Today the practice is most common in Southern Appalachian states, and snake handlers often use native rattlesnakes and copperheads. Such churches are independent and often call themselves “signs following” churches.
Andrew Hamblin, who co-starred on “Snake Salvation,” said he was with Coots when he died.
“I held him in my arms when he took his last breath,” said Hamblin, who is pastor at the Tabernacle Church of God in the nearby community of LaFollette, Tenn.
He believes that Coots, 42, would have died Feb. 15 no matter what, if not by a snake, then a stroke or some sort of accident.
“God’s appointed time of death trumps everything,” Hamblin said.
Williamson said believers describe the feeling they get when they are handling a snake, “Like a high, but a greater high than any drug or alcohol. It’s a feeling of joy, peace, extreme happiness.”
He said that many snake handlers believe that when God anoints them, they will be protected, but they still recognize there is danger. For instance, if the spirit leaves them and they don’t put down the snake quickly enough, they could be bitten.
Coots had handled snakes many years and had been bitten several times, always relying on prayer, and not medical help, to heal him. In “The Serpent Handlers: Three Families and Their Faith,” a book focusing on prominent snake-handling families, Coots is interviewed and describes a bite that took part of his finger, saying he had done something he shouldn’t have done (he doesn’t say what) and God was punishing him. Describing another painful bite, Coots says he was bitten after the spirit had moved out of him, but he continued holding the snake for egotistical reasons.
Hood knew Coots well, and attended his standing-room only funeral service last week. At a gathering at the church afterward, some mourners were handling snakes, he said.