Snake handlers not charged for violating state law; “religious freedom” cited

January 14, 2014 • 1:03 pm

One of the peculiarities of American evangelical Christianity is the bizarre practice of “snake handling” by some Southern sects. I’ve posted about this several times (see here, here, and here); the practice, which involves handling venomous snakes (usually rattlesnakes) is based on two Biblical verses:

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. (Mark 16:17-18)

Behold, I give unto you power to tread on serpents and scorpions, and over all the power of the enemy: and nothing shall by any means hurt you. (Luke 10:19).

So much for those who take the Bible metaphorically. Do these people have a “wrong” understanding of Scripture?

At any rate, according to the, a paper serving the Mississipi coast, a pastor in Tennessee was acquited of handling snakes—a violation of state law—on grounds of religious freedom.

After a hearing on Wednesday, a grand jury decided not to indict the Rev. Andrew Hamblin on charges of violating a state ban on possessing venomous snakes.

In November, state officials seized 53 serpents — including rattlesnakes, copperheads and exotic breeds — from the Tabernacle Church of God in LaFollette, Tenn., where Hamblin is pastor.

Hamblin and his church say the Bible commands them to handle the snakes in worship. They’ve been featured in a National Geographic television series, “Snake Salvation.”

But state law bans the possession of venomous snakes.

Officials from the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency cited Hamblin with 53 counts of violating the ban. Each count carried a maximum sentence of almost a year in jail.

Hamblin argued that the ban violates congregations’ religious liberty.

He was thrilled by the grand jury’s decision.

“I’m ecstatic,” he said in a phone interview Wednesday. “All the headlines should read ‘Snake handlers have religious rights in Tennessee.’ “

What the grand jury did here was, in effect, a form of “jury nullification,” in which someone believed to be guilty is acquitted (or, in this case, not indicted) because the jury doesn’t accept or like the law.  Hamblin was clearly guilty and, in fact, admitted the transgressions.

Why I think Hamblin deserves to be guilty is not to protect him and his insane coreligionists (and I’ll be some commenters will oppose the law because it prevents a form of natural selection against stupidity!), for they have the right to endanger themselves in the name of faith if they want. No, I want the law enforced because it protects the snakes: hapless reptiles who are not only captured, often kept in terrible condition (see below), and —the ultimate indignity—forced to bite Christians.
Seriously, though, keeping snakes in bad condition is a form of animal abuse, and that’s what happened in this case:

Since 1947, Tennessee law has banned venomous snakes during church services or public settings. The state Supreme Court upheld that ban in the 1970s.

Matt Cameron, a spokesman for the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency, said its officers acted correctly in raiding Hamblin’s church.

Most of the snakes were in ill health when they were seized, said Cameron. More than half died since the raid, and the rest are being cared for at a Knoxville zoo.

As I’ve recounted in some of my earlier posts, Scripture is either wrong on this point, since several famous snake-handlers have died painful deaths, or those hapless victims didn’t have “proper belief.” Once again, every possible outcome is consistent with God.

h/t: Tom


91 thoughts on “Snake handlers not charged for violating state law; “religious freedom” cited

  1. it stands to reason that the small problem of snake handling will solve itself, i.e. the snakes will solve it….

    1. Not really. If you don’t feed or give water to your snake, they won’t bite as much, and with less dangerous venom.

      Of course, it does make their faith seem that much more feeble if they have to abuse animals to be able to practice it safely. They wouldn’t dare try a well rested, fully fed black mamba, aka, The Snake Handling Master Class.

        1. For a prey animal, sure. For a whole congregation, I’d pick one that has enough energy to give a bit of a chase.

  2. “and if they drink any deadly thing, it shall not hurt them;” So they should also be allowed to drink cyanide!

    1. Actually, I’d put it a bit differently.

      Anybody wishing to handle snakes for religious reasons must first demonstrate their worthiness by the other means indicated.

      Specifically, this test must be performed at the nearest big-city hospital with an emergency room. First, the candidate must go through the entire building, laying hands on every patient and healing each of all ailments. No more than five minutes per patient is permitted. The test ends after the first time a patient is not completely healed within five minutes.

      After the hospital has been cleared out, with the chief physician supervising, the candidate must then drink eight ounces of off-the-shelf ammonia within one minute; within another minute, the candidate must then drink eight ounces of off-the-shelf chlorine bleach.

