followers believe that Jesus commanded them to take up serpents – to hold deadly snakes in their hands.
They believe that if a snake bites them it’s God’s will whether they live or die. Many will not go to hospital if they are bitten, and many have indeed died. It’s an ancient Pentecostal tradition, and one that was dying out – but one young preacher is determined to bring it back.
Andrew Hamblin is 22 years old and lives in the small town of LaFollette, Tennessee. Three times a week he preaches in his tiny church before 20 to 100 followers, many of them young and recruited from Facebook. In every service, they handle snakes. Rattlesnakes, copperheads and cottonmouths are taken from their wooden boxes as believers cradle them in their arms, press them to their foreheads and dance with them.
One year ago, Hamblin’s best friend Randy ‘Mack’ Wolford, the snake-handling preacher who introduced him to the practice, died of a rattlesnake bite. Randy’s father had died the same way.
The handling of deadly snakes in religious rituals is outlawed in every US state but West Virginia. Professor of religion and psychology Dr Ralph Hood has been studying the snake-handling churches of Appalachia for 25 years.
“There are around 125 churches practicing it today. It’s illegal…but it’s often supported by the community so the sheriff turns a blind eye. Andrew Hamblin is openly defying the authorities, he’s almost pushing them to close him down. If someone gets bit, they will close him down,” said Hood.
Hamblin has been bitten several times already. Two years ago, he almost died after a bite from a 23-inch long rattlesnake. But he continues on, his faith undiminished.
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