National Geographic joins his family, friends and community in mourning the loss of Pastor Jamie Coots. In following Pastor Coots for our series Snake Salvation, we were constantly struck by his devout religious convictions despite the health and legal peril he often faced. Those risks were always worth it to him and his congregants as a means to demonstrate their unwavering faith. We were honored to be allowed such unique access to Pastor Jamie and his congregation during the course of our show, and give context to his method of worship. Our thoughts are with his family at this difficult time.
Tonight, tune in to a special episode that will examine the life of Pastor Jamie Coots, who was bitten by a rattlesnake during church service this past Saturday and died that evening after reports that his family refused medical attention following his wishes.
“Snake Salvation: They Shall Take Up Serpents,” a compilation from the series, will premiere tonight at 10 p.m.
“To me it’s as much a commandment from God when he said ‘they shall take up serpents,’ as it was when he said ‘thou shall not commit adultery.’”
-Pastor Jamie Coots
For nearly 20 years, Pastor Coots led the Full Gospel Tabernacle in Jesus Name, founded by his grandfather, in Middlesboro, Ky. During the course of the series, Snake Salvation, NGC was granted rare inside access into his congregation, often referred to as the “Holiness” faith, an offshoot of Pentecostalism. NGC cameras followed Pastor Coots and his fellow pastor, Andrew Hamblin, as they led their separate churches in this tradition. For them, the work was always challenging, but they believe handling snakes is nothing short of a commandment from God, literally taken from the Bible. They have been determined to keep their tradition alive — no matter the cost.
In this special episode, viewers will see that one of Pastor Coots’ biggest obstacles in maintaining his struggling church was also one of his most basic: finding and sustaining the snakes to use in his services. We followed as he embarked on an ambitious plan to acquire deadly western diamondback rattlers in Texas. In addition, Pastor Coots was stopped by police while transporting three rattlesnakes and two copperheads at a routine traffic stop near Knoxville, Tenn. He was ultimately prosecuted by the state District Attorney’s office for illegally possessing and transporting the venomous snakes.
“Pastor Coots was a lovely, kind man who was good to our crew during the shooting,” said David Lyle, CEO of National Geographic Channels. “And while it may be hard for some to understand the choices he made due to his deeply held convictions, one cannot help but admire his dedication and bravery. We wanted to air this episode tomorrow night as a way to give perspective to the world-wide discussion his death has caused.”
In a recent op-ed piece published in The Wall Street Journal, Pastor Coots commented: “In many ways, serpent-handling churches are no different from other religious communities. Members of my church gather to seek guidance, give thanks, share in the company of fellow believers and, more than anything, worship God. While the snakes attract the most attention, serpent handling is just one aspect of our services — and a tradition that has been observed in churches throughout Appalachia, from southern New York to northern Alabama, for more than a century.”
“Holiness” followers have been handling deadly snakes for more than a hundred years in the United States. Since its founding there have been close to 100 reported deaths from church-related snakebites. The doctrine of the faith is based on a passage from the Gospel of Mark (Mark 16:17–18) that says, “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.”
Of the practice, Coots said: “This makes our church an easy target for mistreatment by authorities. It’s also why protecting worshipers like me and my congregants from religious intolerance is essential.”
Snake Salvation: They Shall Take Up Serpents, A Retrospective of Pastor Coots’ Belief into the Religious Ritual of Snake Handling, Premieres Thursday, Feb. 20, at 10 PM ET/PT.