Three days after pastor Jamie Coots died from a rattlesnake bite at church, mourners leaving the funeral went to the church to handle snakes.
Coots,who appeared on the National Geographic Channel's "Snake Salvation,"pastored the Full Gospel Tabernacle in Jesus Name church founded by hisgrandfather in Middlesboro, Ky. The third-generation snake handler wasbitten during a service on Feb. 15 and died later at his home afterrefusing medical help. Now his adult son, Cody Coots, is taking over thefamily church where snakes are frequently part of services.
"People think they will stop handling snakes because someone got bit,but it's just the opposite," said Ralph Hood, a professor of psychologyat the University of Tennessee, Chattanooga, who has been studying snakehandlers for decades. "It reaffirms their faith."
Thepractice of snake handling in the United States was first documented inthe mountains of East Tennessee in the early 20th Century, according toPaul Williamson, a professor of psychology at Henderson State Universitywho, along with Hood, co-wrote a book about snake handlers called,"Them That Believe." In the 1940s and 1950s, many states madesnake-handling illegal (it's currently illegal in Kentucky), but thepractice has continued, and often law enforcement simply looks the otherway.
The basis for the practice is a passage in the Gospel ofMark. In the King James Version of the Bible, Mark 16:17-18 reads: "Andthese signs shall follow them that believe; In my name shall they castout devils; they shall speak with new tongues; They shall take upserpents; and if they drink any deadly thing, it shall not hurt them;they shall lay hands on the sick, and they shall recover."
Snakehandling gained momentum when George Hensley, a Pentecostal ministerworking in various Southern states in the early 1900s, recounted anexperience where, while on a mountain, a serpent slithered beside him.Hensley purported to be able to handle the snake with impunity, and whenhe came down the mountain he proclaimed the truth of following all fiveof the signs in Mark. Hensley himself later died from a snake bite.
Todaythe practice is most common in Southern Appalachian states, and snakehandlers often use native rattlesnakes and copperheads. Such churchesare independent, and often call themselves "signs following" churches.
Andrew Hamblin, who co-starred on "Snake Salvation," said he was with Coots when he died.
"Iheld him in my arms when he took his last breath," said Hamblin, who ispastor at the Tabernacle Church of God in the nearby community ofLaFollette, Tenn.
He believes that Coots, 42, would have died Feb. 15 no matter what; i not by a snake, then a stroke or some sort of accident.
"God's appointed time of death trumps everything," Hamblin said.
Williamsonsaid believers describe the feeling they get when they are handlingsnake, "Like a high, but a greater high than any drug or alcohol. It's afeeling of joy, peace, extreme happiness."
He said that manysnake handlers believe that when God anoints them, they will beprotected, but they still recognize there is danger. For instance, ifthe spirit leaves them and they don't put down the snake quickly enough,they could be bitten.
Coots had handled snakes many years andhad been bitten several times, always relying on prayer, and notmedical help, to heal him. In "The Serpent Handlers: Three Families andTheir Faith," a book focusing on prominent snake-handling families,Coots is interviewed and describes a bite that took part of his finger,saying he had done something he shouldn't have done (he doesn't saywhat) and God was punishing him. Describing another painful bite, Cootssays he was bitten after the spirit had moved out of him but hecontinued holding the snake for egotistical reasons.
Hood knewCoots well, and attended his standing-room only funeral service lastweek. At a gathering at the church afterward, some mourners werehandling snakes, he said.
"At the service, what everybodyrecognized and accepted is that he died obedient to God and that hissalvation is assured," said Hood.
At church service onSaturday, a week after Coots died, both Cody Coots and his motherhandled the rattler that killed his father, said Williamson, whoattended the service. Calls to the Coots family have not been returned.
Williamsonsaid he has documented 91 snake bite deaths among serpent handlerssince 1919; Between 350 and 400 people die from snake bites in the U.S.each year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Williamsonsaid questions of why a snake-handling believer dies from a bite are nodifferent from the questions believers of various faiths have about whybad things happen to good people.
Coots' death was the secondsnake bite death at his church, which was founded in 1978. MelindaBrown, a 28-year-old mother of five, died in 1995, two days after shewas bitten by a rattlesnake during a service.
Coots was then a23-year-old pastor, and Brown spent the two days it took her to die atCoots' house. At the time, Coots told reporters that Brown had decidedto put her fate in God's hands rather than go to the hospital.
"Everything that happened, where it happened, was the Lord's will," Coots said.
Brown'shusband, John Wayne "Punkin" Brown, continued to handle serpents afterhis wife's death. He was killed by a snake in 1998, at the age of 34,while preaching at an Alabama church.
His last words to the congregation were, "No matter what else, God's still God."
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