‘Snake Salvation’ Exclusive: Pastor Jamie Coots Defends Serpent Handling as Biblical ‘Sign’ (Part 1 & 2)

tn_Pastor Jamie Coots holds a snake while Big Cody playsPastor Jamie Coots holds a snake while Big Cody plays guitar in the background at his Middlesboro, Ky., church in an episode of “Snake Salvation” on National Geographic Television.

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.

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“Snake Salvation” debuted in early 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.

Calling them foolish, crazy, ignorant, or sinful for tempting or testing God (read the remarks here), viewers wonder why Pastors Hamblin and Coots persist in carrying on the 100-year-old practice (read about its history here) that claimed the life of one of their pastor friends last year who refused, until it was too late, to get medical attention after being bit his yellow timber rattlesnake. It is common among serpent-handling Christians to avoid a doctor’s care for a snake bite inflicted during worship, but it is not uncommon to seek medical attention for other ailments.

The men and those who practice their faith in like fashion, many of them living in the Appalachian states, say they are compelled by Scripture, particularly Mark 16:17-18 in the King James Version, to pick up serpents. In this Gospel account, 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.”

Despite the deaths and injuries resulting from snake-handling and speculation among scholars that the verses foundation to their faith were not included in the original Gospel of Mark manuscript, Pastors Coots and Hamblin say something greater compels them to keep worshipping God this way.

Below is part one of CP’s “Snake Salvation” exclusive interview, in which Pastor Hamblin shares how the Lord “moved on him” in his first-ever snake-handling church service.

CP: Please share a little about your faith journey, like how you came to be a Christian and then a pastor, and so forth?

Hamblin: I grew up in a Free Will Baptist church which I still go back at and preach. My grandpa is a pastor there. My grandparents raised me in church. I still go back and preach there, and my grandpa has been to my church and preached.

I got saved I guess you could say when I was about 15, but I didn’t live a (Christian) lifestyle. … I’ve known about the Lord all my life. When I was about 17 I decided, hey, I’m going to live full time for God and about that time is when I heard about serpent-handling churches. Growing up at our church, we spoke in tongues — even at a Free Will Baptist church — we spoke in tongues, we shouted, danced, believed in baptism of the Holy Ghost, just like a Church of God or Pentecostal church would. So I seen these people handling these snakes, speaking in tongues, receiving baptism of the Holy Ghost, shouting and dancing. I thought, hey, they ain’t much different that we are and I want to know if this is real or not.

Well, the first weekend of August was Pastor Jamie Coots’s homecoming. I found out about the church and I said, ‘Hey, somebody take me over.’ Like I said I was 17 and we all got together some of us and they took me. I seen Jamie go and pull two rattlers out of a box during a service, and something just clicked right then. It showed me there has to be something more to this. In May of…(Elizabeth) and I got married, we’d been together since we were 15 year olds and we’re soon to be 23 now. We got married and I told her I wanted to begin to go, I wanted to go full time to that church, to Brother Jamie’s church.

I joined up over there. I played the guitar, and sang, preached, shouted, but I never would mess with no snakes. They’d handle them elbow to elbow with me, and I’d say, ‘Hey, I don’t know about this.’ I would pray, and a year to the day later that I saw it for the first time in real life, the Lord began to deal with me. The Lord dealt with me with going into a box myself and I was 18 then, of course. I begin to just feel the anointing of God begin to move stronger than I’ve ever felt it before. I was thinking, ‘Lord, I know this is you moving…’ I prayed and put a fleece before God, so to speak. I said, ‘Lord, if this is you moving…’ There was a box of three monster copperheads, I’m talking about 44-, 45-inch-long snakes, and I said, ‘Lord if this is you moving…’ — that’s what I felt like to get out, the biggest one is in the back in a box — I said, ‘You will let Brother Jamie go to this box…’ that had two black, fresh rattlers that have never been handled, they had just been caught. I said, ‘You’ll let him go and get both of them out and I’ll know that it’s You moving on me to do this.’

I hadn’t much more than prayed that than here he went. He pulled both of them out. And when he did, I just went numb. The anointing got so strong that I went in the box and I pulled it out myself and handled it what seemed like a lifetime, was only 15, 20, 30 seconds (before I) put it back in the box. I’ve been going strong ever since.

CP: Why did you agree to participate in “Snake Salvation”?

Hamblin: The only reason that I agreed to participate in “Snake Salvation” was to maybe see someone not be converted to snake handling, that wasn’t my goal. If people do get converted — well I won’t say converted — I’ll say maybe believe in it, begin to believe it, that’s wonderful, that’s good and so forth. My only reason for participating in “Snake Salvation” was to spread the gospel to the whole country, to the world if you will, to tell somebody that they can be saved. They don’t have to believe like me, they don’t have to dress like me, they don’t have to handle snakes like me. But to let them know that the blood of Christ still saves and he is still real.

