Feb 17, 2014

Jamie Coots, 1971 - 2014

Gregory James "Jamie" Coots, a third-generation signs-following pentecostal who handled venomous snakes in worship, died Saturday after being bitten and refusing medical treatment. He was 42.

Pastor of church of about 30 members in Middlesboro, Kentucky, the Full Gospel Tabernacle in Jesus Name, Coots gave his life trying to maintain the faith of his father and grandfather. He worked for nearly 20 years to encourage the faithful, disciple new converts who did not grow up in snake-handling churches, and defend his tradition's beliefs and practices to a condescending public.

Unlike some snake handlers who are media-shy, Coots gave interviews and spoke publicly about his religion in recent years. He participated in multiple documentaries, including, most recently, the National Geographic reality show, "Snake Salvation." 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.

"Practicing my faith remains a crime across the country," Coots wrote last year in the Wall Street Journal. "While the risk of arrest hasn't weakened my religious conviction, it has forced me to question America's commitment to religious liberty."

Coots clashed with the law in the mid '90s and again in the late 2000s, when authorities seized 74 snakes from his home. When he died, Coots was nearing the end of a sentence of one year's probation for the misdemeanor of transporting venomous snakes across Tennessee. He knew the legal risks he was taking.

He knew the physical risks too.

Before he picked up that final snake on Saturday night, Coots had been bitten nine times. He was bitten once on the top of his head. He lost half of the middle finger of his right hand to venom. He was there, too, when his best friend's wife died after being bitten by a handled snake in 1995, and when his best friend died the same way in 1998.

Nevertheless, Coots believed the spiritual risks of not handling snake were, for him, more dangerous still. He told a documentary film maker in 2012 that he did not believe he had a real choice.

"If I quit taking up serpents I would die and go to hell," Coots said. "God revealed that to me. I'd never tell anyone you have to handle snakes to go to heaven. It's in the word of God, you have to believe it. If God never moves on you to do it, let it alone."

Coots was under no illusions about whether or not he could die from snake bite. He knew he could. He did not believe his faith protected him from snakes, but that he was empowered by the Holy Ghost, through faith, to pick up them in a demonstration of his trust in God and in the plain meaning of the Bible, which says that signs and wonders will follow "them that believe."

As Coots' father, Gregory Coots, explained in an oral history published in 2000, the central doctrine of those pentecostals who handle snakes is not the handling of snakes, but God's providence.

"We don't know what that time is when we are going to die," the elder Coots said, "but God does. I believe God saw the end from the beginning. Before he even created anything, he knew what the end was going to be, and when. Man don't, but God does."

David Kimbrough explains this in Taking up Serpents. He writes:
Church members who see God's agency in everything that happens believe that God allows a snake to bite to punish them for sins in their daily life; to prove to unbelievers that the snakes have not been tampered with; to try the faith of the victim and his or her fellow worshipers; or to show His healing power. Today's believers do not condemn a worshiper who has been bitten and swells or gets sick ... it is commonly held that a bad bite can happen to anyone, even the most devout member.
Coots was not always among the most devout of the sign-following pentecostals.

According to his testimony, Coots grew up singing in holiness pentecostal churches for his grandfather, the signs-following pastor Tommy Coots. The patriarch was known for exorcisms and extemporaneously composing hymns, and also handled snakes. One of Jamie Coots' earliest memories was singing "I'll Fly Away" at snake handler's funeral.

His musical talents lead him away from the religion, though. For a time Coots thought maybe he'd go to Nashville and be a country singer, in the style of Hank Williams, Jr. Though he once won a school talent show singing Williams' song "Whiskey Bent and Hellbound," Coots had more success imitating the lifestyle than the career.

When his grandfather died in 1986, Coots was, in his words, out and "running around," doing things he believed he shouldn't. He went forward at an altar call in March 1990, however, and brought a woman named Linda Smith with him to church that summer. Smith, a nominal Baptist nine years his senior, converted and was baptized in November. The two married in December 1990 and had a daughter born prematurely in July 1991. Coots was transformed and active, again, in the church of his childhood, Full Gospel Tabernacle in Jesus Name.

