As winter approaches members of the “Full Gospel Tabernacle in Jesus' Name” church in the Appalachian mountains trek about beating the bushes. Their task is to rustle rattle snakes from their hiding place before the creatures go into hibernation. They are not looking for snakes as a source of food, nor are they looking to squeeze oil out of them for use as a medicine. They’re looking for snakes to prove their devotion to God!
Churches devoted to handling snakes are mostly found in the southern U.S., but there are a couple in Alberta as well. Members are deeply religious, usually scorn tobacco and alcohol, dress modestly and believe the Bible to be the literal and infallible word of God. Snakes enter the picture because of a couple of passages in the book of Mark and the book of Luke. “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,” runs the passage in Mark. In Luke we read “Behold, I give unto you power to tread on serpents and scorpions, and over all the power of the enemy: and nothing shall by any means hurt you.” Believers are convinced that if they have true faith, God will protect them against all evil. So they drink strychnine and handle poisonous snakes as a sign of their faith.
Snakes don’t take kindly to such handling and bites are not a rare occurrence. In most cases the amount of venom injected is enough to cause pain and swelling, but the body recovers whether you have faith in a higher power or not. But of course the snake handlers attribute their recovery to being rewarded for their faith by God. Sometimes, though, a bite can be fatal. Perhaps surprisingly that does not act as a deterrent for further handling by others who interpret the death as the victim having been called home by God so that a proper heavenly reward can be dispensed.
There’s no question that watching snake handlers in a religious frenzy makes for good television. That’s why National Geographic got into the reality TV genre with “Snake Salvation,” a program that focused on the antics of members of the “Full Gospel Tabernacle in Jesus' Name” church led by their Pastor Jamie Coots. National Geographic got more than it bargained for. The death of Pastor Coots. He was bitten during a service but like on previous occasions refused medical treatment, considering it a sign of weakness and shaken faith. Coots went home to “sleep it off” as he had before when a snake had struck. This time, though, luck was not on his side and his sleep became permanent. Obviously, unlike some other bible thumpers who are more interested in raising money than faith, Coots was a real believer. But that didn’t prevent his needless death. Seems serpents have been causing problems ever since Eve befriended one.