Punkin Brown stalked around the altar of the Old Rockhouse Holiness Church, his head bobbing, his voice a stream of guttural barks. He was "in the Word," and the congregation clapped and shouted.
Then, nonchalantly, he bent over and plucked a 3-foot yellow timber rattlesnake from a wooden box on the altar.
The rattler stiffened in a "V" shape in Brown's right hand as he hopped across the stage on one leg, like rocker Chuck Berry. He set the snake on the altar and stroked its head. Members of the congregation cooled themselves with funeral-home paper fans as a guitar player picked out a blues riff.
"They say it won't bite," the beefy 34-year-old evangelist shouted. "If it won't bite, there ain't no sense in being scared. . . . I seen that big copperhead in there bite, but I know one thing: that the Lord told me it was all right. The Lord said it would be all right."
Brown knew they could bite. The preacher from Parrottsville, Tenn., had been bitten 22 times since he began handling serpents 18 years ago.
And he knew how serious the bites could be. His 28-year-old wife, Melinda, mother of their five children, died of a bite three years ago at a revival in Kentucky.
That was a rattlesnake too.
And last October on Sand Mountain in northeast Alabama, the family's sad history repeated itself.
Brown didn't even flinch when the rattler sank one fang into the base of his left middle finger. If he was scared, it didn't show.
"God don't ever change," he said, his voice ever so slightly less forceful. "God don't ever fail, and He never will."
Brown handed the snake to another man and walked behind the altar. A man in a striped shirt followed, stroking Brown's head and neck, his own head jerking violently up and down.
"Na-na-na-na-na-na-na," the man said, his voice like a car engine trying to turn over.
Brown was calm.
"God's still God, no matter what comes," Brown said, his voice relaxed, the fire and brimstone completely gone from it. "No matter what else, God's still God."
Those were his last words of preaching.
Brown started to fail. He walked in front of the altar, then back up and paced a little. He braced himself, his left hand on the pulpit, his right on Pastor Billy Summerford's shoulder. His head down, he swallowed hard.
Brown raised both hands in the air. His friends held him up for a few seconds, then lowered him to the floor.
A video camera rolled on, taking in the alarming scene and the incongruous, sweetly smiling face of an oblivious little girl. Someone asked Brown if he wanted a doctor. He shook his head and pointed to the sky.
"JEEEEEsus, have your way, JEEEEEsus," the congregation shouted in warbling voices.
A woman in black started screaming hysterically and convulsing, wagging the blond ponytail that reached her waist. Another woman ran back and forth with wet cloths for Brown's head.
"Right now, God! Right now, Jesus," the man in the striped shirt screamed toward the ceiling. "Help my brother right now. I'll glorify you. I'll praise you for it."
After about 10 minutes, the simple green and white church went silent, except for some muffled sobs. The little girl in the video still smiled, uncomprehending.
Brown was dead.
The New Testament's book of Mark calls serpent handling one of the "signs" that true believers must follow.
And John Wayne "Punkin" Brown Jr., a rising star in the Pentecostal faith, was a true believer.
Brown felt he was following God's law when he defied a judge's order after the death of his wife in August 1995. The order restored to him custody of his children from his in-laws, but with conditions: No poisonous snakes around the house and no more snake-handling services for the children.
Now the orphaned children are the objects of a new custody fight, pitting Appalachian tradition against child welfare law, faith against science, grandparent against grandparent.
Punkin Brown's parents, Peggy and John Brown Sr., who have their own snake-handling church in Marshall, N.C., are seeking custody of Jonathan, 12; Jacob and Jeremiah, 7; Sarah, 5; and Daniel, 4.
But on Oct. 7, as their son's body was laid out for viewing at a funeral home, a juvenile court judge in Cocke County, Tenn., told the Browns that he needed to determine if the children they had helped rear would be safe with them. They, too, have admitted violating the order.
In a preliminary decision, Judge John Bell gave temporary custody to the children's maternal grandmother, Mary Goswick of Plainville, Ga. She is a former serpent handler herself, though she says that's all in the past.
The custody case has forced believers to explain their faith once again to a world they wish would just leave them alone.
Cynthia Porter, a serpent handler from Kingston, Ga., and a friend of the Browns, says the practice is misunderstood. "I have a college education. I work in the medical field. I'm not stupid. I'm not occult. I'm not uneducated," she says. "I know exactly what I'm doing."
But Melinda Brown's father, Lewis Duvall, says his grandchildren don't--and says they are much better off away from all that.
During the earlier custody dispute, Brown's in-laws testified that the children awoke in cold sweats from nightmares about snakes. Now nightmare and reality blend.
"All we want to do is get them comfortable in school and to where they won't be raised up in such an atmosphere of wondering whether their granddaddy or their grandmother or their uncle will come home . . . in a box or they'll get snake-bitten," says Duvall, who is divorced from Goswick. "The father evidently did not have enough love in his heart to want to live and take care of his children."
