As beads of sweat slithered down his temples, Andrew Hamblin stared in wide-eyed wonder at the 1m timber rattlesnake he had thrust towards his congregation. "I am a soldier in the army of the Lord," he boomed in a thick southern drawl, stomping a foot on the hardwood floor. "And the enemy has been fighting me this week harder than ever before."

In this Appalachian Mountain shed, before 60 followers speaking in tongues, throwing up their hands and dabbing tears from their eyes, Hamblin was breaking the law.

The 22-year-old preacher is facing up to a year in prison after being charged with illegally possessing 53 venomous snakes seized from his church in LaFollette by Tennessee wildlife agency officers this month.

Yet the charismatic young pastor, part of a century-old Pentecostal tradition in the region that takes literally an instruction in the Gospel of Mark that "they shall take up serpents", remains piously defiant. Since appearing in court, he has continued wielding poisonous snakes during his raucous services at Tabernacle Church of God, after fresh creatures were sneaked inside by his allies. "I'm willing to fight this, because here in the United States we're supposed to be guaranteed our religious freedom under the first amendment of the constitution," he declared.


His followers claim they are victims of a state crackdown. Hamblin's mentor Jamie Coots, a preacher based just over the border in Kentucky, had three rattlesnakes and two copperheads confiscated after being stopped while driving home through Tennessee this year. Hamblin said he was called on by God to handle the creatures and that their appearances were shows of divine power. He likened the practice to "Catholics using wine".

Yet Matthew Cameron, a wildlife agency spokesman, dismissed all talk of persecution and said Hamblin's storage of the snakes in a back room was a serious public safety hazard. "We treat him just as we would anyone else found to be storing venomous snakes in their home."

Zoos and circuses must obtain permits to possess snakes in the state.

Several pastors have died from bites in the US in recent years and Hamblin himself has been bitten.

"I can understand not wanting to endanger another's life. That's perfectly understandable. But in 100 years, there have been only 10 deaths in Tennessee from serpents."

He is himself unable to make a fist with his right hand, after being bitten on a knuckle in 2010 and ending up in hospital. "I was at death's door," he said. "Me and death were just about ready to smoke a cigarette together."

Yet God told him to continue, he said, and showed that he would be safe by allowing another snake to bite him on the back of the neck soon after.

While Hamblin's shirt was soaked in blood, he escaped serious injury. "I never swelled, I never itched, I never suffered nothing but bleeding," he recalled.

Hamblin hopes to found America's first snake-handling mega-church. He is due back in court next month.