      If the candidate can walk on his own power out of the hospital, he will then be granted a snake-handling permit.

      Only seems fair. Why endanger the snakes before we’ve established that the person really is a genuine true-believing evangelist? After all, there’s no need for fakers to handle snakes other than to try to deceive others into thinking their faith is true.



      1. Ammonia and clorox. I love it! When I was a kid I was into experimenting with household chemicals. I also unfortunately lacked supervision. I mixed those, and boy did I find out something about chemistry in a hurry! I can’t even imagine what that would do to a person’s insides. . . .

        1. You’ll also note the order I specified the two should be consumed in.

          I can’t imagine somebody actually putting a face up to a glass of ammonia long enough to be able to choke it down, so the chances of them actually harming themselves are minimal. Even if they do manage to swallow any, their systems should involuntarily purge it fast enough that little more than pride and floor coverings should be harmed.

          But, yeah, if somebody actually did manage to down an entire glass without discomfort, that would be very strong evidence of divine protection. At that point, I’d not have many qualms about handing over the bleach.

          …not that it’d ever happen. The Christers like to pull out verses such as “thou shalt not tempt the Lord thy God,” even as they still want to claim that there’s no problem handling snakes.


          1. Yeah, it isn’t the task that “tests” god, but the idea that you can figure out what he’s on about by manipulation that is the supposed sin. Of course, this destroys the credibility of any epistemology which adopts such a principle, as it amounts to “don’t experiment”.

  3. Are there two laws–one against possession of venomous snakes, and another against “handling” them? Seems to me there wouldn’t be any “religious freedom” issues that would vacate the law against possession. Nothing in the biblical verse about possession so it would seem the religious defense wouldn’t apply.

    1. True.
      Although the article is a bit misleading in citing ‘freedom of religion’ being the reason he got a pass.
      The actual “half hour long” argument was that he did NOT ‘possess’ those snakes: they weren’t his, but the church’s.
      That the Grand Jury bought that argument is still mind numbing though.

  4. We have an old Bible at home, it’s an RSV version that’s about 40 years old. It’s not some newfangled “liberal” Bible.

    But even it notes that Mark chapter 16 (the one with speaking in tongues and taking up serpents) was not part of the original gospel of Mark and was added later.

    I’m always amazed that the pentecostals have at the center of their services stuff that everyone agrees was a later add-on.

    1. Curt:

      It is not that “everyone agrees” on the last 12 verses of Mark 16 being a later addition. There are partisans on both sides.
      But the internal arguments that Mark 16 ended at verse 8 (Mark 16:8) are so valid and potent that many experts of the highest reputation for erudition and honesty do incline to consider Mark 16:9-20 as a late addition.

      But you’re right that it is truly amazing that nobody in Mississippi and Tennessee seems to be aware of the spuriousness of the long ending of Mark, and that believers still swallow this invented superstition, willing to endanger the lives of the snakes (bravo to Jerry for taking their side, for a change) and of themselves (thus contributing to decreasing the pool of the genes for irrationality).

      1. Really, it doesn’t matter much when the text was penned.

        Either it has divine approval, or the divine doesn’t give a flying fuck about its official biography. Or it gives a flying fuck, but it can’t do a damned thing about it.

        That’s one of the great things about this passage. It sets forth, in Jesus’s own words, how non-believers are supposed to identify believers. Either you drink the drano or you’re not a believer. If you claim it’s not Jesus’s original words, you’re left explaining why Jesus is okay with the intestine-fondling scene but not this one, and why he never did contact the publisher to get it fixed.



      2. Yeah, Roo, as well as internal literary evidence (which doesn’t always hold up – the shorter ending is genuinely artistically surprising and somewhat of a teaser – who was Jesus?): the earliest extant documents such as the codices Vaticanus and Sinaiticus don’t have the longer ending.

        Loads of pericopes do: but they’re from the same tradition.

        Metzger, the Christian biblical scholar, thought it an add-on. So do the Catholics, for…er, Christ’s sake.


        1. Re: where the longer ending comes from, I’d hazard a guess that it comes from Justin Martyr’s harmonic gospels tradition, with his buddy Tatian and his Diatessaron.

          Even by ca. 160 CE when Justin wrote chapter XLV of the First Apology, he appeared to quote Mark 16:20.

