The Signs Followers of America are drawn to handle venomous snakes because the Bible tells them so. One of those men, Kentucky pastor Jamie Coots, died on Saturday after refusing treatment for a snakebite. Coots, along with a small subset of Pentecostal believers in the U.S., was certain that God would protect him from the venom so long as he was holy. He'd been seriously bitten at least twice before and lived, without medical treatment.
This is the Bible passage that led to Coots's death:
“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.” (Mark 16.17-18, KJV)
In the King James version above — that translation is important, the only one a Holiness believer will heed — that line "they shall take up serpents," reads like a commandment. That's exactly what it was to Coots and to his church; a commandment, like "thou shalt not kill." If you're holy, they believe, you must pick up snakes. Anyone who doesn't is going to hell. The "signs" above are also referred to as the "gifts of the Pentecost," from which the more mainstream Pentecostal denomination takes its name. Pentecostals take a portion of that Mark verse literally: they believe that speaking in tongues is a necessary sign of anointment, or chosenness, by God. Few believe, like Coots, that they also have to pick up snakes. Even fewer in the Signs Followers or snake handling movement — also referred to by believers as the Holiness — will drink poison to prove their chosen status.
The snake handling practice is illegal in most states, especially those in the Appalachian region of the Southern U.S. where the Holiness was popularized. The reasons are obvious: it kills people. And also, it's a polarizing practice for the Pentecostal movement as a whole — many believe that the deaths make the whole Charismatic faith look bad. As much as snake handlers want to be seen as just another group of Christian believers engaging in their faith, most Christians want to keep the snake handlers at a safe distance in the public eye.
Much to the dismay of many more mainstream Pentecostals, snake handling seems to have a persistent, problematic charm on outsiders. Coots, like a handful of other Signs Followers leaders, courted that fascination selectively. The arm of the law, for instance, needed to be kept at a distance. But cameras were much more welcome, and were a very common presence in Coots's Kentucky church. Religion writer Daniel Sillman explained it well on his blog:
Coots gave interviews and spoke publicly about his religion in recent years. He participated in multiple documentaries... Coots believed outsiders tended to misunderstand snake handlers, and should be given the chance to see them as regular Christian believers, struggling day to day to do what they thought was right. He defended his church's more esoteric practices as biblical, but argued that even if they weren't, they should be protected under the First Amendment.
One of Coots's proteges, pastor Andrew Hamblin, has also taken up handling the media along with the snakes. In a Buzzfeed profile of the younger Holiness leader, the pastor said that his religious beliefs were his First Amendment right, and that legislators have unfairly targeted his movement with specific laws designed to silence it. But it's the dangerous engagement with God's Word, and not the legal battles, that makes it so easy for snake handlers to become so well-known, despite their very small numbers.
Documenting snake handlers almost becomes a rite of passage in itself for a certain sort of storyteller. And those storytellers, like most storytellers, have a symbiotic relationship with their subjects. Snake handling is visually and audibly a great story, pre-packaged with danger. It sells. In exchange for letting the cameras in, the pastors get a disproportionately large stage for their message. That fascination with the practice, that exchange, made Coots famous, after National Geographic anchored a reality show around their family and faith.
National Geographic is hardly the first to spend time with the Holiness believers, and they won't be the last. Coots himself has been the subject of a handful of documentaries on his beliefs. And then there's the 1967 documentary Holy Ghost People, available for free on archive.org. It's a bizarre film, but worth it, if you want a chance at understanding the roots of the Signs Followers tradition. Part one is below.
For some, Coots' death is simply a referendum on his outsider beliefs, or worse a kook getting what was coming to him. The truth is a little more complicated than that. Their beliefs are extreme and dangerous, that is to be sure. And yet, as much as he can be dismissed as backwards, a relic from an old regional religious tradition, now we all know his name.
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.