Men Handling serpents at the Pentecostal Church of God. Lejunior, Harlan County, KY, 9/15/1946 - via Wikimedia Commons (http://bit.ly/1gNhI2m)

Men Handling serpents at the Pentecostal Church of God. Lejunior, Harlan County, KY, 9/15/1946 – via Wikimedia Commons (http://bit.ly/1gNhI2m)

“How many of us are willing to die for our faith?”

The question came from Bill Bisceglia, funeral director at Creech Funeral Home in Middlesboro, KY, where Jamie Coots was remembered in a service yesterday. Coots, a pastor at Full Gospel Tabernacle in Jesus’ Name in Middlesboro, Kentucky, since 1994, died Saturday as a result of a snakebite he suffered during a church service. Coots had been featured on the National Geographic Channel’s “Snake Salvation,” a reality show about pastors whose faith tradition included the handling of poisonous snakes as a means of demonstrating belief in God. Snake handling churches typically don’t belong to traditional denominations but are, instead, part of the Holiness movement.

The Holiness movement (not to be confused with the Methodist Holiness movement) is a driving ideology behind a number of Pentecostal churches, although it is important to note that not all Pentecostal churches encourage snake handling. These churches emphasize works of the Spirit as described in Acts, often pointing to miraculous healings or speaking in tongues as signs that the Holy Spirit is at work among them. They adhere to strict, literal interpretations of the Bible, greeting one another “with a holy kiss” and separating men from women during the service. Snake handling churches make up a small minority of Pentecostal churches and are concentrated mainly in Appalachia, where the practice was born in the early 20th century.

Based on passages from the New Testament books of Mark and Luke, the act of snake handling is seen as a serious rite of passage for any parishioner. Snake handlers believe these passages, in which Jesus tells his followers that miraculous signs shall follow them, are normative for the Christian community. “To me,” Coots says in the video below, “it’s much a commandment of God, when he said ‘thou shalt take up serpents,’ as it was when He said, ‘thou shalt not commit adultery.'” 

In 1994, the same year Jamie Coots started his work as a pastor at the Full Gospel Tabernacle, Dennis Covington wrote Salvation on Sand MountainIt is a remarkable account of the author’s journey to understand the world of snake handling and, even more improbably, to testify at services and handle a snake himself. It’s an important book to read for anyone interested in this particular Christian subculture because it not only relates how seriously parishioners take this “commandment,” but also explores how emotionally compelling the act of snake handling is. Covington wrote, “I knew then why the handlers took up serpents. There is power in the act of disappearing; there is victory in the loss of self.” Coots’ wife, Linda, says as much in the video above when she talks about the feelings of peace, calm, and happiness that come over her when she handles snakes. (My colleague Jeffrey Weiss has written about this, cautioning against labeling these beliefs “crazy.”)

Covington also looks at the notion of handling snakes as a metaphor for bringing something dark and dangerous into the light. That theory might help us to understand why snake handling is so inextricably linked to the American South, a region whose dark past can never see enough light to heal old wounds. Coots was very much a product of the South, born and raised in Middlesboro, handling snakes beginning at 23 years old. The question of snake handling in the Bible was his destiny to raise, as it had been his father’s and his father’s before him.

After Coots was bitten on Saturday, on his right hand, he went home and laid down. The paramedics left his house at 9:10 pm, after he refused treatment. He was dead an hour later.

“We missed him this morning at McDonald’s, where he always went with us,” said friend and fellow Middlesboro resident Terry Whitehed on the day of Coots’s funeral. And we return to the question Bill Bisceglia asked at the beginning. “How many of us are willing to die for our faith?”

There will always be someone willing.

Categories: Beliefs

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Laura Turner

Laura Turner

Laura Turner is a writer and editor living in San Francisco. In addition to being a regular contributor to Christianity Today’s “Her.meneutics” blog, she has also written for publications such as Books & Culture and The Bold Italic. She is interested in the intersection of church and culture.

14 Comments

  1. I appreciate this response, Laura. I don’t understand snake handling but something about the coverage on Coots’s death has rubbed me the wrong way. People who handle snakes do it for a particular reason, one that is tied up in their understanding of faith and Christianity. Yes, they could get bitten but I don’t think we should mock them if and when that happens.

    • I disagree that they should not be mocked. This is a level of stupidity where you’re basically committing suicide and saying God made you do it. Coots even said that God told him Coots would die if he STOPPED handling poisonous snakes. That is insanity and should be called out for what it is. Just like the couple that keep NOT taking their kids to the doctor and then their kids die. They don’t deserve any special treatment because they think God told them to do it that way.

      So I’m not into mocking them to make myself feel better or just for a laugh, but rather to shine a light on such profound faith-based ignorance. That same snake handling Bible passage also recommends that if you have faith then you can drink poison with no ill effects. Just the smallest bit of critical thinking would tell you not to take this recommendation literally and that even though it’s in the Bible, it is WRONG. If and when Jesus comes back, one of the first things he’ll do is edit that out in his Second Edition of the New Testament (and deny ever having said it).

      Basically in telling their story factually, these people make a mockery of themselves.

  2. I “RESENT” all of this coverage of these people. They need to get off welfare, take care of their families and stop this nonsense. This community is rolling their eyes over these ” so called Christians” drawing welfare. Get a Job and get a Life!

    • First of all he had a job working for a coal company and was laid off like every other person across Eastern Kentucky. I’m from Eastern Kentucky and there are hard working people throughout the communities. His beliefs were his beliefs. Nobody has the right to put down another persons religion. It was his choice to handle deadly snakes and he died doing something he whole heartily believed in. God is the only judge. By the way just because a person is from Kentucky it doesn’t automatically mean they are on welfare. I’m educated and I have a job.

  3. I feel very sorry for the people that practice this dangerous act for being so ignorant in their belief. You cannot take the bible literally. If you believe in snake handling why do you not handle the black mamba or a really dangerous snake? Have you tried jumping in front of a speeding tractor trailer and expecting God to save you?

  4. I proably could snatch hood ornaments off the moving Mack trucks on the nearby highway and call it some kind of faith, Godly inspiration, Jesus told me to do it .God loves me and wants good things for me.Many, many times he has saved me from self destruction. I know he’s there every day protecting me.I will not play games with his angels that work overtime to see i’m safe.
    He gave me a brain,,, I’m to use it wisely.

  5. If one does not take the entire bible literally as the word of god, then there is no sense having a bible. And when the word of god is so demonstrably wrong, THERE IS NO SENSE HAVING A BIBLE.
    My main article of faith is that the world will be destroyed sooner rather than later by either muslims or christians.
    Grow up!

  6. As a christian, we are taught that the ENTIRE Bible is NOT meant to be taking literal. In the bible there are two different types of text. The words SPOKEN BY GOD, and the rest interpretive text. The scriptures that speak about taking up serpents are not literal words spoken by God. They are words that when studied possess a deeper meaning than what meets the eye.

    On another note, I do feel that these “believers” take the word for what they want to make it, rather than for what it is. And the evidence is in the people not carrying out the rest of the scripture that Michael Morris pointed out to us.

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