He began handling snakes in June 1991, the month before his daughter's birth.

Coots was first filmed for a documentary on snake handling two years later.

He was visiting with John Wayne "Punkin" Brown, Jr., his mentor and friend, who was believed to be perhaps the most powerful snake-handling preacher since George Went Hensley, who popularized the practice at the beginning of the 20th century. Brown was preaching at a Georgia church in 1993, and the service was being filmed by the Discovery Channel. They were filming an episode of the show "Beyond Bizarre," and were not generally sympathetic to the snake handlers. Coots was uncomfortable with the cameras, as he recalled later, and told Brown he didn't want to be a fool on TV.

"I couldn't get to feel the anointing because I was worried about the cameras," he recounted to journalists Fred Brown and Jeanne McDonald. "But I reached out and took them anyway. When I did, then I felt the anointing, and everything was all right."

Coots was bit for the first time later that year. Coots rolled up his sleeve to show the gathered congregation his swelling arm and the two puncture wounds. Two skeptics converted, and became regular members of Coots' church.

He was bit again in the fall of '93, during a revival.

Coots said God had told him to put the black timber rattler away, but he ignored it. "I was testifying," he said. "The Lord said, 'Put him up,' while I was testifying. I wasn't paying a bit more attention ... hit me right there with one fang. Hit me so hard it knocked my arm against my chest ... It hit my arm so hard it jarred my body."

In 1994, Coots took over as pastor of the church his grandfather started. It was there that Melinda Duvall Brown, who was Punkin Brown's wife and had been handling snakes herself since she was 14, was bit by a rattlesnake in 1995. She died in Coots' home. Police considered charging Coots in connection with the death, but a judge refused to sign the complaint charing him, on First Amendment grounds. Coots preached at the funeral and, despite a crisis of faith in some handlers, who released their snakes when Melinda died, brought snakes to the funeral service. They were picked up, in accordance with sign followers beliefs.

When Punkin Brown himself died, three years later, Coots was at that funeral too.

The believers sang and prayed and spoke in tongues and handled snakes at the cemetery where they buried Brown. Coots spoke at the site. Another snake-handling pastor, Jimmy Morrow, recalled that Coots and the other ministers "echoed the church's belief that Punkin Brown died because it was his appointed time to die. I believe that we are all predestined before the foundation of this world. Punkin was buried beside his wife."

Coots maintained that belief in 1998, when he lost one finger from a bite, and in 2001, when he was bitten on the top of his head. He continued even though he was arrested in 2008, on charges of possessing venomous snakes, and into the 2010s, when he cooperated with a National Geographic reality show.

Throughout it all, Coots held that the snake handling was only an expression of the faith, not the core of it. Explaining his decision to work with the TV show, he said, "I want people to see that there's something to us besides just the snakes ... First and foremost, we believe in salvation, people getting saved." Coots was the mentor for Andrew Hamblin and a younger generation of snake handlers, who are taking a more active role in shaping their public image.

He repeated the message whenever someone turned a camera on. "We're still here preaching salvation," he told the Tennessean. "To tell people that there's a heaven to gain and a hell to shun. That's our main goal."

It is, notably, the same message his grandfather preached. As Tommy Coots put it in one of the extemporaneous songs that his wife wrote down,
There's many souls God's calling,
He's calling, 'Come to me,'
So don't wait til death overtakes you,
Come now, He'll set you free 
Oh the wrath of God is soon coming
To be poured out on the unsaved,
So get ready while you're living
From the cradle to the grave.
The younger Coots still believed that when he was struck by a snake on his right hand Saturday night and died, according to his son Cody Coots, about two hours later.

"We've got one goal," he said of snake-handlers in a recent interview. "That's to die and not go to a devil's hell."