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Snake-Handling Preachers Open Up About 'Takin' Up Serpents'
NPR ^ | October 04, 2013 | JOHN BURNETT

Posted on 10/09/2013 12:40:04 PM PDT by nickcarraway

Snake handlers dwell at the edge of the spiritual frontier — a community of people who are willing to die for their faith three times a week in church. Members of the Pentecostal Holiness Church take up venomous serpents to prove their faith in God. The practice is still widespread in Appalachia, though mostly hidden.

Pastor Jamie Coots warns about the scent in the snake room behind his house in Middlesboro, Ky.

"It's strong, so I'll go ahead and tell you that," he says as he unlocks the squeaky door. We're greeted by the rattles of dark-complexioned pit vipers lying about in glass cages. The air in the snake room is warm, musky and malevolent.

"Got rattlesnakes: the timber rattler and the canebrake," says Coots, inventorying his reptiles. "We have northern copperheads. And that's the only two cottonmouths we have."

Coots is a well-known snake handler here in southeastern Kentucky. He's 41, stout and bald, with a Vandyke beard. He's the third generation of Coots to take up serpents; his 21-year-old son, Little Cody, is the fourth.

"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," Jamie Coots says.

Coots' church, the Full Gospel Tabernacle in Jesus Name, is a white, rectangular affair located on a hilly lane in the coal-mining town of Middlesboro. Like most snake-handling churches, the congregation is small — about two dozen, and most of them are family.

Coots says they're really not that different from other churches.

"We sing, we preach, we testify, take up offerings, pray for the sick, everything like everybody else does," he says. "Just, every once in a while, snakes are handled."

A Test Of Faith

Worshiping with snakes dates back more than 100 years, but today, the major Pentecostal denominations denounce the practice.

There are an estimated 125 snake-handling churches scattered across Alabama, Georgia, the Carolinas and Appalachia, where the tradition is strongest. Snakes in church are against the law everywhere but West Virginia, though in most states it's a misdemeanor offense the authorities don't bother with.

Serpent handlers draw their peculiar devotion from the 16th chapter of the Gospel of Mark from a passage that most New Testament scholars consider either symbolic language or irrelevant:

"And these signs shall follow them that believe; in my name shall they cast out devils; they shall speak with new tongues; "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."

There are the five signs often practiced in snake-handling churches, including the sipping of poison such as strychnine or lye as a test of faith.

Coots has been bitten nine times by venomous snakes. Each time he refused medical attention. Half of his right middle finger is gone as a result of a fang from a yellow rattler. In 1995, a woman who was bit in his church refused to go to the hospital; she died on Coots' couch while church members prayed over her.

Such is the conviction of his belief that Coots has agreed not to call EMS if Little Cody is bitten. "He has been bit five times by cottonmouths, and he has already told me, 'Dad, I'll never go to a doctor,' " Coots says.

Skeptics wonder if snakes handled in religious services are milked, defanged, weakened by mistreatment or in any way made less deadly.

"It's kind of like playing Russian roulette. The more frequently you handle [snakes], the more likely you are to get a bite. Serpents don't get tamed," says Ralph Hood, a psychology professor at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, who has documented hundreds of hours of serpent handling over 25 years. Having said that, Hood says he has brought herpetologists to services to try and understand why it is that handlers can pick up reptiles with impunity, even walk on them barefoot, and receive so few snake bites.

"All I know is that these people do handle [snakes], and most of the time they are not bit, and they can do what scientists think is not likely. Nobody has a good explanation," he says.

'Better Felt Than Told'

The National Geographic Channel followed two snake-handling preachers off and on for a year for a documentary series called Snake Salvation that will air this fall on Tuesday nights. Pastor Jamie Coots is one of the series' subjects.

"Snake handling fascinated me because it's such an extreme gesture of faith," says Matthew Testa, the series' executive producer. "We set out to tell this story from the snake handlers' point of view, to really humanize them, not to judge them, and to show how important religion is in their daily lives with their daily struggles."

The Tabernacle Church of God in LaFollette, Tenn., is a short drive through the Cumberland Gap from Coots' church. The pastor here is Andrew Hamblin, a lanky, charismatic 22-year-old, who is the other preacher featured in the TV series. Hamblin wants to modernize the practice of handling snakes in church. He posts photos of himself with snakes on his Facebook page, and he aspires to pastor the first serpent-handling megachurch.

His services are intense, high-energy spectacles. Dennis Covington, in his popular book, Salvation on Sand Mountain, called snake-handling services, "theater at its most intricate ... improvisational, spiritual jazz."

Hamblin, a talented guitarist, strums rockabilly and sings gospel for the 20 folks in his congregation. In the Holiness Church tradition, the women all wear skirts, no makeup and their hair is uncut.

When Hamblin warms up, he stomps and jumps and bellows into the microphone about salvation. And at some point, he puts down his Fender guitar and picks up a pair of copperheads.

