The lethal tradition of snake handling arose from a literal interpretation of several Biblical passages. In Acts (28:1–6) Paul survives a bite from a vicious viper. Mark (16:17–18) promises impunity from snakes and even poison, “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.” Luke (10:19) gives us the, “power to tread on serpents and scorpions, and over all the power of the enemy: and nothing shall by any means hurt you.” Of course, we’re yet to see any church take up the practice of serpent or scorpion treading…
Snake handling is outlawed in many states in America, although this hasn’t stopped its practice among people who claim religious freedom. On Saturday February 15, Jamie Coots died of a bite during a snake-handling ceremony. Coots was the preacher at the Full Gospel Tabernacle in Jesus Name in Middlesboro, Kentucky (where snake handling is illegal). He was also one of the stars of National Geographic’s reality TV show Snake Salvation. During the service at his church, Coots was bitten on his right hand. He soon passed out and his family took him home. Emergency workers arrived at the church and then his home, but Coots refused treatment and died at about 10pm.
This wasn’t his first venomous bite. Coots had been bitten nine times before, and even lost half of a finger to a rattlesnake bite. Four generations of his family have handled snakes as preachers, from his grandfather to his son Cody. Coots kept over 70 snakes for this purpose, and had been arrested twice for illegally possessing a collection of copperheads, cottonmouths and rattlesnakes that he had caught himself. Snakes used for snake handling are usually in poor shape. Their mouths aren’t sewn shut like the cobras used by snake charmers on the streets of India, but they are mistreated and mishandled, and these snakes are often sluggish and sick.
Coots is not the first preacher to die this way. The practice began around 1909 in the Appalachian Mountains area of Tennessee. George Went Hensley of the Church of God was preaching a sermon involving the Gospel of Mark when a congregation member dumped a box of rattlesnakes into the pulpit. Hensley handled one of the snakes and continued his sermon unharmed; that time. He went on to receive dozens of snakebites over the years, and in 1955 he died from a rattlesnake bite. There have been over 100 documented deaths from snake handling.
On Facebook I was asked if dying by snakebite is “a blessing or a curse” for Pentecostals. As I write in my book God Bless America, this depends on the church and its beliefs. If someone handles a venomous snake and survives, the “Holy Spirit” protected them. To some believers, a bite might signify a weakness of faith. It would also show weakness of faith to seek medical attention afterwards, which is why Coots refused treatment. Their fate is in God’s hands, and who needs anti-venom when you have Jesus? For other believers, a bite is simply the will of God, and to die by snakebite is a badge of honor. For skeptics, there’s no honor in putting people’s lives at risk, and mistreating animals in the name of religion.
Dr. Karen Stollznow is a linguist, author, skeptical paranormal investigator and a research fellow for the James Randi Foundation. You can follow Karen on Twitter here.