Snake Handling Pits Religious Freedom Against Public Safety After Kentucky Death

The idea of a preacher bringing a venomous snake to a church assembly in 2014 might bring to mind an X-Files episode entitled, “Signs and Wonders,” in which a Pentecostal pastor in the southeast expects church members with true faith to hold their arms to the nose of a rattlesnake as a demonstration of their faith in God. The faith demonstration was twofold in that a brave congregant had to have faith enough to hold his arm in front of a deadly snake first, and second, have the faith not to seek medical help if the serpent did bite, but completely rely on God to heal him.

The practice of snake handling in charismatic Christian circles exists in the real world, outside of the aforementioned off-the-air science fiction cult classic. This month a Kentucky church has experienced its third death since 1995 at the hands of the “snake handling” practice. Pastor Jamie Coots, a third-generation snake handler, died February 15th after being bitten by a timber rattlesnake at the Full Gospel Tabernacle in Jesus Name church in Middlesboro, Kentucky. He was only 42 years old and, true to his faith that God would heal him, refused medical help after the bite.

But despite a 1942 state law banning the use of “any kind of reptile” during religious services, local officials told they don’t plan to do anything about the practice.

According to, Bell County Attorney Neil Ward wrote in an email that “…Jamie Coots was voluntarily handling a poisonous snake,” and “No one had a legal duty or right to make Coots seek treatment.”

Middlesboro Police Chief Jeff Sharpe told he would not charge anyone for handling a snake at the church unless a child was involved or someone was there against their will.

Jamie Coots is survived by his son, Cody Coots, who will assume the pastoral role his father left behind. Cody, who appeared on the National Geographic reality show, “Snake Salvation” says that he will continue the snake-handling practice.

In a statement to, National Geographic officials said they were “constantly struck” by Coots’ devout convictions despite the health and legal peril he faced.

“Those risks were always worth it to him and his congregants as a means to demonstrate their unwavering faith,” the statement read. “We were honored to be allowed such unique access to Pastor Jamie and his congregation during the course of our show, and give context to his method of worship.”

As a Bible teacher explained to me as a young man, the reason some feel so compelled to practice snake handling is a literal interpretation of Mark 16:18 that reads, “They shall take up serpents; and if they drink any deadly thing, it shall not hurt them; they shall lay hands on the sick, an they shall recover.”

Courtesy of U.S. National Archives
Courtesy of U.S. National Archives

According to, roughly 400 people attended Coots’ funeral.

Paul Williamson, a psychology professor at Henderson State University, made the following statement to Fox News: “Jamie is looked upon as a father of the faith. He was being obedient and God had a plan for him. Within this tradition, they take many passages of the Bible literally and within their theology, everybody has an appointed time . . . There was not a wet eye in the house for Jamie. There was joy in the service.” Full source.

Use the comment section below to share your thoughts, feelings, and theological views on the practice of snake handling. Consider the following questions:

  • Does Mark 16:18 justify the practice of snake handling?
  • Do you think God wants Christians to pick up venomous snakes to prove our faith in Him?
  • Do you think the practice should be made illegal, even for consenting adults?
  • Do you think that the Full Gospel Tabernacle in Jesus Name should learn a lesson from the death of Jamie Coots, or had God appointed him to die in this way?
  • Do you think it would strengthen someone’s faith in God to pick up a venomous and survive?