This year’s Easter service at the Tabernacle Church of God in La Follette, Tenn., will include many of the holiday’s traditional rituals, like Holy Communion and footwashing. There will also be some startling novelties.
“It will be filled with shouting, dancing, speaking in tongues, serpent handling and fire handling,” said its 21-year-old pastor, Andrew Hamblin. “We’ll celebrate the resurrection of Jesus Christ with a good old time.”
Since he opened its doors last fall, Mr. Hamblin’s small Pentecostal church, 39 miles north of Knoxville, has grown to almost 50 members, most of them in their 20s. Part of his strategy for expansion has been to use Facebook to publicize the daredevil spiritual exploits of his congregation.
Best known for what they call “gifts of the Holy Spirit,” like speaking in tongues and giving prophetic utterances, Pentecostals seek a direct, personal connection to God. The movement dates back to 1901 and has mushroomed in recent decades to some 15 million adherents in the U.S. and 279 million world-wide, according to the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life.
But the major Pentecostal denominations condemn snake handling, and Mr. Hamblin’s risk-taking sometimes gets the best of him. At midnight on New Year’s Eve, he was bitten on his index finger by a yellow timber rattlesnake. He staggered and then dropped to his knees. After a few minutes, he got up.
“I felt the anointing of God more than I’d ever felt,” he said a day later over pizza.
A boyish-looking young man, Mr. Hamblin has a day job as a cashier at the local IGA store and lives with his wife and four children in a three-bedroom apartment. His Facebook page is full of photos of him handling copperheads, cottonmouths and various kinds of rattlesnakes, despite Tennessee’s ban on the poisonous reptiles.
Not all of his friends are pleased. On Facebook, a woman from his nearby hometown wrote: “You were raised better than that!!! IDIOT!! That’s tempting God, and I do believe the Bible says U should NOT tempt God!!!”
“Serpent handling,” as Pentecostals prefer to call it, began in 1909 near Cleveland, Tenn., and has been practiced ever since in West Virginia, eastern Kentucky, western North Carolina, eastern Tennessee and parts of Alabama and Georgia. It is based on Mark 16:17-18, which says that Christians “will cast out demons; they will speak with new tongues; they will take up serpents and if they drink anything deadly, it will by no means hurt them.”
“The tradition had been declining until recently because the pastors were aged and not attracting new believers,” said Ralph Hood, a psychology professor at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga who has written about the practice. “But now that it’s gone digital, that is going to increase its popularity.”
Prof. Hood has seen an uptick of young practitioners. “When they feel called and have the anointing, they are like rock stars,” he said. “When they handle serpents, they either have ‘victory,’ in which God has granted them power over the serpent, or if bit and even killed, that demonstrates their obedience and assurance of salvation.”
The term “anointing” refers to power given by the Holy Spirit. Pentecostals believe that when people are anointed by God, nothing evil can hurt them.