A “snake-handling preacher” who believed that he was following a Biblical command by picking up snakes has died after being bitten.
Jamie Coots, star of an American reality television show Snake Salvation, which profiled Pentecostal snake-handling pastors, died at his home in Kentucky after refusing to go to hospital.
Coots had been bitten nine times before, losing part of his finger in the process.
“It’s a victory to God’s people that the Lord seen fit to bring me through it,” he said the day after a previous bite, in 1998.
Coots was killed by a rattlesnake, dying less than an hour after he ordered doctors away from his home. Followers of his sect frequently refuse mainstream medical care.
And his church was the site of a previous fatal snake bite in August 1995.
Melinda Brown, 28, from Tennessee, died after she was bitten on the arm by a large rattlesnake.
After her death, police considered charging Coots with violating Kentucky’s law against handling snakes in church, but a judge said Coots should not be prosecuted for practicing his faith. Kentucky banned handing poisonous snakes in religious services in 1940, but serious attempts to enforce the law ended decades ago because of reluctance by authorities to prosecute people for their religious beliefs.
Brown’s husband, John Wayne “Punkin” Brown, 34, later died after being bitten by another rattlesnake in church in Alabama.
Followers of the Pentecostal sect – the majority of whom live in the Appalachian states of Tennessee, Kentucky, Alabama and Georgia.
In a practice begun around 1910, they say they are compelled by Scripture, particularly Mark 16:17-18 in the King James Version, to pick up serpents.
In this Gospel account, it reads: “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.”
Followers of the strict interpretation will adhere to rigid dress codes – ankle-length dresses and uncut hair for women, short hair and long-sleeved shirts for the men – and occasionally drink poisons.
Last year Coots explained how snakes were the cornerstone of his faith.
“We use them in religious ceremonies and I believe as for me, if I don’t have them there to use I’m not obeying the word of God,” Coots said.
He described himself as a third-generation snake handler, and said he hoped to pass the church on to his son, Cody.