          Snake-handling was fine by then; one would assume that it was a common idea that magicians and those with ‘a close relationship with God’ could do such a thing. But I can’t think of a non-Christian example off the top of my head.

          Why would the allegation be in Mark unless others were claiming that they could do it?


            1. Keith,

              In all likelihood, yes there were competing religions which claimed the same invulnerability.

              Most ordinary people, from what we can work out, believed in demons and miracles. The early Christian tradition associates healing miracles with the driving out of demons; basically, illness was caused by the presence of demons and they had to be exorcised to rid the person of the illness and also the sin. In that sense Jesus was no different from Yohanan ben Zakkai, a Jewish contemporary mentioned in Josephus.

              Acts mentions Simon the Magus from whom we get the concept of simony, the buying of God-inspired magical healing. The author of Acts condemned Simon because of his wish to literally buy into Christianity. Justin Martyr in the second century also mistakenly criticised the Romans’ erection of a statue to Simon in the eternal city; his error derived from his poor understanding of the Latin inscription on the pedestal. The statue did not refer to Simon Magus at all.

              This explains Justin’s attempt to differentiate the Christian allegations about, amongst other things, Jesus’ virgin birth, miracles, resurrection etc. from similar pagan tales. Once the early Jewish Christians started evangelizing the Gentiles and stealing tropes from the Greco-Roman patrimony, certain historically aware and literate pagans like Celsus caught them out, at least according to the testimony of Origen.

              The tradition went back a long time into the OT: my god is greater than your God, YHWH is stronger than Baal, because he enables me to produce miracles which trump yours.

              The Gospels, especially the Synoptics, often refer and frequently erroneously back to the OT. Justin Martyr, who inspired the harmonization of the Gospel account which we habitually and mistakenly think of as THE Gospel story, was the allegorist par excellence. And completely bonkers.

              For Justin, the ‘proof’ of the superiority of Christianity was the new interpretation of the idea of prophecy. In the OT prophecy was presented generally as almost a reasonable prediction of the tendencies inherent in the social and political situation: the earliest Christians changed the game. They mined centuries-old quotations to demonstrate the inevitability of Jesus as Christ. It’s called ‘defectus litterae’, the assertion of allegorical meanings in OT pericopes. That was all the proof they needed.

              That my God really does let me drink poison and survive: sooner or later, your God will let down.


    1. I think the South is as creepy as it was. The internet does make crazy people do crazy things more often. And it will sometimes make some normal people do crazy things. But the good news about the internet is that people like me now know more about these crazies.

      On the whole, craziness, ignorance, and general prejudices are much easier to scrutinize when seen by more people since a consensus of common sense usually prevails.

  5. No, I want the law enforced because it protects the snakes:

    I agree that’s a reason, but IMO not the best one. The best is that these people have neighbors. They live in a society with other humans, and those other humans have a right to some reasonable level of safety from dangerous pets. I’m not an extremist who thinks all dogs should be muzzled and nobody should have snakes ever, but if we require people to leash their dogs while walking on the sidewalk, IMO the same civic reasoning would require removing the poison glands from pet snakes.

    1. Many of these snakes are captured by pouring gasoline down animal holes. Lots of damage to the snakes and lots of collateral damage to other wildlife. My friends and I used to protest this in Texas. It was a losing proposition. We wound up in jail for various amusing related offenses.

      1. I’m on your side regarding that. That seems an extraordinarily inhumane way of collecting animals for pets. I don’t like puppy/kitten farms, but even a ‘snake farm’ would be a huge humane step up from what you describe.

  6. No, I want the law enforced because it protects the snakes:

    As I understand it though the law against possession only applies to venomous snakes. And presumably keeping legal non-venomous snakes in sub-standard conditions would violate standing animal cruelty laws, and thus protect potentially legal venomous ones too.

    So I don’t see how your reasoning holds. If the Pentecostals were especially kind and gentle with their snakes would it now be okay with you if the law is applied unevenly, with the religious being granted special privileges over the nonreligious? My guess is no. So this is a specious argument, notwithstanding that you’re right about the problems with capturing and abusing wild animals.

    1. constrictors are quite dangerous w/o venom as the Maritimes have recently shown

      A good point, as all these religiobots are really doing is brandishing a deadly reptile while hoping it doesn’t bite them.

