Snakes alive. We’ve got us another southern-based reality television show. “Snake Salvation” focuses on a small Pentecostal sect in Appalachia that takes the Gospel of Mark 16:18 to heart: “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.” Essentially, they prove their faith in God by handling poisonous snakes–mostly rattlers–and if they’re bitten, they believe in the healing power of their Lord to keep them alive. They also believe that if they don’t handle snakes, well, hello Hell!
The show, which premieres on National Geographic on September 10th, features Jamie Coots (did they have to choose a man named “Coots?”) of Full Gospel Tabernacle in Jesus Name church of Middlesboro, Ky. and Andrew Hamblin of Tabernacle Church of God in LaFollette, Tenn. According to the show’s description, “Hunting the surrounding mountains for deadly serpents and maintaining their church’s snake collection is a way of life for both men.” Not many churches can say they have a snake collection.
The earliest years of my life, just to age 6, were spent at the Rock of Ages Church in Huntington, West Virginia. When I watch the video below, I recognize a similar type of preaching and inflection among the snake-handlers that I witnessed as a young child. They minister to their flock using a singsong kind of expression. “I belieeeeve-ha. In Jesus Chriiiiist-ha.” That sort of thing. At Rock of Ages, I didn’t have to fear snakes, just that giant portrait of Jesus wearing a thorny crown with blood dribbling down his forehead. THAT terrified me.
I do remember, though, my Maw Maw Cox telling me about some snake handlers that showed up at the funeral home where my Uncle Roger worked. As it turns out, one of the members of the snake-handling church had died and when it came time for visitation the church members came to pay their respects, but they weren’t alone. They brought their snakes with them and asked to slip a few into the coffin. This caused the staff at the funeral home to scatter, and eventually, the police arrived and forced them to take the snakes away.
Rev. Coots and Rev.Hamblin hope that the show will allow the public to see that their lives revolve around more than hunting and handling snakes, though I’m not so sure viewers will notice much more.
I’m going to try to reserve judgement until I’ve seen the show, but I can’t help but wonder about this latest attempt to examine the white underbelly of the South. And I emphasize white, because nearly all southern-based reality shows focus on whites who are generally, from the lower class or outright poor. In fact, Andrew Hamblin falls into this category. According to an article in the Christian Post, he is struggling to support his wife and five children and is doing the show to attract more followers. It will be interesting to see if the show takes off or simply slithers away.
(Note: If people really want to understand this particular religious group and their beliefs in a serious way, I’d recommend reading Dennis Covington’s book, Salvation on Sand Mountain: Snake Handling and Redemption in Southern Appalachia.)