But Punkin Brown's friends say it was all about love. He even said so himself in an interview a year after his wife's death.
"I never lost my faith in God. But I felt panic because she was my wife. I loved her," Brown told Scott Schwartz, a Smithsonian Institution archivist and author of a book, "Faith, Serpents and Fire," due out in February.
Sitting under a tent at the True Tabernacle of Jesus Christ in Middlesboro, Ky., the church where Melinda was bitten, he also reflected on his children.
Jonathan, the oldest, watched as the timber rattler "dog-bit" his mother, grabbing the soft flesh of her left arm in its fangs and shaking, refusing to let go as the blood flowed. She languished for two days before succumbing.
"Jonathan is terrified of snakes," Brown acknowledged. But he said he had done what he could to prepare the children.
"The kids knew what to expect if the Lord didn't move," he told Schwartz. "I told the kids Melinda had died, and they ain't said nothing to me that would indicate that they held me responsible for her death."
Brown found himself facing a decision between loving God and loving his family. In the end, he decided they were one and the same.
"I let people talk me out of my handling of serpents, and I felt that I had let Melinda down for this," he said. "I only hope the Lord doesn't hold it against me. That's maybe why I suffered more, because I didn't listen to the Lord. I can't change that, but I hope I do better next time."
Brown told a friend he dreamed that he would die if he went back to Alabama to preach. But could he have ever dreamed of the turmoil his family would face?
"My son gave his life for what he believed," John Brown Sr. shouted after Judge Bell made his ruling. "Is this the freedom that we are guaranteed by the Constitution?"
Yes, but it has limits, says Ron Flowers, professor of religion at Texas Christian University in Fort Worth.
Courts have ordered Jehovah's Witness children to receive blood transfusions despite their parents' religious objections, he said. Sick children have been removed from the homes of parents who rely on faith healing.
"The free-exercise clause [of the Constitution] is not absolute," Flowers says. "The courts have ruled as early as over 100 years ago that if the government perceives that something is being done in the name of religion that, in fact, is harmful to an individual or even to society, that the government may step in and prohibit that behavior or curtail it in some way."
The Brown case would be different if a parent were involved, said Nathaniel Gozansky, a law professor at Emory University in Atlanta and an expert on custody issues.
"The problem here is you can't get to the religious freedom issue," he says. "The parents don't have the right to control the religious education of their children from the grave."
Ralph Hood, a psychology professor at the University of Tennessee-Chattanooga and friend of the Browns, says snake handlers forbid their children to touch serpents and often keep the kids at the back of the church. He says he has never heard of a child being killed or even injured at a snake-handling service.
Removing the Brown children from a loving home and from the church their parents died for is not in their best interests, he says.
"Within that tradition, the children can understand it that God has called [their parents] home, and that someday they will be reunited with them," says Hood, who testified on Punkin Brown's behalf after the wife's death. "It adds an additional burden to the children, who have already been burdened, ridiculed and denigrated."
Porter says she has talked to the girl, Sarah. She says the children are adrift and miserable.
"He [Judge Bell] just pulled the rug out from underneath them," she says, her eyes flaring with indignation. "I mean, it's like somebody's on fire and you throw gasoline on them."
Porter says it is an outrage that families can be punished for risking their lives for religion when others risk theirs for money or fame.
"They don't take race car drivers' kids away from them," she says. "They don't take boxers' kids away from them. They're standing there beating each other to death, literally. . . . They're committing suicide.
"I know people say we're committing suicide. No. God giveth and God taketh away. Our lives are in his hands--period."
Goswick thinks God has delivered her grandchildren to her.
Bell says he hopes to schedule a permanent custody hearing before Christmas. Meanwhile, the children are enrolled in their new schools in Georgia.
"They're getting attended to the way I think little children ought to be," she says. "By the helping grace of God, they'll be here the rest of their life, I hope. Because the little children, they need an opportunity to grow up and make up their own minds. They don't need it made up for them."
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A Perilous Testament of Faith
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.
The practice of taking up serpents began around the turn of the century in the Pentecostal and Holiness churches of Southern and Central Appalachia. Taking the Gospel of Mark literally, believers handle snakes, drink strychnine and hold open flames to their skin as the holy spirit "anoints" them.
The faith grew to such an extent that several states--including Kentucky and Tennessee, but not Alabama--passed laws making it a crime, although prosecutions are rare. Today, an estimated 2,500 people belong to snake-handling churches, mostly in the Southeast.
Because the handling of snakes is a demonstration of faith, most who are bitten refuse medical attention.
At least 85 practitioners have died since the turn of the century, says Dave Kimbrough, author of "Taking Up Serpents."