AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Audie Cornish.
MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
And I'm Melissa Block.
Snake handlers dwell at the edge of the spiritual frontier. They take up venomous snakes to prove their faith in God. They're part of the Holiness movement, a subset of the Pentecostal Church. And while mostly hidden, the practice is widespread in parts of Appalachia. NPR's John Burnett visited two snake-handling pastors who explained how handling serpents fulfills them spiritually.
JOHN BURNETT, BYLINE: This is the story of a community of people who are willing to die for their faith, three times a week in church.
JAMIE COOTS: The scent in the snake room is strong, so I'll go ahead and tell you that. A lot of ladies don't care much for it.
BURNETT: Pastor Jamie Coots keeps his serpents locked in a building behind his house. The air in the snake room is warm, musky and malevolent. The dark-complexion pit vipers lay about in glass cages. The rattlers announce our arrival.
COOTS: Got rattlesnakes, the timber rattler and the canebrake. We have northern copperheads. And that's the only two cottonmouths we have. I think in this cage alone, there's like 21 copperheads.
BURNETT: Jamie Coots is a well-known snake handler here in southeastern Kentucky. He's 41, stout and bald with a Van Dyke beard, the third generation of Coots to take up serpents.
COOTS: Taking up serpents, to me, it's just showing that God has power over something that he created that does have the potential of injuring you or taking your life.
BURNETT: Brother Jamie lives in the coal-mining town of Middlesboro, Kentucky. His church is a simple, white, rectangular affair called the Full Gospel Tabernacle in Jesus Name. Like most snake-handling churches, the congregation is small, about two dozen people, and most of them are family. Coots says they're really not that different from other churches.
COOTS: We sing, we preach, we testify, take up offerings, pray for the sick, you know, everything like everybody else does, just every once in a while snakes are handled.
BURNETT: There are an estimated 125 snake-handling churches scattered across Alabama, Georgia, the Carolinas, and Appalachia, where the tradition is strongest. Taking up serpents is against the law everywhere but West Virginia, though in most states it's a misdemeanor the authorities don't bother with.
Today, the major Pentecostal denominations denounce snake handling, which dates back about a hundred years. Serpent handlers draw their peculiar devotion from the Gospel of Mark, from a passage that most New Testament scholars consider either symbolic language or irrelevant.
COOTS: In the 16th chapter of Saint Mark, of course, is when Jesus, you know, told his disciples: 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...
BURNETT: These are the five signs often practiced in snake-handling churches: casting out demons, speaking in tongues, taking up serpents, healing by faith and drinking poison. Some people also sip strychnine or lye to test their belief in God. Coots has been bitten nine times by venomous snakes. Each time, he refused medical attention. Half of his right middle finger is gone as a result of a fang from a yellow rattler.
In 1995, a woman who was bit in his church refused to go to the hospital. She died on Coots' couch while they prayed over her. Such is the conviction of his belief that Jamie Coots has agreed not to call EMS if his own 21-year-old son, Little Cody, gets bitten in a service.
COOTS: He has been bit five times by cottonmouths, and he has already told me, Dad, I'll never go to a doctor.
BURNETT: Ralph Hood is a psychology professor at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga who has documented hundreds of hours of serpent-handling over 25 years. To the skeptics, he says the snakes are not milked, defanged or in any way made less deadly.
RALPH HOOD: But it's kind of like playing Russian roulette. The more frequently you handle, the more likely you are to get a bite. Serpents don't get tamed.
BURNETT: Having said that, Hood has brought herpetologists to services to try and understand why it is that handlers can pick up reptiles with impunity, even walk on them barefoot, and receive so few snakebites.
HOOD: All I know is that these people do handle, and most of the time they are not bit and they can do what scientists think is not likely. Nobody has a good explanation.
BURNETT: National Geographic Television followed Coots and another snake-handling preacher off and on for a year. The documentary series "Snake Salvation" is airing this fall on Tuesday nights.
(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, 'SNAKE SALVATION')
COOTS: I'll always have snakes at church no matter what it takes.
MATTHEW TESTA: Snake handling fascinated me because it's such an extreme gesture of faith.
BURNETT: Matthew Testa is the executive producer.
TESTA: We set out to tell this story from the snake handlers' point of view to really humanize them, not to judge them, and to show how important religion is in their daily lives with their daily struggles.
BURNETT: It's nighttime. The cicadas are out. Testa and I are talking in the darkened parking lot of the Tabernacle Church of God in LaFollette, Tennessee. From Jamie Coots' church, it's a short drive through the Cumberland Gap. The pastor here is Andrew Hamblin, a lanky, charismatic 22-year-old who is the other preacher featured in the TV series.
Hamblin wants to update snakes in church. He posts photos of himself with snakes on his Facebook page, and he aspires to pastor the first serpent-handling mega-church. But his members are a little tired of the media, so he asked me to please record outside of his sanctuary.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
ANDREW HAMBLIN: (Singing) (Unintelligible)
BURNETT: Snake-handling services are intense and high-energy. One writer called them improvisational, spiritual jazz. Hamblin, a talented guitarist, strums and sings gospel for the 20 folks in his congregation. In the Holiness tradition, the women all wear long skirts, no makeup, and their hair is uncut. When Brother Andrew warms up, he stomps and jumps and bellows into the microphone about salvation. About halfway through the service, he puts down his Fender and picks up a pair of copperheads.
The snakes are twisted around each other. Their entwined heads sway in space as he slings them carelessly back and forth. At one point, he wipes the sweat from his forehead with the coiled reptiles. The sight is terrifying. It's mesmerizing. Hamblin wears an expression of unbearable ecstasy. After the two-hour service, we sit on the altar and I ask Hamblin, what does it feels like?
HAMBLIN: The feeling to take up serpents is unexplainable. It's better felt than told. It's peace that surpasseth(ph) all understanding to know that you're standing there rather with death in your hand and the anointment of God has protected you to let you do that.
BURNETT: Snake handlers are notoriously private. Andrew Hamblin, like his mentor Jamie Coots, says he opened his church to the National Geographic film crew - as he did for this interview - to educate people and dispel stereotypes.
HAMBLIN: You know, our message is not handle snakes, handle snakes, handle snakes. But our message is be saved by the blood of Christ. We're not a cult. We're not freaks. We're Christians.
(SOUNDBITE OF CHURCH SERVICE)
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Unintelligible)
BURNETT: Both Jamie Coots and Andrew Hamblin have a parting message: Their churches are open for services three nights a week, and everyone is welcome. John Burnett, NPR News.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
CORNISH: You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.