Snake-handling pastor obeyed to the end

Jamie Coots waves away help, dies from venomous bite

Pastor Jamie Coots lays hands in prayer during a service at the Full Gospel Tabernacle In Jesus Name church located in Middlesboro, Ky.
Pastor Jamie Coots lays hands in prayer during a service at the Full Gospel Tabernacle In Jesus Name church located in Middlesboro, Ky.

Special Report

See "Even Unto Death," our special report on snake handlers' faith.

Kentucky pastor Jamie Coots died Saturday after a venomous snake he was handling at church bit his right hand. It wasn't the first time he'd been bitten. And it wasn't the first time he had refused medical treatment.

Coots clung to his beliefs until the end. Family members prayed over him as he waved away paramedics offering help.

He knew the danger of practicing his brand of faith. But before his death, Coots told the Times Free Press that no hospital could interfere with God's plan.

"I believe that your faith doesn't come in until you actually get bit," he told the newspaper early this month.

"It doesn't take any faith to handle a snake. I've seen drunk people handle a snake. I seen circus people hold snakes," he said. "As for me, I know that a doctor can't keep you alive. So when it's your time to go, you're going anyway."

Coots was featured in the Times Free Press' Feb. 2 special report, "Even unto death," which documented the efforts of young snake-handling preachers trying to bring their faith out into the open. He and 22-year-old pastor Andrew Hamblin, of LaFollette, Tenn., starred in the National Geographic Channel's reality show "Snake Salvation" last year.

Coots had taught Hamblin the tenets of the snake handling, "signs following" style of Pentecostal faith. Both men were seeking acceptance, working to educate the world about Christian serpent handling, which had mostly been hidden in the hills of Appalachia.

The history of snake handling is largely traced to the Chattanooga area. Its prophet, George Hensley, first picked up a snake in the early 1900s on White Oak Mountain, which straddles the Hamilton and Bradley county lines.

Mainstream Christians have denounced snake handlers as deviants and cultists. Snake handlers base their practice on a passage in the 16th chapter of the Gospel of Mark, in which Jesus lays out a series of signs that mark believers: drinking poison, speaking in tongues, healing the sick and handling venomous serpents.

Most Biblical scholars believe the verses are a late addition to Mark. But to snake handlers, the words are as meaningful as any others in the Bible.

Ralph Hood, a University of Tennessee at Chattanooga psychology professor who studies snake handlers, said in these churches each congregation, each pastor, sets the rules and dogma. Some believe that a snake bite means the victim wasn't truly called to handle. Some say occasional deaths show nonbelievers that the snakes are real and dangerous - not milked or defanged, like some doubters claim. And others say that a death simply means it was a believer's appointed time to go.

"It's not a question of whether you're going to die," Hood said. "It's a question of how you're going to die. And what they say is you want to die being obedient to God."

photo Jamie Coots holds a rattlesnake while preaching in this December photo. Coots died Saturday after being bitten during a church service.

Before a December service at Coots' Full Gospel Tabernacle in Jesus Name in Middlesboro, Ky., the pastor's 21-year-old son, Cody, said he would likely lead the congregation if his father died. Cody is the fourth generation in the family to handle snakes at the church the family built in the late 1970s.

"I've seen people bit and killed," Cody said at the time. "But that don't change my mind about it."

Jamie Coots had been bitten multiple times. Each time, he relied on prayer from family and friends.

One bite, more than a decade ago, left his middle finger badly wounded. Flesh fell from the bone and eventually the tip of the finger broke away. His wife, Linda, made him put the remnant in a jar.

"So I'll always have a piece of you no matter where you go," she told him.

The Coots family could not be reached for comment Sunday. On Facebook pages memorializing Coots, many friends and congregants praised his faith and took comfort that he died serving God. Outsiders criticized his death, calling it a warning to other snake handlers.

Chattanooga attorney Chris Jones remembers Coots as a humble and polite man who put his family before himself.

Jones represented Coots last year after the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency cited him for transporting snakes through Tennessee. Jones has been critical of TWRA's strict enforcement of wildlife laws and suspects Coots' death could embolden the agency's efforts to confiscate venomous snakes from not only snake handlers, but educators, researchers and exhibitors.

"Rather than embrace Tennessee's unique heritage of serpent handling, the TWRA will likely use the pastor's death to further anti-venomous snake and anti-constitutional propaganda and continue trying to stomp out our rural culture with no end in sight," Jones said Sunday.

Coots enjoyed the platform reality TV provided. Though "Snake Salvation" was canceled, Coots said last month he was in talks with other companies about future shows. He was interested in more TV appearances because the publicity allowed him to teach others about his faith. And it provided much-needed income.

He was laid off from a coal mining job in 2012 and had been driving a school bus part-time. And producers were willing to pay him to go snake hunting, to preach.

"It's what we go out and do anyway. Why not get paid for it?" he said.

In a statement Sunday, the National Geographic Channel said it would air a special tribute episode about Coots.

"In following Pastor Coots for our series Snake Salvation, we were constantly struck by his devout religious convictions despite the health and legal peril he often faced," the statement said. "Those risks were always worth it to him and his congregants as a means to demonstrate their unwavering faith."