Freak show or spiritual test? Book explores world of snake handlers

Source: Religion News Service

Andrew Hamblin preaches while holding a snake above his head in LaFollette, Tenn. Photo courtesy of National Geographic Channels

(RNS) — When Andrew Hamblin walks into church to preach on a Sunday morning, he brings along death in a box.

If the Holy Spirit moves him during the service, he will open the box’s hinged glass lid and remove a poisonous snake — one of several he keeps at his house — and dance with it, sometimes wearing it, sometimes jerking it about, as his small Tennessee congregation sings and chants.

Hamblin, who is in his mid-20s, is one of a handful of pastors at the center of “In the House of the Serpent Handler: A Story of Faith and Fleeting Fame in the Age of Social Media,” a new book by Julia Duin. A freelance religion reporter, Duin embedded herself in multiple Appalachian snake-handling congregations like Hamblin’s to discover what drives people to what she calls “the radical edge of Christianity, where life and death met every time you walked into a church and picked up a snake.”

Snake-handling churches have dotted Appalachia for a hundred years and are generally secretive. Members tend to be older and born into the church, rather than converts. But Duin’s book focuses on a new breed of snake-handling preachers — young and adept at using social media to attract attention, including teenage and 20-something members and television crews, to their dangerous services.

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