Stranger Than Fiction: Serpent-Handling Pastor Dies Of Snakebite

Stranger than fiction: serpent-handling pastor dies of snakebite

A zeal for the Holy Spirit, reality TV, and venomous snakes. What could go wrong if these three ingredients are combined? As it turns out, it is a recipe for disaster.

A venomous copperhead snake. "Agkistrodon contortrix taken at the Cincinnati Zoo." Photo by Greg Hume, Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 3.0)
A venomous copperhead snake. “Agkistrodon contortrix taken at the Cincinnati Zoo.” Photo by Greg Hume, Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 3.0)

As CNN reports, a snake-handling pastor of a Kentucky Pentecostal church, who had lately been the star of National Geographic reality TV show Snake Salvation, has died after being bitten by a snake and then refusing treatment at a hospital.

Despite earlier accidents including

‘losing half of his finger to a snake bite and seeing others die from bites during services,’ Coots ‘still believe[d] he must take up serpents and follow the Holiness faith [emphasis mine],’

according to National Geographic’s channel website.

A religious tradition of rural southern Appalachia

Snake handling as a test of faith is a tradition among some Pentecostal churches across the Appalachian region, mostly in the rural South.

The origins of the practice lie in “a passage in the Bible [that] suggests poisonous snakebites will not harm believers as long as they are anointed by God.

In the Gospel of Mark (Mark 16:17-18), it says

And these signs will follow those who believe: in My name they will cast out demons; they will speak with new tongues; they will take up serpents; and if they drink anything deadly, it will by no means hurt them; they will lay their hands on the sick, and they will recover [emphasis mine].

And thus, the faithful not only take up deadly snakes, but also

ingest a mixture of strychnine – a highly toxic powder often used as a pesticide – and water, often from a Mason jar.

That, however, is still not enough for some, who also

will bring Coke bottles with oil-soaked wicks to the church so they can hold flames to their skin.

A deadly faith for over a century

But despite the unwavering faith of its practitioners, the tradition, which started “in the east Tennessee hills in 1909,” has repeatedly claimed its victims, thus far around a hundred “serpent handlers.”

For instance, in 2012, pastor Mack Wolford of West Virginia died of a snakebite. His father, also a Pentecostal serpent handler, had suffered the same fate before him in 1983.

According to CNN, experts estimate the number of “serpent handlers” at several thousand people.