With The Serpent Handlers Of America’s Pentecostal South: Photos of A Gruesome Death By God’s Sweet Love
PASTOR of the day is snake handler Jamie Coots from Middlesboro, Kentucky. Last Saturday night he was bitten by a snake and died. Pastor Coots, who preached at the Full Gospel Tabernacle in Jesus Name church in Middlesboro, held the belief that poisonous snakebites do not harm believers as long as they are anointed by God.
Do the snake handlers trust God’s enough to dice with death? Coots did:
“Takin’ up serpents, to me, it’s just showin’ that God has power over something that he created that does have the potential of injuring you or takin’ your life.”
Many people have died.
In 1995, a woman was bitten by a snake in his church. She refused to go to the hospital. She died on Coots’ couch while church members prayed over her.
In 2012, Mack Wolford of West Virginia’s Wolford’s House of the Lord Jesus church, succumbed to a yellow timber rattlesnake bite – just as his serpent handling father had done in 1983. “His faith is what took him home,” said his sister Robin Vanover.
Adherents to snake handling see the bites as a sign of God’s love, citing the Gospel of Mark in the New Testament:
“And these signs will follow those who believe: in My name they will cast out demons; they will speak with new tongues; they will take up serpents; and if they drink anything deadly, it will by no means hurt them; they will lay their hands on the sick, and they will recover.”
It’s not always death by snake. At other times, believers have taken a tincture of strychnine and water.
In 2013, Coots featured in a National Geographic show:
Coots was the third in his line to handle serpents for divine love. He expressed his hope that his son, Little Cody, would carry on the cult. Said Coots:
“He has been bit five times by cottonmouths, and he has already told me, ‘Dad, I’ll never go to a doctor’.”
Thomas Burton wrote on the snake handers:
Since most of us tend to seek simple, concrete explanations for phenomena, it is easy to view one aspect of serpent handling rather than the whole and, consequently, either to romanticize or brutalize the people and the practice. One can feel after attending a service that it is completely irrational, wild people running around, falling down, quivering, uttering strange sounds; drinking deadly poisons; taking venomous serpents (giant and tiny ones, coiled, extended, limp, knotted together, rattlers, cottonmouths, copperheads, cobras) and staring at them nose to nose, wrapping them around their necks, wearing them on their heads, pitching them, carrying armloads of them, shaking them, petting them; displaying arms tattooed with snakes, hands atrophied by bites, fingers missing, clothing embroidered and etched with snakes — or feel the same sense of the bizane after going into homes and seeing live deadly snakes in closets and adjoining rooms, pictures framed on the wall of people with handfuls of rattlers, photo albums of disfigured bodies from venom poisoning, or a huge frozen rattlesnake taken out of a freezer by a relative of a person whom the serpent killed during a funeral service for yet another snakebit victim.
Apparently serpent handling sprang up during the first ten years or so of the twentieth century in East Tennessee, and certainly from this state it was widely disseminated.
Jimmy Williams, who also died in the signs (in his case, drinking strychnine) took a somewhat different stance. He pointed out that the verse in Mark said “they shall take up serpents,” not “they shall not bite.” He also felt that, if one died in following God’s Word, one would be doing just what the apostles did: “If you can keep your mind right on the Lord, well, God will move for you every time regardless of what it is. If a serpent bites you, you have to keep your mind right on the Lord; if you get your mind off the Lord, you’ll swell up. Well, there have been people that died from serpent bites, but if you keep your mind right on the Lord, well, God will recover you. You won’t have to suffer too much. But there’s always been people who suffered for the gospel’s sake. Just glad to be counted worthy.”