The snakes are twisted around each other, and their entwined heads sway in space as he slings them carelessly back and forth. At one point, he wipes the sweat from his forehead with the coiled reptiles. The sight is terrifying; it is mesmerizing. Hamblin wears an expression of unbearable ecstasy.

After the two-hour service, Hamblin explains what it feels like.

"The feeling to take up serpents is unexplainable," he says. "It's better felt than told. It's a peace that surpasseth all understanding to know that you're standing there with death in your hand, and the anointment of God has protected you to let you do that."

Snake handlers are notoriously private. Hamblin, like his mentor, Jamie Coots, says he opened his church to the National Geographic film crew, as he did for NPR, to educate people and dispel stereotypes.

"Our message is not 'handle snakes, handle snakes, handle snakes,' " he says. "But our message is, 'Be saved by the blood of Christ.' We're not a cult. We're not freaks. We're Christians."

Both pastors have a parting message: Their snake-handling churches are open for services three nights a week. Everyone is welcome.


TOPICS: Health/Medicine; Pets/Animals; Religion
KEYWORDS:

1 posted on 10/09/2013 12:40:04 PM PDT by nickcarraway
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To: All
Post #436!







WOO-HOO!!!

Jim Robinson is handling the incoming this afternoon while JustAmy runs her errands!!

So, Please Make Your Donations!!!!!


2 posted on 10/09/2013 12:43:44 PM PDT by onyx (Please Support Free Republic - Donate Monthly! If you want on Sarah Palin's Ping List, Let Me know!)
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To: nickcarraway

>> We’re greeted by the rattles of dark-complexioned pit vipers

Sounds like a joint Obama-Holder press conference.


3 posted on 10/09/2013 12:44:20 PM PDT by Nervous Tick (Without GOD, men get what they deserve.)
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To: nickcarraway

Samuel L. Jackson is not a member of this church.


4 posted on 10/09/2013 12:44:47 PM PDT by ClearCase_guy (21st century. I'm not a fan.)
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To: nickcarraway

I don’t handle snakes, but I do bathe in brown recluse and black widow spiders. I lather them up with soap and just scrub em on.


5 posted on 10/09/2013 12:46:07 PM PDT by Greetings_Puny_Humans (If anyone tells you it's a cookbook, don't believe them.)
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To: nickcarraway

In before the inevitable pings.....:)


6 posted on 10/09/2013 12:46:13 PM PDT by Salamander (Blue Oyster Cult Will Be The Soundtrack For The Revolution.....)
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To: nickcarraway

Met a guy onetime who went to a church and they broke out a rattler and started passing it around. Before it got to him he asked an usher where the back door was. They usher told him there wasn’t one. He then asked the usher where the church would like one.


7 posted on 10/09/2013 12:47:01 PM PDT by inpajamas (http://outskirtspress.com/ONE)
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To: nickcarraway

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=E7iqVfrGY7w


8 posted on 10/09/2013 12:47:17 PM PDT by Rio (Proud resident of the State of Jefferson)
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To: nickcarraway
I HANDLE SNAKES
words and music by Tonio K, from the 1986 album
Romeo Unchained

it's my life
it's my decision
it's my idea of a good time
it's my religion
i don't make no sudden movements
can't afford to make mistakes
i'm a fearless man
i handle snakes (y'all)

the lord of hosts
has got to like me
else this thing here
(this one right here)
would surely strike me
the one man lays down 10 percent
another man trembles and quakes
i save my money
i handle snakes (y'all)

i handle snakes
well i hug 'em and i kiss 'em
i handle snakes
and if they kill me
i'll sure miss 'em

(i handle snakes
i love it when they listen
listen)
i handle snakes
and if they kill me
i'm sure gonna miss 'em

'cause it's my life
it's my decision
it's my idea of a good time (yes it is yes it is)
it's my religion
However
i don't say hallelujah
i don't even say grace
but i make my statement
i say it with snakes

©1986 N.Y.M. ASCAP/Bibo Music ASCAP

9 posted on 10/09/2013 12:48:59 PM PDT by Alex Murphy (Just a common, ordinary, simple savior of America's destiny.)
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To: Greetings_Puny_Humans

I need 3 deceased “matching” black widows for an art project.


10 posted on 10/09/2013 12:49:43 PM PDT by Salamander (Blue Oyster Cult Will Be The Soundtrack For The Revolution.....)
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To: nickcarraway

Whatever floats his chicken,
it ain’t my cup of tea.

I just don’t think folks that handle snakes any ANY fashion are the sharpest bulbs in the rack. :)
Or the brightest knives in the box for at matter.


11 posted on 10/09/2013 12:53:29 PM PDT by Tupelo (Snatching Defeat from the jaws of Victory, an old Republican Tradition.)
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To: nickcarraway

The Good Book also says don’t put the Lord your God to the test either.


