Kentucky pastor Jamie Coots, age 42, died this past Saturday after a snake he was handling bit him on the hand while he was preaching to his church, Full Gospel Tabernacle in Jesus Name. Coots turned down offers for emergency medical treatment, and died at home.
Coots was previously the star of a National Geographic reality show called Snake Salvation, which documented the unique religious groups in the Appalachian region that believe passages in the Bible indicate that believers should handle venomous snakes. The Mark passage reads, “They will pick up snakes with their hands; and when they drink deadly poison, it will not hurt them at all; they will place their hands on sick people, and they will get well.” Most members of “snake salvation” churches do not handle the snakes — only those who feel anointed are encouraged to do so.
Tennessee has banned snake handling since 1947, after snakes bit and killed five people in the span of two years. Even though it is illegal in most states, the practice remains popular in some parts of the rural south.
Coots handled everything from cottonmouths to copperheads, and had already lost half a finger from a poisonous snake bite he received. He had previously received a year of probation in Tennessee after crossing into the state with venomous snakes. According to his son, he’s been bitten at least eight times before. In 2008, he was arrested for having an incredible 74 snakes in his home. In spite of this, he still saw his “serpent” handling as the right path for holiness.
Coots was the third snake handler in his family, following in the footsteps of his father and grandfather. Snake handlers, according to Brian Pennington, a religious professor at Maryville College, are “not irrational,” as one might assume. They are familiar with the inherent dangers, and, “They know very well the fate that Pastor Coots suffered could be suffered by any of them who does this during a service.”
National Geographic Channel spokeswoman, Stephanie Montgomery, has said that, “We were constantly struck by his devout religious convictions despite the health and legal peril he often faced…those risks were always worth it to him and his congregants… We were honored to be allowed such unique access to Pastor Jamie and his congregation during the course of our show, and give context to his method of worship. Our thoughts are with his family at this difficult time.”
Snake Salvation ran for a single season last year, and the channel has no stated plans to do a second season. National Geographic has plans to do a tribute for the pastor, though no details have been yet released as to what the tribute will comprise.