By JULIA DUIN
Reviving Faith by 'Taking Up Serpents'
For a new generation of Internet-savvy Pentecostals, a century-old practice provides 'anointing'
This year's Easter service at the Tabernacle Church of God in La Follette, Tenn., will include many of the holiday's traditional rituals, like Holy Communion and footwashing.
There will also be some startling novelties.
"It will be filled with shouting, dancing, speaking in tongues, serpent handling and fire handling," said its 21-year-old pastor, Andrew Hamblin. "We'll celebrate the resurrection of Jesus Christ with a good old time."
Since he opened its doors last fall, Mr. Hamblin's small Pentecostal church, 39 miles north of Knoxville, has grown to almost 50 members, most of them in their 20s. Part of his strategy for expansion has been to use Facebook to publicize the daredevil spiritual exploits of his congregation.
Photos: Snake Handling as Spiritual Practice
Micah Golden, left, and Andrew Hamblin during a service on Dec. 31, 2011.
The service lasted for about five hours and took place at Hamblin's church, the Tabernacle Church of God, in La Follette, Tenn.
Best known for what they call "gifts of the Holy Spirit," like speaking in tongues and giving prophetic utterances, Pentecostals seek a direct, personal connection to God. The movement dates back to 1901 and has mushroomed in recent decades to some 15 million adherents in the U.S. and 279 million world-wide, according to the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life.
But the major Pentecostal denominations condemn snake handling, and Mr. Hamblin's risk-taking sometimes gets the best of him. At midnight on New Year's Eve, he was bitten on his index finger by a yellow timber rattlesnake. He staggered and then dropped to his knees. After a few minutes, he got up.
"I felt the anointing of God more than I'd ever felt," he said a day later over pizza.
A boyish-looking young man, Mr. Hamblin has a day job as a cashier at the local IGA store and lives with his wife and four children in a three-bedroom apartment. His Facebook page is full of photos of him handling copperheads, cottonmouths and various kinds of rattlesnakes, despite Tennessee's ban on the poisonous reptiles.
"Serpent handling," as Pentecostals prefer to call it, began in 1909 near Cleveland, Tenn., and has been practiced ever since in West Virginia, eastern Kentucky, western North Carolina, eastern Tennessee and parts of Alabama and Georgia. It is 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."
"The tradition had been declining until recently because the pastors were aged and not attracting new believers," said Ralph Hood, a psychology professor at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga who has written about the practice. "But now that it's gone digital, that is going to increase its popularity."
Prof. Hood has seen an uptick of young practitioners. "When they feel called and have the anointing, they are like rock stars," he said. "When they handle serpents, they either have 'victory,' in which God has granted them power over the serpent, or if bit and even killed, that demonstrates their obedience and assurance of salvation."
The term "anointing" refers to power given by the Holy Spirit. Pentecostals believe that when people are anointed by God, nothing evil can hurt them.
Standing in the front pew at the New Year's Eve service was a group of young women in long skirts, long hair and no makeup. One of them was Kasi Powers, 21, of nearby Duff, Tenn. She first handled a snake in November: "Andrew handed me a big old cane brake rattler. It was an amazing feeling. I felt anointed." A few weeks later, her 24-year-old husband, Daniel, followed suit.
Mr. Hamblin's wife, Elizabeth, 20, also embraces the practice. Although she was 7½ months pregnant on New Year's Eve, she handled several rattlesnakes. Mr. Hamblin said, "I've had some awfully mean snakes that she's handled like house cats."
Mr. Hamblin won't allow anyone under 18 to touch the reptiles, but he guesses that there are at least 14 people under 30 who are handling serpents in his church. One is Micah Golden, 21, who said, "I'd watched YouTube videos of people handling serpents, and I used to say 'I'm going to do that some day.'"
Mr. Hamblin said that he spent a year praying and fasting before he took up snake handling in 2009. "I love the feeling of power, the anointing that moves on me when I handle snakes," he said. "I'd rather handle snakes than eat or drink."
He learned the practice from Jamie Coots, 40, pastor of the Full Gospel Tabernacle in Jesus Name in nearby Middlesboro, Ky. "There are more younger people in it now than what it was when I got married 21 years ago," Mr. Coots said, estimating that there are some 20 snake-handling churches in his area of Kentucky alone.
As for Mr. Hamblin, "He has been a little antsy and anxious, and I've had to get on him in wanting to handle snakes a whole lot. I had to tell him it is not something you have to do all the time."
—Ms. Duin is the former religion editor of the Washington Times. A version of this article appeared April 7, 2012, on page C3 in some U.S. edition