Seven years after snake-handling Pastor Jamie Coots of National Geographic's popular "Snake Salvation" TV show died after he was bit by one of his snakes during a church service, his community of Appalachian Pentecostal snake-handlers are now looking to Jesus and doctors for help with venomous snake bites.
Coots, who starred alongside Pastor Andrew Hamblin from LaFollette in 'Snake Salvation,' died in his home in 2014 after turning down medical assistance to treat the venomous snake bite.
In a report from National Geographic published Monday, Hamblin, 29, who now pastors the Free Pentecostal House of Prayer in Gray, Kentucky, with his new wife, Taylor, shows that the group of Pentecostal snake handlers are increasingly calling on doctors for help when they get bitten while handling venomous snakes instead of simply praying that they don’t die.
They are also taking more precautions.
“Since Jamie died, I’ve offered a rattler to no one. I am the shepherd, and I am responsible for what happens in this building,” Hamblin said in the report in which he reveals he only now occasionally pastors with snakes.
A group of about 125 snake-handling churches across America, including Hamblin’s, believe their practice is supported by the “signs” described in Chapter 16 of the Gospel of Mark, which says, in part, that “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.”
They often rejected medical assistance after a snake bite to demonstrate their faith in God’s healing power, but Hamblin and others have been slowly evolving in their theology.
Ralph Hood, a University of Tennessee professor who specializes in the psychology of religion, including serpent handlers, said refusing to call 911 for help is now considered old school. Younger pastors argue that no verse in the Bible forbids seeking help for serious bites.
A year after Coots’ death, his 28-year-old son, Cody Coots, sought medical help after he was bitten by a snake and survived.
Older serpent-handling pastors like Jimmy Morrow, 65, of the Edwina Church of God in Jesus Christ’s Name, in Newport, Tennessee, believes in holding on to his faith.
“I’ve been bit twice by a copperhead, and I didn’t go [to a doctor],” he said. “I just stayed home, and the Lord healed me. I know a lot of good brothers and sisters who say that when they die, they want to die [while practicing] the signs of the Gospel.”
Jason Stone, a 40-year-old father of three boys who preaches from a one-room church in Marion, North Carolina, told National Geographic that even though he has never been bitten before, he wouldn’t have a problem seeking medical attention.
“For me, handling a serpent is like being totally absorbed in the spiritual experience,” he said. “You become unaware of everything around you. It’s also a release [from] all negative emotion, which is a part of why I do it.”
Coots reportedly suffered serious bites before his death in 2014. He said he nearly died in the early 1990s when a large rattlesnake bit him on the left arm. In 1998, a rattlesnake he was handling also bit the middle finger of his right hand. On both occasions, he refused medical help and survived.
"It's a victory to God's people that the Lord seen fit to bring me through it," he noted the day after he was bitten in 1998.