      Provoking any animal, unintentional or not, invites harm. I’ve been bitten by a d*g, garter snakes, a squirrel and a turtle while handling them gently.

      I didn’t realise these godbotherers abused the snakes to make them more passive


      1. “constrictors are quite dangerous w/o venom as the Maritimes have recently shown”

        I don’t understand that. Big constrictors can be dangerous — but Maritimes? Pythons in Florida, OK. I think I missed something somewhere.

  7. For God’s sake don’t tell these people about Matthew 19:12, Jesus’ approval of eunuchism. The bloke seemed to relish the thought of a Kingdom of God only for the physically maimed: eyeless in paradise, no hands in heaven, no twig and berries in the celestial choir.

    No wonder the afterlife is only for our souls: all the body parts have been cut off down below.


    1. I don’t interpret the verse that way. Seems pretty clear that he’s saying ‘don’t have sex if you can live without it.’ Not ‘physically castrating yourself is a good thing.’ He’s promoting ascetisism, not mutilation.

      1. Eric,

        Re: eunuchism and Matthew 19:12 you can interpret it both ways in favour of a-rumpo and the unkindest cut. Vermès points out that Jesus often illustrates moral themes using the most extreme case and language – ‘cut out your eye etc.’

        No matter what he meant, Christianity has a history of interpreting it as a sanction for glans bans.

        One of the Church Fathers, Origen, is said to have relieved himself of his member at the tender age of 18. I don’t believe in belief, but I do believe in his belief.

        The second most powerful person in the Eastern Roman Empire for much of the second half of the first millennium was often a eunuch (and interestingly enough, frequently an ex-slave).

        There was a Russian sect whose name escapes me, as late as the nineteenth century which required eunuchism in men and, being a liberal cult, aliterally extended the privilege to women in denying their mammalian heritage.


        1. And, whatever the original intention of the original author, the fact remains that Jesus either has no problem with people interpreting it literally or else he’s got an incredibly poor understanding of human nature. Neither option is compatible with his public persona; either way, he’s unfit to judge a pie bake-off, let alone all of humanity.



  8. What would work down there? Upholding the law about keeping venomous reptiles apparently does not work, and attempts to enforce will be vigorously fought citing religious custom. A way to work this out is to allow special allowances for religious practices, but to require (and enforce) that the snakes be kept in humane conditions and be monitered. This will make it difficult to do the practice, and make it possible to fine the violators. No one would be arrested or fined for keeping the snakes (a religious practice, now protected), but they could be fined for doing it wrong. I do not personally like my own idea, but it might work down thar.

      1. Check the list I posted. The top 11 most venomous snakes are all Australian (local boys done good). And of the top 20, all but 3 are Australian.

    1. I have a question. I’ve read before about the incredible amount of overkill re poisonous species in Australia (Bill Bryson.) Apparently snakes and various insects are much, much more toxic than they need to be, containing levels of lethal chemicals sufficient to fell troops of elephants — even though their predators are relatively small and will die with much less.

      Why? From an evolutionary viewpoint it doesn’t make a lot of intuitive sense. And if only Australia, then why there?

      1. I do not know “why in Australia”, but in general principle highly toxic venom seem due to three varieties of factors.
        1. Speedy prey animals can get away after being bitten/stung, so there is selection for strong venom that drops ’em fast.
        2. An evolutionary arms race between the venomous species and its predator which has evolved resistance to it, thereby gaining access to prey not available to others. The classical example is the American rough skinned newt, which has super-toxic (small amounts can kill an adult human). Its predator is a species of garter snake which has evolved considerable resistance to the toxin.
        Not sure if these would adequately explain every deadly critter in Australia, but I expect they are a start.
        3. An accident. Here, a venom is not over-kill against normal prey or enemies, but humans may be especially susceptible in an unintended way.

        1. There is a #4, which is that very vulnerable animals develop extraordinarily toxic venom so that their prey don’t hurt them while dying. AFAIK this is the accepted explanation for why jellyfish can be so toxic: you need to kill your prey so fast that it has no chance to turn on you and kill you.

          1. I wonder if some of this might be “fossil” adaptation — adaptation for a former, and not terribly ancient, time when Australia had some bigger and more dangerous animals than it does now.

