Taking Up Serpents

This was supposed to be a column about the Jamaican bobsled team. I was going to write about how the 1993 movie “Cool Runnings” is still one of my favorites of all time and how, like the rest of the world, I was thrilled that the Jamaicans were finally—after a hiatus of twelve years—back at the Winter Olympics. No matter that their two-man team came in dead last out of 29 finishers in the race.

But before I could write any of those things, Jamie Coots died.

Coots probably wasn’t a blip on most people’s screen. In the recent spate of celebrity deaths, his didn’t get noticed like Philip Seymour Hoffman or Shirley Temple Black or Sid Caesar or even “Professor” Russell Johnson from “Gilligan’s Island.” But I sure paid attention.

Coots, a third-generation pastor at Full Gospel Tabernacle in Jesus Name in Middlesboro, Kentucky, was bitten on the hand February 15 by a timber rattlesnake he was “handling” during a church service. He died at home a couple of hours later, after repeatedly refusing medical treatment. It was the tenth time, over the course of more than twenty years, that Coots had been bitten while obeying what he called a “commandment” from the gospel of Mark: “And these signs shall follow them that believe; In my name they…shall take up serpents.” He was 42 years old.

I wrote about Coots a couple of months ago because he was friend and mentor to Andrew Hamblin, the young Tennessee pastor who also takes up serpents at his church—the Tabernacle Church of God in LaFollette. These two Pentecostal Holiness preachers starred last season in the short-lived reality program “Snake Salvation” on the National Geographic channel.

Because I have always been fascinated by the practice of snake handling, I was eager to attend church services in either LaFollette or Middlesboro. Maybe both. After writing about this intention in my December 1 column, a handful of friends offered to go with me. But several factors convinced us to postpone the visit. The Christmas season was upon us and everybody was busy. Then prolonged snowy weather hit and we were hesitant to plan a trip to the mountains.

And there were Andrew Hamblin’s troubles with the law. He was charged last fall with 53 counts of illegal possession of wildlife when dozens of venomous snakes were discovered at his church and confiscated by TWRA officials. Due to severe health problems, all of those snakes were eventually euthanized. But in January, a Campbell County grand jury failed to indict him. The vote, Hamblin said, was a victory for religious freedom.

Now, I can’t help but wonder if I’ve missed my chance to witness snake-handling first hand.

Because snakes hibernate during the winter and because wildlife officials, no doubt, continue to keep a close eye on Andrew Hamblin, I suspect his supply of rattlesnakes and copperheads is low. If he has any at all. Even if he does, the big question is whether witnessing the snakebite that killed his pal Jamie Coots will alter Hamblin’s beliefs or practices. What if he’s decided to quit following the signs and become a Methodist or a Presbyterian?

I’ve just signed up to “follow” Hamblin on Facebook. And I stand ready at a moment’s notice to head for the mountains of east Tennessee to witness him in action if and when he indicates that he’s ready to take up serpents. Not to gawk, but to try to understand.

(February 23, 2014)

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