The National Geographic reality TV Show Snake Salvation ran for one season and explored a community previously mysterious to most of America. Now, the National Geographic channel will pay tribute to one of the stars of the show, snake handler and pastor Jamie Coots, who died on Saturday as the result of a snake bite. The channel issued a statement explaining that it will air a memorial tribute to Coots because he made a lasting impression on everyone at the station with his “devout religious convictions” despite the extreme risks faced by the practice of snake handling, which has a long history in Kentucky, where Coots died, and throughout the entire Appalachian region.
Coots’ death is another in a series of fatalities in Appalachia due to poisonous snake bites. Snake Salvation shed light on this practice, which is performed by people who believe that God will allow them to safely handle rattlesnakes, copperhead snakes and other poisonous species. Coots’ son Cody Coots told reporters that his father had been bitten eight times previously and had always been fine, so the family assumed that this time, it would be no different. He said that after being bitten on the hand, his father returned home and lay down on the sofa to rest and pray. Although an ambulance had been called by church members, Coots would not accept any medical interventions and emergency personnel were forced to leave. Coots died about an hour later.
Snake Salvation gave viewers an inner glimpse of the life of snake handlers and the religious communities in which they live, but the practice of snake and the deaths that ensue frequently after the adoption of the practice long precede television. Snake handling has an extensive history dating back to 1910. The first recorded instance of attempted snake handling is when a preacher named George Hensley got the idea to take a specific Bible passage literally. That passage is from late versions of the Gospel of Mark and states:
And these signs shall follow them that believe; 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.
While snake handling grew in popularity early on, there were numerous attempts to ban it altogether in the 1940s including the passage of several laws outlawing the practice, but it never died out completely. According to Christianity Today, there are about 2,500 practitioners who currently engage in snake handling. Many pastors, including Coots, have been arrested, for transporting the snakes illegally, but this has not seemed to have stemmed or slowed the practice. Snake handling is illegal in a number of states.
The National Geographic tribute to Jamie Coots will be the first of its kind, but a significant number of pastors have died; about five to date, and an unknown number of congregants. While it is possible that there have been a good number of congregants in snake handling churches who have died, it’s mostly the church leaders who get attention in the national media. The advent of television and the role of journalists have both played a part in how snake handling is revealed to and perceived by the public over the years.
In 2012, Pastor Mack Wolford died from a rattlesnake bite, and the entire event was captured by a photojournalist who did not intervene. As a result, Wolford’s death was recorded in pictures as his congregants gathered around him and his mother stroked his feet. After Wolford’s death at the age of 44, the photojournalist suffered a moral crisis as she questioned whether she should have called an ambulance to assist Wolford. Her role as a journalist prevented her from jumping in because her job was to be an independent observer.
Despite recent attention given to the people who have died from participating in snake handling, practitioners have not been deterred. They continue to handle the deadly animals and refuse medical treatment, preferring to pray for their lives. Unfortunately, that has not worked for Coots and others; and there will most likely continue to be lives lost as long as the practice continues.
Snake Salvation shed light on the practice of snake handling, an activity with a long history within the United States. Now, The National Geographic channel has to say goodbye to its star, Jamie Coots. The tribute to his life and memory will air after production wraps. A second season had not been planned. National Geographic said in its statement that the stations members’ thoughts are with Coots’ family as they mourn his passing.
By: Rebecca Savastio