Snake Handling Comes Under Scrutiny

by ekramer on September 4, 2008

For more than a century, some people of Appalachia have been practicing a form of Christianity that involves handling snakes in church. The practice still exists and recently it has found itself at odds with the law. WFPL’s Elizabeth Kramer reports.Pastor Jamie Coots.

Snakes are big business. At this truck stop near Corbin, Kentucky, a pastor from a Pentecostal church was selling rattlesnakes and copperheads. He was selling them to an undercover investigator with the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources. That was a year ago.

This summer, pastor Jamie Coots was on his way to work when law enforcements officers showed up at his home and charged him with possessing snakes without a permit.

“I was kind of confused about how they’d caught me, you know, what had happened,” Coots says. “And, of course, later on I found out that I’d been selling snakes to an undercover investigator.”

The arrest was reported through news outlets far beyond Kentucky. Coots pleaded guilty, was fined and is serving two years of probation.

Coots still keeps snakes in a garage behind his home in Middlesboro, Kentucky, with the appropriate permits.

Three times a week, he brings them here to the Full Gospel Tabernacle in Jesus Name, which his grandfather founded in 1978 and where he’s the pastor. Occasionally, he and some of the other 18 parishioners handle the snakes.

The church is one of hundreds around the Appalachian region that literally interpret the Bible’s call to handle “serpents.” This faith arose in the early 1900s when charismatic preachers began preaching this Gospel of Mark. During this time, Appalachian people were undergoing a cultural crisis as industrialization came to the region and changed their self-sufficient way of life. So says David Kimbrough, who has researched the faith and wrote “Taking Up Serpents.”

“They were taken out of their lands and forced into coal camps almost in one generation,” Kimbrough says. “And they would be paid with company script where you had to buy from those company stores. So they turned inward to their religion, and they would look for these miracles to deliver them from the hardships of this world.”

Some of those miracles entailed handling snakes. But that pursuit has put the community at odds with the law.

A 1946 photo of snake handling at the Pentecostal Church of God, Lejunior, Kentucky. (National Archives and Records Administration. Photo by Russell Lee.)As the practice gained followers in the 1930s and ‘40s, there was a rise in deaths from snake bites. In 1942, Kentucky enacted a law that prohibits the showing or handling of reptiles during religious services with fines up to one-hundred dollars.

Coots has never been fined under this law, but says that the practice is coming under scrutiny today.

“Anytime somebody gets bit and dies, of course, they have to try to enforce the law a little, a little harsher for just a short time,” Coots says. “I know they know that it’s always been around but it’s come more under the radar in the past five or ten years.”

In 2006, a woman was bitten during services at a church in London, Kentucky, and later died. The next month, a foster care agency took children from the home of a couple living nearby after they admitted to having attended services with snakes. They are suing the agency and the Commonwealth of Kentucky in U.S. District Court. Several legal scholars say this case could overturn Kentucky law.

While there is no evidence of a coordinated attempt to eradicate the practice, residents inside and outside the faith in eastern Kentucky say it’s declining.

David Kimbrough says that comes in large part as the outside world more strongly influences the people of this region.

“People do other things,” Kimbrough says. “There’s computers in your home. There’s television in your home. So, it very definitely has dwindled. It doesn’t have the numbers that it had say even 20 years ago.”

But Kimbrough and others who have researched this community don’t think it will die out as long as there is significant poverty in the region. One is Keith Tidball, who works at Cornell University.

“As long as there are people of Appalachia who are very proud of their heritage and very committed to their faith and very firmly aware of the price that they’ve paid as a people for modernizing, as long as those conditions exist, which were basically some of the conditions that brought serpent handling into existence, then serpent handling will continue,” Tidball says.

Coots agrees with the researchers. And aside from paying off the fines for trafficking in wildlife, he says his main concern is “keeping the devil from coming in and trying to destroy” his parishioners.

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