Snake-handling preacher: 'If you don't understand it, don't knock it'

bestep@herald-leader.comFebruary 22, 2014 

Middlesboro preacher Jamie Coots had become a high-profile advocate for using venomous snakes in worship services before his death Feb. 15 from a rattlesnake bite he received in church.

Coots, 42, had allowed researchers to film services and talked to reporters about his faith. He gained wider recognition last fall through a reality television show aired by National Geographic, called Snake Salvation, which showed him and others handling and hunting for snakes.

Last October, he even penned a column in the Wall Street Journal defending religious liberty.

Coots knew that many people see the belief as crazy and dangerous, but that didn't bother him, according to his family and friends. His belief, and his explanation for it, was straightforward.

"To me it's as much a commandment from God when He said 'They shall take up serpents' as it was when He said 'Thou shalt not commit adultery,'' he told National Geographic.

That belief places snake-handlers in a tiny minority.

Most other Christians do not see the verse as a command to pick up venomous snakes.

W. Paul Williamson, a professor at Henderson State University in Arkansas, said people who think snake-handling is crazy are viewing it out of context.

Snake-handlers are normal people who find meaning in their religious practices, just as members of other denominations do, and who have justification for their belief, he said.

"I think they're Christians who are serious about their faith. To them, it's no different than a Catholic taking communion," he said.

People who attend snake-handling churches are not required to handle snakes, and many don't. They may believe it is right, but feel they aren't called to do it or aren't ready.

Andrew Hamblin, the 22-year-old pastor of a church in LaFollette, Tenn., where some members handle snakes, said snake-handling and other spiritual signs are evidence of God's power.

Hamblin said he does not judge other people for their belief and does not want others to judge his.

"If you don't understand it, don't knock it," said Hamblin, who was close to Coots. "We adhere to the literal interpretation of the Gospel."

Brian Pennington, a professor at Maryville College in Tennessee who has studied snake-handling, said believers are rational people who are willing to face the danger for their faith.

"These are people for whom the highest value is obedience to the word of God. They submit their own life to that value," Pennington said.

Coots knew the danger well. Melinda Brown, of Parrotsville, Tenn., died at Coots' home after being bitten by a rattlesnake at his church in August 1995.

Three years later, her husband John Wayne "Punkin" Brown, who was Coots' best friend, died after being bitten by a rattlesnake at a church service in Alabama.

Coots took Brown's death hard, going for months afterward without handling snakes, said his son, Cody Coots.

But Jamie Coots loved handling snakes, loved the feeling of peace and being in God's will, his son said.

"He died the way he wanted to die," Coots said of his father.

Cody Coots wants people to know there was more to his father than the national headlines generated by his belief in snake-handling and his death. He was a good husband and father, and doted on his 18-month-old granddaughter, Cody Coots said.

Jamie Coots had worked at a surface coal mine, but got laid off. He took a job as a school bus driver in Middlesboro last year; another driver said he had great rapport with the students.

"He had a big heart. He'd help anybody that needed help," said Coots, who plans to take over as pastor of the church his father led. "He forgave you as many times as you'd do something wrong, and he loved everybody."

Prosecution

Coots had paid a price for pursuing his belief even before his death.

He was charged in 2008 with more than 150 counts of illegally keeping and selling protected reptiles after he sold snakes to undercover officers during an investigation by the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources.

An official with the agency said it was disturbing that Coots and nine others arrested in the sweep would keep dangerous snakes "in their homes and in neighborhoods where they put their families, visitors and neighbors at such high risk."

Snake-handlers say they take pains not to endanger other people during their services or elsewhere.

Authorities took 74 snakes from Coots, including a dozen rattlesnakes and two cobras. He pleaded guilty and paid more than $6,300 in fines and restitution.

In 2013, he was charged while bringing snakes through Tennessee that he had bought in Alabama.

In his Wall Street Journal commentary, Coots argued laws that affect snake-handlers' ability to possess, transport and handle snakes infringe on their liberty.

"Imagine if child services intervened every time Jewish parents withheld food and water from their teenage children during Yom Kippur. This would never happen, just as authorities would never dream of shutting down a Catholic church for serving wine without a license during Mass," he wrote. "For those who belong to churches like mine, charging a pastor with a crime for transporting and possessing snakes is just as outrageous."

Coots was charged under wildlife laws, but it is also illegal in Kentucky to handle snakes in church. However, there has been no serious attempt to enforce the law for decades because of concerns over infringing on religious freedom.

Many in Coots' own hometown did not agree with his belief, but respected his commitment.

"He was a man of great faith. He lived it every day," said Bill Bisceglia, a funeral director who had known Coots for years.

An Appalachia tradition

The belief that Coots and others follow emerged in Appalachia more than a century ago. There have been about 100 documented deaths since.

It remains most prominent in Central and Southern Appalachia — with several congregations in Kentucky — but people who grew up in the area carried the practice to other states as well.

The highly independent snake-handling churches typically don't keep membership rolls. There might be 2,000 believers in the U.S., but there really is no way to get an accurate count of the number of snake-handling churches or believers, Williamson said.

There are a few large congregations, but most have 10 to 20 people, he said.

However, there seems to be a growing intensity now, fueled in part by the rise of charismatic young ministers such as Hamblin, Williamson said.

Some people criticized Coots for taking part in the National Geographic show, but Hamblin said he and Coots saw the show as another way to spread the Gospel. His church has grown since the show aired last fall, Hamblin said.

Williamson said he thinks some believers will follow the practice as long as there are Bibles that include the relevant verses.

"I don't think it's ever a tradition that will die out." Williamson said.

Bill Estep: (606) 678-4655. Twitter: @billestep1

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