Transcript for On Our Minds - Snake Handling

Anne Strainchamps: And now it's time for “On our minds.”

This week Rev. Jamie Coots is on our minds. He was a snake handler and Pentecostal preacher in Middleburg, Kentucky; and he died this last week when the rattlesnake he was handling during a church service bit him. Coots refused medical treatment and he died less than two hours later, surrounded by praying members of his family and congregation. Producer Charles Monroe Kane talked with him just a few weeks before his death.

Kane: Can you take me back to the first time you handled the poisonous snake?

Coots: It was in July 1991. I had been praying about it, even though I was raised in it. I was praying about it to see if this was for me, and someone had sent the pastor of that church a couple big copperheads. And I [xx] Lord, if it’s meant for me to do this, this is what I'm supposed to do in my walk with you, let Brother Bruce come and hand me the serpent. Well service come to an end and of course I was pretty discouraged. I thought what am I doing, where am I at in my walk with Christ. Either I can't get a prayer through, or this isn't for me. So after church he is taking the serpents out of the box that they brought them in, to put them into his box. He uses the hook, because he's not moved on by the Spirit, so he used the hook and gets one out, puts it into his box, and then he says the Lord told you to lay the hook down and reach and get the other one with his hand. And when he reached and got out the other one with his hand, he immediately turned around I was standing there and he laid it in my hands. I knew from that point on that this was meant for me to do.

Kane: That's interesting. I know that your grandfather, and your father, and you, you’re third-generation doing this. Must've been an amazing moment for you, to have that serpent in your hands and to be a part of that. You know there are millions of Christians around the world, in different colors and stripes and there's less than 100 churches in America that handle snakes. Is that part of what's so special to you? Is that part of why it's important to you?

Coots: It does mean a lot to me that it's been passed down from generations. You know, but that I don't consider myself to be anything, just because God does it. Yeah it's something that looked on by some people as fascination, but to most people it's pretty much ridiculed, it’s hated. They tell us how ignorant and unlearned we are, that we do this. It's even been in some of the older documentaries that we are just ignorant coal miners and we use this to entertain ourselves. So, it can be very hurtful sometimes to know that you are in this small group of people that nobody else wants anything to do with because you're not mainstream. Yet to know that this is Bible and you feel that this is right and to know that God has given you the power to do it when most of the other people in the world don't understand, it don't believe it, don't want nothing to do with it.

Kane: What are you feeling at that moment, is it an ecstatic state? Are you staying in the spirit or are you very present? What is the feeling like for you personally as you pick up that poisonous snake? I mean I would be scared to death.

Coots: You have the presence of mind to know what you're doing. Yet you have this anointing overcoming you, that you know God is working through you, and you can do these things and it will be okay. You know, I don't know anyone that can actually describe the feeling of what the anointing is, it's a peace. It's feeling like nothing else around matters. You have a direct connection with God, and God is telling you that you can do this just for His glory. Just so people can see that this creature that He created that can potentially cause death, He has power over it.

Kane: You've been bitten right?

Coots: I have, I’ve been bitten nine times.

Kane: Nine times! You even lost one of your fingers correct? From a rattlesnake?

Coots: I did. Half of my middle finger on my right hand is gone from a rattlesnake bite.

Kane: Can I ask you a personal question? I've been so curious about this for days, reading about you. You were bitten. I'm curious why you were bitten. Was there a moment in your head like this with God punishing me? I had sin in my life? It seems like you shouldn't be bitten if this is what you do.

Coots: That's right. I don’t believe you should be bitten and hurt. The times that I have been bitten and hurt, there has been three times that I was bitten and not hurt. But the times that you are bitten and hurt is because either you move too quickly. Or you move too slow after the Spirit has done moved off of you. Or you did have something in your life that you shouldn’t have been handling them at the time. When I say that I don't mean a great big sin. I don't mean you went out and stole or killed or fornicated or committed adultery. But maybe you just had an argument with your wife. I've done that. Maybe just on the way to church some morning, someone cut you off, and not cursing but you say something that's not very Christian like you know? You roll your window down and holler right at them you know? “Hey you ignorant person, where did you get your driver’s license!” Well, that's not Christian like. So then to go on to church and think, that weren't that bad. God understands. I think I'll just get in and handle a snake. Well, then if you’re bitten, you’re thinking well maybe God wasn't pleased with what I've done. And I shouldn't have been trying to work in the signs, and let people think that God had moved in me, when I knew that I had done something God wasn't pleased with.

Kane: Have others in your church been bitten? Just normal people in the congregation?

Coots: Yes, my son has been bitten. My dad has been bitten. My uncle has been bitten. My first cousin’s husband has been bitten. And other people that have come to the church in time past. That's as far as our regular members that we have right now that have been bitten in church services.

Kane: Have you had someone who's died during one of your church services?

Coots: There was a woman that was bitten in 1995 at a homecoming on a Sunday morning, that died at my house on Tuesday afternoon.

Kane: What happened? What she handling the snake and was lost in the spirit, and then made a mistake? She must have refused medical attention I assume, right?

Coots: I don't know what happened. She came up front. She got the serpent and was bitten and her husband asked her immediately, are you going to go to the hospital? She said no. They had five kids. He said you need to think about these kids. She said I am thinking about my kids, but I'm not going to the doctor. I'm trusting God. And she trusted God, and Tuesday about 1:30 she died.

Kane: As a human being, how do you feel about what happened? I mean, she's dead.

Coots: Well it was hard. It's to the point now eighteen years later, I don't think about a whole lot. But at the time, it was hard to accept that someone had died. Even though I know that people died before. It was hard to accept that this woman was bitten in my church. Died at my house, and I didn't understand. You know I didn't understand why she died then. And now the only way I can explain it is that it was just God's will. It's so different than dying in a car wreck, and I tell people that tell me do you want to die of a snakebite and I say no. Because it brings persecution upon the church. But if I had to die in some sort of tragedy not just lay down and go to sleep and I which is what I hope to do. If I had to die in some sort of tragedy, I just lay down and go to sleep and die, which is what I hope to do. But if I had to die in some sort of tragedy I had rather, even though it's going to bring persecution, be serpent bit and everybody standing around me praying. Than to be out here, and be in a car crash and everyone standing around me cussing.

Anne Strainchamps: Charles Monroe Kane talked with Jamie Coots. He was the pastor of the full Gospel Tabernacle in Jesus Name in Middleburg, Kentucky. Last week, the rattlesnake he was handling during a church service bit him and he died less than two hours later, surrounded by his family and congregation.

Comments for this interview

Jamie Coots (RT, 02/23/2014 - 10:00pm)

What exactly is the point of broadcasting this again?

Snake Handling: The limits of religious freedom. (Len , 02/23/2014 - 9:23am)

Clearly if a church were conducting human sacrifice, the law would crack down on it. In fact, I remember the police cracking down on animal sacrifices by Haitians in Brooklyn about 15 years ago.

If you hand a poisonous snake to someone, and mumble some nonsense about how "God will protect you," and then the person dies, don't you bear some liability for that person's death. Might you not be criminally liable? (If suffering from delusions can be raised as a defense in court; then– if the person seemed likely to continue to act on their delusions– they would need to be removed from society for the protection of others.)

First Degree Murder would be excessive. But what about Manslaughter or Reckless Endangerment?

Religious freedom is already circumscribed in our society.

If Haitians living in Brooklyn can't slaughter a chicken, and if Rastafarians living anywhere in the US can't smoke marijuana, might there be a racial component to what religious practices are protected or not protected under the First Amendment?