For many people, the illegal and deadly ritual that killed a Middlesboro, Kentucky, pastor is difficult to understand. But professors who study snake handling say worshipers are very aware of the risks they are taking and accept the consequences.
Pastor Jamie Coots died after a snake bit him during a worship service on Saturday. Middlesboro Police said he denied medical treatment and died at his home. Pastor Coots starred in the reality TV show "Snake Salvation" on National Geographic.
Maryville College religion professor Dr. Brian Pennington has studied Pastor Coots during his research on snake handling in worship.
He said the prominent leader of the snake handling community saw the practice as "an absolute command of God."
"These are not irrational people. These are people who know very well what they're doing every Sunday or Wednesday night-- whenever it might be they go into that church," Dr. Pennington said. "They know very well the fate that Pastor Coots suffered could be suffered by any of them who does this during a service."
Snake handling began near Chattanooga in 1910 when Pastor George Hensley said he was commanded by God to "take up serpents." He was inspired by the book of Mark chapter 16:18. Hensley helped to spread the worship throughout the region.
"Generally speaking it's an Appalachian phenomenon," said Lincoln Memorial University history professor, Dr. Michael Toomey. "By the 1930s, it's become popular. So much so, that by the 1940s, most state legislatures in Appalachia have banned it because there had been a rash of deaths prior to that."
Dr. Toomey said Hensley died of a snakebite and reports show he had been bitten nearly 400 times prior to his fatal bite.
Dr. Pennington cited a study that said 92 people have died from snakebites during worship. Death has not been a deterrent to discontinuing snake handing in the past and Dr. Pennington does not think it will be in the future.
"In many respects I think we can expect this kind of death, especially by such a prominent figure as Pastor Coots, to cause people to recommit to the tenants of their faith and enact their obedience to a text which they think places on them this tremendous obligation," Dr. Pennington said.
Dr. Pennington said snake handlers do not operate under the assumption snakes will never bite them.
"They do it simply as an act of obedience," Dr. Pennington said.
Handlers, he said, have an understanding that unless they feel the anointing of the Holy Spirit, they are not to pick up the serpent. If they feel anointed by God, they must pick it up.
"This is by no means a test of their faith," he said.
In Tennessee and Kentucky, it is illegal to use snakes for worship. Dr. Toomey said snake handlers do not attempt to rationalize their actions. He said they understand the risks going into it, they accept death as a consequence, and are not concerned about the legal repercussions.
"They believe they are individually bound to do this. Laws don't matter. If you receive direction like that, state statutes simply don't matter," Dr. Toomey said.
Snake handling does not align with a specific denomination. Members are generally not required to handle snakes if they don't feel called to and children are prohibited from doing so.