Andrew Hamblin is part of a group of Tennessee Christians who believe that God has instructed them to 'take up serpents' in the literal sense. He and some other preachers take the Biblical exhortation extremely seriously, as their unique (and illegal) form of religious practice involves praying with venomous snakes in their bare hands.
Soon they will be praying with serpents on reality TV on "Snake Salvation," set to debut September 10th on the National Geographic Channel. A camera crew followed around Hamblin, of Tabernacle Church of God in Lafollette, Tenn., and Jamie Coots of Full Gospel Tabernacle in Jesus Name Church of Middlesboro, Ky., in the fall of 2012 and the spring and summer of 2013.
Snake-handling has been going on in that region for generations, but while older serpent pastors were wary of outsiders, the younger crop of snake preachers are open about their practice, posting photos on Facebook and welcoming visitors (though they aren't allowed anywhere near the snakes).
The serpent-handlers believe that they have been commanded by God to take up snakes, which serves as a sort of spiritual litmus test of faith, as those blessed by God will remain unharmed. The practice is rooted in a passage from Mark 16 of the Bible which reads:
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.
In a 2012 profile by the Tennessean, Hamblin elaborated on the feeling of serpent-handling, saying that if more people had the same experiences that he does while in church, they wouldn't mock it. He said, "It is the closest thing to heaven on earth that you could get. You can feel God's power in the flesh."
Serpent-handling congregations are typically suspicious of the media and law-enforcement agencies, as their unusual method of worship was outlawed by Tennessee in 1947 following the death of five people from serpent bites at churches in two years. Hamblin and other serpent-handlers also routinely run afoul of the state law that prohibits people from capturing wild animals or keeping poisonous snakes, as they usually catch their own.
However, Hamblin and Coots have decided to step into the spotlight to share their religious convictions with a wider audience, hoping that people will benefit from seeing the extreme demonstration of their faith. "We say we are in this to save souls," commented Coots. "But people don't see us if they don't come into the four walls of the church."
Sixteen episodes of the show are planned, said executive producer Matthew Testa, who cites the uniqueness of the local faith tradition as a compelling reason for viewers to watch the show beyond the thrill of seeing regular pastors engaged in a dangerous practice. "We live at a time when, because of the Internet and television, we are all becoming more and more alike," he commented to USA Today. "To find a really distinct American subculture is incredibly rare."