Faith and Conviction in Southern Appalachia: The Death of a Snake-Handling Pastor

Pastor Jamie Coots at his church in Middleboro, KY. (Photo credit: National Geographic)
Pastor Jamie Coots at his church in Middleboro, KY. (Photo credit: National Geographic)

Just this past weekend the news came down from the hills of Kentucky that Jamie Coots, the pastor of a snake-handling church in Middleboro, had died after a bite from a timber rattler while ministering to his church.  This is a scenario that has been repeated for generations in this small sect of Appalachian congregations, most of which exist in Alabama, Kentucky and Tennessee. Yet what sets Coots’ death apart from the others is that he was the star of a popular series on the National Geographic Channel called “Snake Salvation.”

I admit to having my doubts about what National Geographic was up to when I first heard about the show.  I even wrote a blog in which I pondered about this being another retrograde reality show on the region.  I worried about the fact that the pastor’s last name was “Coots,” because I’m sensitive to the fact that people might poke fun at what they saw as a “hillbilly named ‘Coots.'”  I’m originally from Appalachia, so I know the cruelty that people bestow upon hill people.

So, I watched several episodes of “Snake Salvation.”  With a cynical eye at first. But my cynicism gave way to sincere interest and even appreciation. Because what I saw was a show that took seriously the faith and conviction of Jamie Coots and his family and of his protegé Andrew Hamblin, the pastor of another snake-handling church in nearby LaFollette,Tennessee. The series, I believe, helps viewers better understand their religious beliefs, which are similar to Pentecostal sects throughout the South, save one difference–the emphasis on Mark 16:18 on taking up serpents.  And unlike TLC’s “Here Comes Honey Boo Boo,” Coots and his family do not act like, nor have they been made to look like, buffoons.

Jamie Coots (Photo credit: National Geographic)
Jamie Coots (Photo credit: National Geographic)

Pastor Coots wanted the viewers of “Snake Salvation” to understand that, as people, they were more than about hunting and handling poisonous snakes. And while the show emphasizes that part of their faith, one also can surmise that these are people who love and care about one another and who have daily challenges beyond finding snakes for a church service. Theirs is a deep conviction, and while I personally do not hold their views about religion or snakes (or the role of women, for that matter), I can respect what makes us different. Unfortunately, not everyone does.

In the few days since his passing, people have cast harsh judgement on Pastor Coots, his family, and this sect in the most insensitive way imaginable. Read some of the comments on the NPR post about this story and you’ll see what I mean. They don’t bear repeating here.

National Geographic will air a tribute to Pastor Coots and I encourage you to watch it and consider what I’ve written here.  And if you are so moved, read Dennis Covington’s book, Salvation on Sand Mountain: Snake Handling and Redemption in Southern Appalachia.

The story of this man’s death should not lead people to judgement, but to a better understanding and respect for differences in faith.

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Snake Salvation: Praise the Lord and Pass the Snakes

Snakes alive.  We’ve got us another southern-based reality television show.  “Snake Salvation” focuses on a small Pentecostal sect in Appalachia that takes the Gospel of Mark 16:18 to heart: “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.”  Essentially, they prove their faith in God by handling poisonous snakes–mostly rattlers–and if they’re bitten, they believe in the healing power of their Lord to keep them alive.  They also believe that if they don’t handle snakes, well, hello Hell!

Pastor Andrew Hamblin is one among a new generation of snake-handling ministers.

The show, which premieres on National Geographic on September 10th, features Jamie Coots (did they have to choose a man named “Coots?”) of Full Gospel Tabernacle in Jesus Name church of Middlesboro, Ky. and Andrew Hamblin of Tabernacle Church of God in LaFollette, Tenn.  According to the show’s description, “Hunting the surrounding mountains for deadly serpents and maintaining their church’s snake collection is a way of life for both men.” Not many churches can say they have a snake collection.

The earliest years of my life, just to age 6, were spent at the Rock of Ages Church in Huntington, West Virginia.  When I watch the video below, I recognize a similar type of preaching and inflection among the snake-handlers that I witnessed as a young child. They minister to their flock using a singsong kind of expression. “I belieeeeve-ha. In Jesus Chriiiiist-ha.” That sort of thing.  At Rock of Ages, I didn’t have to fear snakes, just that giant portrait of Jesus wearing a thorny crown with blood dribbling down his forehead. THAT terrified me.

I do remember, though, my Maw Maw Cox telling me about some snake handlers that showed up at the funeral home where my Uncle Roger worked. As it turns out, one of the members of the snake-handling church had died and when it came time for visitation the church members came to pay their respects, but they weren’t alone. They brought their snakes with them and asked to slip a few into the coffin.  This caused the staff at the funeral home to scatter, and eventually, the police arrived and forced them to take the snakes away.

Rev. Coots and Rev.Hamblin hope that the show will allow the public to see that their lives revolve around more than hunting and handling snakes, though I’m not so sure viewers will notice much more.

I’m going to try to reserve judgement until I’ve seen the show, but I can’t help but wonder about this latest attempt to examine the white underbelly of the South. And I emphasize white, because nearly all southern-based reality shows focus on whites who are generally, from the lower class or outright poor.  In fact, Andrew Hamblin falls into this category. According to an article in the Christian Posthe is struggling to support his wife and five children and is doing the show to attract more followers.  It will be interesting to see if the show takes off or simply slithers away.

(Note: If people really want to understand this particular religious group and their beliefs in a serious way, I’d recommend reading Dennis Covington’s book, Salvation on Sand Mountain: Snake Handling and Redemption in Southern Appalachia.)