Months after snake-handling preacher's death, his son recovering from snakebite

bestep1@herald-leader.comMay 27, 2014 

Snake-handling preacher Cody Coots got scared when the 6-foot long rattler bit his right hand early Monday.

Just three months ago, his father, Jamie Coots, died within minutes of being bitten by a rattlesnake during a service at his Middlesboro church.

The loss was still fresh for his family and friends, and Cody Coots, who took over for his father, had just been bitten by an even bigger rattler.

At first, "All I could think about — am I going to make it?" Coots said.

But he remembered his father's instruction not to panic after a bite because that would make it worse, and tried to keep calm. The painful bite caused swelling and he vomited repeatedly. Friends and family prayed for his healing for hours after Coots refused to go to the hospital.

By Tuesday afternoon, Coots said the pain was gone and he had been able to eat. He was still a little wobbly at times when he tried to walk, Coots said, but he expects to return to work in a few days.

"For a rattler bite, it wasn't bad at all," said Coots, who is 21.

Coots is a fourth-generation snake-handler. He became pastor of the Full Gospel Tabernacle in Jesus Name after his father died Feb. 15.

Jamie Coots, 42, was handling three rattlesnakes during a Saturday-night service at the church when one bit him on the right hand. Jamie Coots had survived more than half a dozen previous bites, but that night the venom quickly overwhelmed him.

His legs buckled in the bathroom at the church after he murmured "Sweet Jesus," said Andrew Hamblin, a snake-handling minister from Tennessee who was with him.

People at the church rushed Coots home. He had made clear earlier that he did not want medical attention for a bite; his family sent an ambulance crew away as believers prayed over him.

A deputy coroner pronounced Coots dead about 90 minutes after he was bitten.

Coots had long been prominent among the small, tight-knit circle of snake-handling Pentecostal churches in Southern Appalachia, but he gained wider notice last fall though a National Geographic Channel program called Snake Salvation, which profiled him and other snake handlers, including his son.

Cody Coots keeps his snakes in a small building at his late father's house near downtown Middlesboro. His mother, Linda, lives at the house.

Coots said he went to the building about 8 a.m. Monday to check on the snakes.

He had used a pole with a hook on the end to take two snakes from a cage and put them into a carrying case and was reaching to get a third when another rattler, about six feet long, lunged and bit him on the index finger of his right hand, Coots said.

The snake stretched outside the cage, through the open door, to bite him, Coots said.

"He's a brute of a rattlesnake," said Hamblin, who is familiar with Coots' reptiles.

Coots went inside his mother's house, and the call went out for fellow believers to come and pray for him.

Hamblin said he and more than 20 other people, including other snake-handling pastors, rushed to the house.

Hamblin said Coots had someone call for an ambulance so he could formally decline treatment.

People who believe they are commanded to handle venomous snakes during worship services typically refuse treatment when bitten, preferring to rely instead on faith and prayer for healing.

"I told the Lord that I wouldn't go to the hospital," Coots said.

The only way he would have gone for treatment, Coots said, is if his wife had approved it while he was unconscious.

Coots did not lose consciousness after the bite, but did suffer swelling in his hand and arm, and his face and tongue tingled for a time — a feeling like coming into contact with an electric current, Hamblin said.

"That's a real spooky feeling," said Hamblin, who has been bitten several times himself.

Hamblin said he believes prayer worked for Coots.

"The Lord really come by in that house," Hamblin said.

Coots had been bitten five times before, each time by cottonmouth snakes. The bite Monday was his first by a rattler.

Hamblin called the bite a "freak accident" — something believers can suffer just like hunters, hikers and others, he said.

Snake handlers follow a literal interpretation of the King James Bible, basing their belief on Mark 16: 17-18, which reads: "And these signs shall follow them that believe; in my name shall they cast out devils; they shall speak with new tongues; they shall take up serpents; and if they drink any deadly thing, it shall not hurt them; they shall lay hands on the sick, and they shall recover."

Snake handlers believe they are obeying a biblical command in picking up snakes.

Most mainstream Protestant churches do not interpret the Bible verse as a command to handle snakes, and many regard snake-handling as misguided at best.

W. Paul Williamson, a professor at Henderson State University in Arkansas who has researched snake-handling, said many people view the practice out of context.

Snake-handlers are normal people who find meaning in their religious practices, just as members of other denominations do, he told the Herald-Leader earlier this year.

"To them, it's no different than a Catholic taking communion," he said.

It has been illegal in Kentucky since 1940 to handle poisonous snakes in religious services, but serious attempts to enforce the law ended decades ago because of reluctance by authorities to prosecute people for their religious beliefs.

Jamie Coots' death apparently was the first resulting from a snakebite in a Kentucky church service since November 2006, when a woman died after being bitten while worshipping at a Laurel County church.

The Middlesboro church was the site of a fatal snakebite in August 1995. Melinda Brown, 28, of Parrotsville, Tenn., died after she was bitten on the arm by a large rattlesnake.

Her husband, John Wayne "Punkin" Brown, begged her to go to the hospital, but she refused and died at Jamie Coots' home. Three years later, in October 1998, John Wayne Brown, then 34 and a close friend of Jamie Coots, died of a snakebite he received in church in Alabama.

Cody Coots said the bite he suffered this week will not dissuade him from following what he believes is right. He and others will have their snakes at church Wednesday, he said.

"If the Lord moves, we'll handle'm," he said. "It's the word of the Lord."

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

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