Wednesday, February 19, 2014

The Story: Pentecostal Snake Handler refuses help and dies. My Reaction: Surprising, even to Me

For days now, since I heard about the death of Jamie Coots, the snake-handling preacher from Middlesboro, Kentucky, I've been struggling with my own thoughts about it.  There is no reason in the world why I should be involved in any of it.  I didn't know him.  I had never before heard of his church.  And I didn't know before this weekend, when I read about his death, that he had been the star of a National Geographic Channel series called "Snake Salvation".

Photo:  National Geographic
 I read about his death--about how he had been bitten by a venomous snake during a church service on Saturday, about how his family carried his unconscious body to their home, about how the family refused help from the EMS team dispatched to their home with the needed anti-venom serum, about how Jamie Coots of the Full Gospel Tabernacle in Jesus Name died without ever waking up again--and before I had even finished reading the article a blog post was already taking shape.

The more I read about this man, about his beliefs, about the origins of Pentecostal snake-handling in the hills of Appalachia, the closer I came to seeing it as a story ripe for ridicule.  And I wrote it that way.  I had some funny lines in there--laugh-out-loud, if I do say--and I had a link to a video that would make Jamie Coots look foolish.  He did look foolish.  To me.  But I couldn't get it right.  I kept coming back to the raw fact that a man had died.  A man was dead and I was trying to create a piece that would be a candidate for Wacky Story of the Week.

It isn't that.  It's a story about belief and trust and how difficult it sometimes is to understand interpretations, perceptions and faith.

It's about the actions of generations of men who invented and relied on their own definitions of a few passages of the bible having to do with the handling of snakes in order to start a new kind of church.

And it's about us, the outsiders, and where we draw the line.

For any church, for any religion, the outsiders are irrelevant. Unless we're directly affected, their methods of worship are their business, not ours. If we don't understand their rituals, they can live with that.

My own sense is that we draw the line when it's evident that during their rituals people can be, and have been, physically harmed.  Then we step in and look around.  In this case, it should be easy to analyze the problem here:  Their religion causes them to show their devotion to God by handling venomous snakes.  As reported in a USA Today article, they don't believe that God will save them from snakebites.  That's not the point:
Professors who study snake handling say worshipers are very aware of the risks they are taking and accept the consequences.

Brian Pennington, a religion professor at Maryville College in Maryville, Tenn., has studied Coots during his research on snake handling in worship.

He said the prominent leader of the snake handling community saw the practice as "an absolute command of God."

"These are not irrational people. These are people who know very well what they're doing every Sunday or Wednesday night — whenever it might be they go into that church," Pennington said. "They know very well the fate that Pastor Coots suffered could be suffered by any of them who does this during a service."
 Throughout the history of the Pentecostal snake-handling movement, mainly based in rural Appalachia, many people have died from snake bites, including the movement's founder, George Hensley.  After being bitten numerous times, one of the bites finally killed him.  He wasn't alone.  There are no accurate records of the numbers of snake bite deaths during these rituals, but it was enough for some states to outlaw religious snake handling.

In 2012,  Mark Wolford, pastor at the Apostolic House of the Lord Jesus, died of snake bite wounds.  These deaths aren't nearly as publicized as that of Coots, who was the star of a TV show and thus better known, but they happen, and are expected to happen.
"A common misunderstanding is that handlers believe they can't get bit or it won't kill them," [Ralph Hood, a religion professor at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga] added. "What they'll tell you is, `No one will get out of this alive.' They'll also tell you it's not a question of how you live; it's a question of how you die. ... This is how he would have wanted to die."
  The problem, then, and the reason we pay attention--beyond a natural curiosity about something as odd as serpent-handling for God--is that people seem to be willing to die for reasons we will never understand.  They are deliberately putting their lives in jeopardy as a supposed honor to God.  All based on a few slim passages nearly hidden away in the King James version of the bible.

I was angry when I first heard about this--and maybe I still am.  People are dying over something that makes no sense.  But the longer I got into it, the more I came to realize--for my own self--that we can't help them.  We can't understand them and we can't help them. They embrace a literal translation of a few biblical passages and have created an entire religion around it.  A religion that's over a century old now.  That's pretty monumental.  In the end, it doesn't have to make sense to anyone else. 

There is the snake's point of view, of course, and it shouldn't be ignored.  Some say that in order to keep the snakes willing and docile, they underfeed and underwater them.  They keep them tightly together in glass cages and their life span--three to five months--is far below the normal span of 10 to 20 years.  That is animal cruelty and needs to be addressed.

But if it can be proven that no snakes are harmed in the process, I'm all for moving on to something else.  They're going to do what they're going to do with or without our blessing--which, it should be noted, they haven't asked for.

Even now, the next generation is moving to take over where Jamie Coots left off.  Jamie's son, Cody, will follow the family tradition. (Jamie's father and grandfather were both serpent-handling preachers)  Children in these churches are not allowed to handle snakes, but nobody stops them from watching.  If they're brought up in a culture where handling venomous snakes is a major part of honoring their God, it would be the rare kid who wouldn't want to try it as soon as they came of age.  Even the dying part is noble.  But once they're adults, our commitment to watch over them has ended.

According to Knoxville's WATETV. com on Sunday:
 The pastor's son [Cody ]Coots saw the snake bite his father last night.

"The snake that bit him, we've been carrying it for four months. It's been carried hundreds of times and handled all kinds of times. But when it's your time to go, it's just your time to go," Cody Coots said.

Cody says while they're in shock, his family will stand strong in their beliefs.

"I don't think it's dangerous. It's the word of God. We've always said it's a good way to live by and it's a good way to die by," Cody Coots said.

Cody Coots is expected to keep his father's ministry going.


  1. I can't get inside their heads. It;'s strange to me, and that's alright I guess. When I read this article about Coots, I thought of the story about a preacher named Mark Randall "Mack" Wolford from back in 2012. He died from a bite and his FATHER had died from a bite, too. Thirty years before.

    This isn't like the exorcisms gone awry, when someone gets smothered by other people.

    I think you're probably right: We're all just outsiders to this, shaking our heads at something we can't really relate with.

  2. Thanks, Katy. I did mention Wolford in my piece, but I said "last year", when--you're right--it was in 2012. Thanks!. I don't remember hearing about it before, but as I said, Coots was famous for having a TV show, so he has a much higher profile.

  3. So you did. Sorry, I went looking for his name after I read your piece, and didn't connect it with the reference above.

  4. You actually did me a favor. I might not have found the mistake otherwise!

  5. Great article and excellent writing.


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