12 posted on 10/09/2013 12:56:43 PM PDT by ealgeone (obama, border)
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To: nickcarraway
We've been watching this program and the refusal to seek medical attention after a snakebite is just crazy to me. I guess it's not much different than Christian Scientists or the other bunch that doesn't allow blood transfusions.
The guy in the photo, Andrew Hamblin carelessly caused another guy to be bitten on a snake hunt.
13 posted on 10/09/2013 1:00:17 PM PDT by dainbramaged (Joe McCarthy was right.)
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To: nickcarraway

When I see a snake I kill it, no matter what kind it is.

I hate snakes.


14 posted on 10/09/2013 1:00:43 PM PDT by Venturer (Keep Obama and you aint seen nothing yet.)
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To: nickcarraway

Proof of his bountiful faith, and lack of God given common sense.


15 posted on 10/09/2013 1:01:04 PM PDT by rawcatslyentist (Jeremiah 50:32 "The arrogant one will stumble and fall ; / ?)
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To: nickcarraway

Bless their hearts. (while they still pump)


16 posted on 10/09/2013 1:03:08 PM PDT by showme_the_Glory (ILLEGAL: prohibited by law. ALIEN: Owing political allegiance to another country or government)
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To: Venturer

Hi Indy!


17 posted on 10/09/2013 1:04:31 PM PDT by Tijeras_Slim
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To: Venturer

One distinction I make before killing a snake is.... is it poi.....err I don’t make any distinction between snakes!!!


18 posted on 10/09/2013 1:23:31 PM PDT by ontap (***)
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To: nickcarraway

I don’t agree with it! Handling snakes is like trying to compromise with a democrat. They’ll turn and bite you every time!


19 posted on 10/09/2013 1:24:37 PM PDT by 2nd Amendment (Proud member of the 48% . . giver not a taker)
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To: Tupelo

That may be.

Seriously, do you think these people are afraid of, TSA VIPR goons, armed Park Rangers, FEMA.......or any other of those ilk?

I had rather have these hillbillies as allies than the Log Cabin Republicans.

I sure don’t want them deciding I’m their enemy!


20 posted on 10/09/2013 1:36:42 PM PDT by noprogs (Borders, Language, Culture)
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To: showme_the_Glory

If they finished reading the rest of that scripture passage shouldn’t they be drinking poison as well...and living to tell about it? Good old pick and choose scripture readin’.


21 posted on 10/09/2013 1:44:01 PM PDT by Carpe Cerevisi
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To: Carpe Cerevisi

There are one’s who drink strychnine.

http://www.amazon.com/Serpent-Handlers-Fred-W-Brown/dp/0895873524

An interesting read.


22 posted on 10/09/2013 1:45:48 PM PDT by Tijeras_Slim
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To: nickcarraway

To really show their faith, they should use alligators, lions, tigers and Sarin gas.


23 posted on 10/09/2013 1:47:35 PM PDT by Oliviaforever
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To: Carpe Cerevisi

Good old pick and choose scripture readin’.


It’s a Christian thing....


24 posted on 10/09/2013 2:10:23 PM PDT by S.O.S121.500 (Case back hoe for sale or trade for diesel wood chipper....Enforce the Bill of Rights. It's the Law!)
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To: Carpe Cerevisi
Some members of those churches do drink poison. In the 1990s, a friend of mine did a documentary about those churches and he saw them passing around a mason jar that was labeled "strychnine." Almost everyone took a big gulp. No one showed any signs of poisoning. After the service, my friend asked to be given the mason jar and what fluid was left in it. He took it and had it tested. It tested for a high level of strychnine. He asked the lab tech, how poisonous was it, thinking that it was highly diluted. The lab tech, said one sip would put you in the hospital and a big gulp would probably kill you.

From his experiences in doing that documentary, my friend had a whole pile of stories (snakes, laying on hands, poison, etc...) that he could not explain without mentioning a higher power- and this guy was very agnostic.

25 posted on 10/09/2013 2:16:52 PM PDT by fini
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To: fini
we Have Timber Rattlers herein Kansas. It is illegal to mess with them as they are “an endangered species” Around them I feel like “an endangered species” and really could use some snake handlers to get them off my driveway/out of my basement. s/s/su.
26 posted on 10/09/2013 2:40:35 PM PDT by cotton
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To: fini

People can build up a tolerance to strychnine, and eventually take doses that would be fatal to people who weren’t habituated to it. Olympic athletes used to use it as a performance enhancer.


27 posted on 10/09/2013 2:54:52 PM PDT by nickcarraway
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To: Tupelo
I just don’t think folks that handle snakes any ANY fashion are the sharpest bulbs in the rack. :) Or the brightest knives in the box for at matter.

They ran the Cherokee out of The Appalachians and supplanted them with Irish immgrants. St. Patrick's gotta be shaking his head.

28 posted on 10/09/2013 4:20:31 PM PDT by gundog (Help us, Nairobi-Wan Kenobi...you're our only hope.)
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