Thursday, February 20, 2014

They Shall Take Up Serpents 2.0

The National Geographic channel will air a special, "Snake Salvation: They Shall Take Up Serpents" tonight at 10 PM ET/PT in the wake of Pastor Jamie Coots' death Saturday from a snakebite.  NatGeo's CEO said in a statement they wanted to air the special to give perspective to the world-wide discussion the death of Jamie Coots has caused.

Jamie Coots preached his last sermon Saturday night.  According to his son, Cody Coots, he was handling three poisonous snakes near the pulpit when a 2.5 ft-long timber rattlesnake bit him near the base of his right thumb. "It was the quickest snakebite I ever seen in my life," Cody said, adding that it hit him fast and within minutes the poison overwhelmed him. 

Jamie Coots

Coots was arguably the most prominent serpent handling preacher in the world.  The faith has historically shied away from the media but a new generation of preachers like Coots and 23 year-old Andrew Hamblin, who were featured on National Geographic's "Snake Salvation," have welcomed media interest in hopes of growing their declining numbers and to hlep understand the often laughed at belief.  Hamblin has posted pictures of him handling snakes on his Facebook page, earning comments calling him variations of a freak, an idiot, a false prophet.  Believers are quick to defend their faith and offer rebuttals.  Jamie Coots commented on one, "Take them up son if you don't obey the WORD OF GOD you will die lost and go to a DEVILS HELL!!!"

Signs followers, with varying names like Coots'  Full Gospel Tabernacle in Jesus Name in Middlesboro, KY, Hamblin's Tabernacle Church of God in LaFollette, TN, and the Church of the Lord Jesus in Jolo, WV are members of a group of Appalachain Christians that believe Mark 16:18 should be read plainly as 'they shall take up serpents.'  Congregants only handle snakes, drink poison, and hold flames near their skin when they feel an anointing from God to do so, believing their faith will protect them.  If they are bitten or harmed they are either be being punished for sinning or it is simply a sign of God's confirmation.  The act of dying as a result is believed to be God's plan and a sign to followers.  

NatGeo - Jamie Coots:


Barely 100 years old, the tradition of snake handling in church is generally agreed to have been popularized by convicted moonshiner George Hensley.  In 1910  he showed up at a tent revival in rural Tennessee with a rattlesnake and gave a testimony of having been up on a mountain contemplating God's word when the snake crawled out in front of him.  Taking it to be a sign from God, Hensley took up the snake.  He demonstrated to the congregation that he could handle it without being harmed.  He soon attracted a large following.  By the 1940s it had grown quite large.  Several states, including Kentucky and Tennessee where Coots' and Hamblin's churches are, passed laws against handling poisonous reptiles during church. The local laws usually go unenforced, unless a death draws attention to them. Though the number of followers fell, small congregations remained scattered through the mountains.  

George Hensley with a 'crown of snakes'

George Hensley died from a snakebite during worship in 1955. In 1995 the Middlesboro congregation drew media attention when member Melinda Brown died after refusing to seek medical treatment when she was bitten during a church service.  The Bell County District Attorney filed a complaint against Pastor Coots but the judge declined to hear the case. In 1998 her husband, John Wayne Brown, died from a bite during a service in Alabama. The last death to occur in Kentucky was in 2006 when a Laurel County woman died from a snakebite. In May of 2012 national media attention was brought by the death of Reverend Mack Wolford after he was bitten at an outdoor service in West Virginia.  

Jamie Coots was arrested in 2008 for having 74 snakes in his house.  In February of 2013 he was given a year probation for transporting poisonous snakes across state lines from Alabama to Tennessee. In November of 2013 officials with the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency cited Hamblin with 53 counts of violating the state's ban on venomous snakes. Hamblin argued his case that the snakes belonged to the church and the raid violated the congregation's religious liberty.  The grand jury decided not to indict him.

Coots supporting Hamblin during court proceedings, where protestors showed up in support of the preacher
Cody Coots told reporters that the snake that killed his father would be back in church this Saturday.  Cody, 21, has assumed leadership at the church where his grandfather and great grandfather also preached.  "It was God saying, this is how you wanted it, and it's your time to go. ... If he didn't plan [to die this way] he would have stayed alive," Cody told TMZ. Jamie Coots had been bitten by poisonous snakes eight times before.  In 1998 he lost part of a finger from a bite.  He kept it in a jar. 

Jamie Coots' finger

Cody Winn, known on the show as 'Big Cody,' was standing near Jamie Coots when he was bitten.  He said Coots dropped the snakes for a moment, but picked them up and finished the service.  When he finished he was heard saying, "My face feels like it's on fire."  Coots went to the restroom along with his son and Andrew Hamblin.  Within minutes he was unconscious.  Five men carried him to a car and he was taken home and placed in a recliner.  EMTs received a call and after finding he had left the church, showed up at the Coots home just after 9 pm.  Jamie's wife, Linda Coots signed a consent form and sent them away.  An hour later  the coroner showed up and pronounced Jamie Coots dead.

Cars were parked several blocks away from the the Creech Funeral Home in Middlesboro Tuesday where Jamie Coots' funeral was held.  A Facebook page created for the family asks that donations be made through to help pay for burial expenses.  Coots did not have life insurance. 

Ralph Hood, of the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, a psychology professor who has studied the serpent handling practice for 40 years believes Coots' death will not stop the movement, but the opposite, "They will continue, and praise Jamie Coots as a martyr who died for his faith.”

Jamie and Cody Coots handling snakes during services:

They Shall Take Up Serpents - old blog with more info on serpent handling and Mack Wolford's death

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