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Friday, March 28, 2014
Snake-handling pastor Jamie Coots hailed as 'martyr' after fatal bite
A pentecostal preacher in Kentucky who died after being bitten by a rattlesnake is being hailed as a martyr by his colleagues, who will continue breaking the law by handling poisonous reptiles during their church services, according to friends.
Jamie Coots “lived and died consistent with his faith” and his death will only inspire more people to obey an instruction from God in the Gospel of Mark that “they shall take up serpents,” said Professor Ralph Hood, of the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga.
“This won’t stop them: just the opposite,” said Hood, a friend of Coots and the most noted expert on the Appalachian serpent-handling tradition. “They will continue, and praise Jamie Coots as a martyr who died for his faith.”
Coots died on Saturday night after being bitten on the right hand during a service at his Full Gospel Tabernacle in Jesus Name church. The 42-year-old, who featured prominently in the National Geographic series Snake Salvation, refused medical attention on religious grounds.
His funeral is due to be held in his hometown of Middlesboro on Tuesday evening.
Coots’s son, Cody, said his family had expected him to survive because he had been bitten eight times before. “Everybody was getting in, shouting, taking up serpents, speaking in tongues, handling fire,” he told Kentucky’s WKYT-TV. “You could just feel the power of God.”
Coots had continued flouting a 74-year-old Kentucky law banning the use of poisonous snakes in religious services, even after a woman died from a bite during a ceremony he conducted in 1995. Coots was charged, but avoided prosecution after a judge declined to proceed with the case. He was also fined $6,400 in 2008 after being convicted of illegally trading in poisonous snakes.
Andrew Hamblin, a pastor in neighbouring Tennessee who was mentored by Coots and co-starred with him in the National Geographic series, is understood to have been devastated by the death. The Guardian has been told that he intends to continue his snake-handling services at Tabernacle Church of God.
Hamblin, 23, was last year charged with illegally possessing poisonous reptiles and had 53 rattlesnakes, copperheads and other breeds seized from his church. However, charges were dropped last month when a grand jury voted not to indict him. Hamblin claims the snakes’ appearances are shows of divine power.
In an interview before Coots’s death, Hamblin told the Guardian he disagreed with colleagues who declined medical help when bitten. “God has not moved on you, that authority is not there to protect you,” he said. “So go see a doctor. Do not sit there and suffer.”
Hamblin, a father of five young children, suffered his first bite while helping Coots prepare for a service in July 2010. “I was knocking on death’s door,” he said. “Me and death was just about ready to smoke a cigarette together, but God had mercy on me through a doctor’s knowledge.”
Since suffering the bite, he has been unable to make a fist with his right hand. He said he suffered another bite to his neck the next month but escaped without injury. However he insisted he had no fear when compelled by a command from God to pick up a snake during his services.
“If it’s my point in time to die, I could leave tonight in a car wreck and leave my children fatherless,” he said. “I could die of a heart attack. But if it’s my time to die there will not be a doctor in this world standing over me who’ll be able to keep me here”.
The tradition extends to West Virginia and dates back more than 100 years. Most pastors remain secretive about their work and do not permit outsiders to their services. Several declined to return requests for comment on Coots’s death. “If it’s about religion, I don’t want to talk about it,” said Pastor Jimmy Morrow of Newport, Tennessee.
They claim that only about 10 pastors have died from bites over the past century. However Mack Wolford of West Virginia, who led one of the best-attended snake-handling churches out of an estimated 125 in the region, was killed by a timber rattlesnake in May 2012.
“To the outsider it seems strange, but they have long accepted that they have a ritual that could kill,” said Hood. “For them it’s not a question of whether you are going to die, it’s a question of how you die.
“They would argue that the most important thing is to die being obedient to god. So they can mourn the loss of a loved one from a serpent bite, but simultaneously be confident that they are in heaven. It’s kind of a win-win situation, as far as they see it.”