It just came to my mind — you have all these TV evangelists and TV pastors and they preach, they preach this and that, and that’s wonderful. I just wanted to say, hey, you know I’m just a little country boy, I’m nothing in the sight of man. But because of the blood, I’m something in the sight of God, and I wanted to shine a light to somebody.

My goal has been reached. I’ve had hundreds upon hundreds of people call me, message me different things like, ‘Pastor, we might not ever believe alike, but watching this, it restored my faith in God.’ I’ve had atheists write me and say, ‘We watched this, we did not believe that there was a God. We didn’t believe in no kind of a supernatural being or anything, but after watching this show there has to be a God.’ Then I’ve had people write me and say, ‘Pastor, we’re Pentecostal believers and we want to learn more about this, we feel the Lord is dealing with us to do this.’

It has amazed me. I had really and honestly thought that it’d be a flop so to speak, and people would look down on us even worse. But so much good has come out of it that I’ve seen hardly any bad at all. I mean, I’ve seen bad. Of course with anything good, there’s negative. But I’ve seen more good than I have bad. Like I said, my main goal is to see somebody get saved. I don’t care if they handle snakes or … shout and dance or dress like I do or act like I do. They go join First Baptist, it don’t matter to me as long as they get saved.

CP: Please tell me a little about your church, such as how many members you have, how long the church has been around, etc. Also, what’s your denomination or tradition?

Hamblin: I will go as far as saying that my group…now most snake handlers are stereotyped as Pentecostal Holiness people. My church, the name of it is Tabernacle Church of God and it was built in 1994 as a Church of God. The man who built it is still the landlord and I still recognize him as a founder of the church and so forth. I still treat him good. He’s never handled serpents. It was never a serpent-handling church. It was just a regular Church of God and whenever I’d come along…I’ve been pastor of it, this November will make it two years. He had shut the church down, he had health issues, he had got sick, different things and I took it over. He’s handled them [snakes] since I’ve been there.

Our church could be deemed as a nondenominational church. We’re Christians. Denomination to me is man-made. I mean if you belong to a denominational organization, I mean that’s wonderful. If you support your denomination that is even more wonderful because it’s so hard to find people who are established. My church in particular, we have Pentecostal doctrines, and Holiness doctrines and Church of God doctrines, but basically we are a nondenominational church.

CP: About how many members do you have?

Hamblin: Last Christmas, we was writing out the treat bag list and I had maybe a hundred and twenty people I think it was. Of course it’s hard to get them all together at one time. We usually run…we’re like most little Southern churches. We’ve had 10, 15 (in) a slow service … But, recently, the church has grown. We usually run about every service no less than 30 and no more than 70, 80 people and it’s continuing to grow. If everybody shows up at tonight’s service that has wrote me and said ‘Pastor, we’re coming,’ we’re gonna have over a hundred people there, we’ll be packed out.

CP: How often do you hold services?

Hamblin: We have services every Friday at 7:30 and every Sunday afternoon at one o’clock and every first Saturday of the month at 7:30. I always stress this with every interview I do, we want to let everybody that reads this know that they are more than welcome. No matter what denomination or belief, they are more than welcome to come and worship with us and be with us. They do not have to handle the serpents, they don’t have to be around the serpents. … We don’t handle them [serpents] every service. Anyone that reads this is more than welcome to contact me and come in if they’re out of state or wherever and worship with us and just have a good fellowship with God.

CP: What’s the worst experience you’ve had with handling snakes, either for yourself or among your members?

Hamblin: I’ve not had nothing among my members. The Lord has really blessed us and kept a shield about us. We’ve never had nothing bad. My worst thing was of course the time I got bit. I wasn’t in church handling. I was in the snake room and I got careless. There was no anointing there. When I got bit was really no different than if someone was to get bit in the woods. I just got careless and the rattler just finally bit me, and I suffered greatly.

I did of course, as the whole world knows, I lost a friend last year in May (West Virginia Pastor Mark Randall Wolford). That opens your eyes and lets people realize that…cause people holler the snakes are milked or defanged, yada yada. If they’re milked and defanged, then how come someone gets bit and die? Which now I’m the kind of person…now God is not gonna tell us to pick the snake up and let it bite and hurt us and it swell, cause we don’t serve a God like that. We serve a loving, caring, merciful God.

But my worst experience was probably when I got bit and suffered. I mean, it hurt like crazy. Thank God had mercy on me, He came by for me. And yes, I did go to the hospital. The reason I tell people I went to the hospital, I was not anointed. God had not told me to handle that snake. Like I said it was no different than (if) I got bit out in the woods like anybody else.

Watch a clip from “Snake Salvation” in which Pastor Hamblin gets “slain in the spirit.”

“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).

NICOLA MENZIE

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