            There are examples of plants that have fruits that seem adapted to dispersal by animals that no longer exist. Maybe this is parallel?

      2. Because ordinary venom just doesn’t work on Australians? 🙂

        (Sorry ’bout that… some of my best friends etc etc…)

  9. My wife and I often enjoy watching the National Geographic Channel as well as the History, Science, Discovery and Animal Planet channels, but all of them feature way too many shows like “Snake Salvation”. Doesn’t National Geographic care about its reputation? Isn’t the Science Channel concerned that it won’t be taken seriously because so much of its programming is about pseudoscience or supposition? Right now The Discovery Channel is in the middle of a “Moonshiners” marathon, Animal Planet is showing “Finding Bigfoot”, History is showing “Counting Cars” and National Geographic is showing “Doomsday Preppers”. When they present a show about evolution, how much credibility can they have? How can any legitimate scientist agree to appear on any show on any of these channels?

    1. I think there’s an important distinction to be made between reality shows which feature unusual people/places/things and documentary shows which promote pseudoscience. As far as National Geographic Channel goes, “Snake Salvation” probably qualifies under the same rules as a show about the Headhunters of Borneo.

    2. You have brought up a big problem. What these channels have become is disgusting, IMO. They used to be about science, history, and the wonders of nature. Those programs are still done but they are mixed with (and overshadowed by) Pumpkin-chunk’in, and looking for ghosts, and ‘documentaries’ about someone finding a real mermaid or seeing UFOs. Gag.

      1. Oh that ghost one! I saw the ad for it yesterday on one of those channels & launched in to a long rant! With hand gestures. And vocal intonation.

  10. Someone should Photoshop the photo and replace the snake with a book, perhaps Thomas Paine’s “Common Sense” or George Orwell’s “Facing Unpleasant Facts.”

  11. “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. (Mark 16:17-18)”
    Of those 3 things – handling snakes, drinking poisons, and healing the sick, why don’t they ever choose the last one? That’s the only one that’s useful to others.

    1. A lot of them try to heal people, it just doesn’t work at all well.

      I’m wondering why more of them don’t drink cyanide. That’d be the real test for the strength of their faith. The Bible says they can do it, if they have faith.

      1. Maybe it’s because just a gram of cyanide would almost certainly to kill anyone, but the snake most likely won’t bite if handled properly.
        Faith in God is a tricky thing.

        1. Yes, they have no more faith that the Bible is true than I do. They won’t admit it, but their actions speak louder.

      2. Yes, but then we’d need two different published LD50s (doses which are lethal to 50%): one for the faithful, and one for the rest of us. That’s a lot of new data to collect and put in the textbooks.

  12. I swear, Dr. Coyne, that this isn’t a ‘gotcha’ or anything like that. I’m truly curious.

    A few days ago you wrote an article extolling some alligator leather boots:

    “I covet the pair of natural alligator boots fifth from the left in the front row: natural, undyed gator skin is hard to find! Notice, too, the two pair of full-gator boots in the second row. Those are muy caro.)”

    In light of said statement, it seems at best bizarre that you’re so compassionate and concerned for the wellbeing of these snakes when you say: “I want the law enforced because it protects the snakes: hapless reptiles who are not only captured, often kept in terrible condition”.

    How do you reconcile your repudiation of snake handling with your disregard for the alligators (and I am sure snakes as well) that are killed everyday for fancy-boot-making?

    Again, no snark intended.

    1. I think you’ll find that the alligators are farm-raised and dispatched when the need arises, not kept with diminished access to food and water in advance of being killed.

      1. …and dispatched when the need to use their skin to make expensive boots arises?

        So it’s ok to kill animals for purposes other than our own survival, as long as you raise them in a farm and feed them well? I remain unpersuaded.

  13. What about the scorpions? Why don’t they tease scorpions and see how that goes. Most of them aren’t fatal, just damned painful. A bit of scorpion “handling” would separate the sheep from the goats.

  14. When I was a nascent herpetologist, growing up in South Carolina, people I met in the country while looking for snakes would often say to me, “You must have a lot of faith.” I didn’t know until somewhat later what this comment probably alluded to, but I often thought, “well, I pick ’em up behind the head, not a lot of faith involved in that, other than in my own dexterity.”

  15. “and if they drink any deadly thing, it shall not hurt them”

    So why dont they drink poison to show their faith?

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