Editors' Note: The Christian Post recently spoke with Pastors Jamie Coots and Andrew Hamblin, stars of the new National Geographic reality show "Snake Salvation" to learn more about their controversial practice of worshipping God with snakes. The extensive interviews with both men, which include questions directly from CP's readers, are featured in four parts. Read part one here.
"Snake Salvation" debuted in September on the National Geographic Channel and viewers, including readers of The Christian Post, have expressed fascination, repulsion and confusion over the sect of Pentecostal Christians who say they are led by the Holy Spirit to handle poisonous snakes while worshipping God.
"Snake Salvation" focuses on the lives and ministries of Pastor Andrew Hamblin of Tabernacle Church of God in LaFollette, Tenn., and Pastor Jamie Coots of Full Gospel Tabernacle in Jesus Name church of Middlesboro, Ky. Coots, in his 40s, serves as a mentor of sorts for Hamblin and was the inspiration behind the 23-year-old starting his own snake-handling congregation.
Pastor Coots has been a part of the serpent-handling tradition for as long as he can remember, having taken over his grandfather's church to carry on the Holiness Pentecostal faith 19 years ago, and expecting his son to one day take over for him as the church's leader. The minister, who has been bitten nine times (and lost a finger in one instance), insists that if the contested Mark 16:9-20 passage that is used to support the century-old practice was not included in the Bible, he would still handle poisonous serpents.
At the very end of the Gospel of Mark, Jesus commands his disciples to go to all the world and preach the gospel: "He that believeth and is baptized shall be saved; but he that believeth not shall be damned. 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."
In the following transcript of CP's interview with Coots, the pastor explains that he does not believe Christians can accept exorcisms, faith healing or glossolalia while also rejecting serpent handling as a Biblical sign among believers.
CP: Tell me a little about your church, such as when it was founded, number of members, etc.?
Coots: My grandpa actually built the church in 1978. They were having house meetings at the time, then they built the church. He passed away in '86. I took it in '94 — my dad kind of took care of it till then but he said [he didn't want to pastor]. The crowd of course had been up and down [because people] come and go. Right now, we're standing at about 23 regular members that are there three times a week. You have some come in, maybe strangle in a couple nights a week, or on Sunday… For the most part, we're standing good at about 23 regular members.
CP: Is your tradition Pentecostalism?
Coots: Holiness Pentecostal. The Pentecostal, usually they categorize them as "Trinity." Well, we believe in the Oneness and the Acts 2:38 baptism [in the name of Jesus Christ]. They say we're Holiness and not actually under Pentecostal, but I honestly don't know.
CP: And the church has always done serpent handling?
Coots: Yes, serpent handling been there since it was built.
CP: What's the worst experience you've had with handling snakes? I know you've lost a finger.
Coots: Well, to me personally, yes I've been bitten nine times and some of those were pretty bad. We've had others bit. We actually had a lady bit in 1995 who passed away. So we've seen some pretty rough times.
CP: Of course everyone who attends the church believe as you believe, otherwise they wouldn't be there. But what about your neighbors, other people in town who disagree, do you get conflict once in a while about serpent handling?
Coots: No, for the most part they know who we are and what we do and they just kind of leave us be. We've never had any problems out of neighbors or law, even though they know I have snakes [in another building] out back. No one has ever tried to cause us any problems over anything.
CP: Why did you personally agree to participate in "Snake Salvation"?
Coots: I was actually the one that brought it up to the producer that came...about two years ago a professor down in Chattanooga, Tenn., had caught up with me. He said they wanted to do a piece with me called "Animal Underworld" that had Henry Rollins as the host. While they were here, I spoke with Abigail Rodriguez and told her the only time that we had ever gotten any publicity is when someone was bitten and died (and) it was just 15 or 20 seconds of just snake handling. I said then other times … they put us with people that worship rats, so therefore people say 'Yes, these people are a cult.'
I said, 'I want people to see that there's something to us besides just the snakes, that we're just normal people. This is the only thing that makes us different from all other religions is we handle snakes.' First and foremost, we believe in salvation, people getting saved. So, she went back and talked to them and I think three days being a year, she called me back and told me they were ready to go with the program.
CP: Did other snake-handling Christians have any objections to you doing the program?
Coots: As far as our regular members, everyone was fine. Now we had some people that used to come to the church, and some still do come occasionally, but they didn't come while the cameras were there. And if they did, they requested not to be filmed. That was their freedom, I mean if they didn't want to be filmed that's fine. I told them when they (the cameras) were there, and they didn't have to come when they were there.
Of course we've took some ridicule over it. They've said we've sold our religion and different things. It doesn't matter to me what people say. I've never been a person that had to had popularity …
CP: Your belief in handling snakes is based only on Mark 16:17-18. What do you say to Christians who say you're taking the Scriptures out of context, that Jesus didn't literally command Christians to do these things?
Coots: Most of the people who say that believe in the other signs. They believe in laying hands on the sick and they believe in casting out devils even if they don't do it. And for the most part, some of them believe in the speaking in tongues. They won't just say that those three are not spiritual, but the other two are. I don't see how you can take two scriptures out together and say that two of them are spiritual and three of them aren't. So, we believe that all of them mean exactly what they say.
CP: There are some Christians who say they believe as you do, that Christians have power through the Holy Spirit to do these things. But the question for them in that passage is, is Jesus really commanding that Christians must do this, must handle poisonous serpents, must drink poison?
Coots: Jesus said "they shall." I believe that's as close to a "must" as it can get. But now he did say the believers. There are those that don't believe, and it's not for them.
Watch a clip from "Snake Salvation" in which the Coots familys talk about their Christian tradition (includes graphic scene of Pastor Coots rotted finger).