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Snakes confiscated from pastor of Tennessee snake handling church

Jamie Coots says he wants the snakes returned to him. WDBJ7 profiled the church in a November story.

November 15, 2012|WDBJ7

MIDDLESBORO, Ky. — An eastern Kentucky pastor wants Tennessee wildlife officials to return five venomous snakes confiscated in Knoxville.

Gregory Coots, who's known as Jamie Coots, is pastor of at the Full Gospel Tabernacle in Jesus Name Church in Middlesboro. Coots handles the snakes as part of worship services, which WDBJ7 profiled in a November story.

He told WYMT-TV in Hazard he bought three rattlesnakes and two copperheads in Alabama on Jan. 31. While he was driving through Knoxville, police stopped Coots for dark window tinting and saw the cages containing the snakes. A state wildlife officer confiscated them.

The district attorney general's office in Knoxville says Coots is charged with illegally possessing and transporting wildlife.

Coots was similarly charged in Kentucky in 2008. He said he now has a permit for snakes in Kentucky.

WDBJ7's original story about the snake charming church that aired on November 15 is below.

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Faith is the foundation of most all religions and spirituality.

You might believe the church we are about to introduce you to, takes its faith to the extreme.

Worshipers sing, shout, speak in tongues and handle snakes.

Full Gospel Tabernacle in Jesus Name is in Middlesboro, Kentucky, -- a four-and-a-half hour drive from Roanoke. We attended a Saturday night service there.

It's one of a handful of holiness churches in Appalachia that, as they call it, follows the signs: handling serpents, healing the sick, speaking in tongues, casting out demons, and drinking poison.

The church service is probably unlike any you have ever seen. 

When the Holy Spirit moves, members handle fire and serpents.

Gregory "Jamie" Coots is the pastor of the Middlesboro, Kentucky, congregation. His grandfather built the church in 1978. Coots took over in 1994.  He remembers the first time he handled a snake.

"To know that you are holding something in your hand that could take your life and yet you had no fear, and it was just like holding a puppy dog. I mean there wasn't any fear there,” Coots said.

WEB EXTRA: Interview with pastor of snake handling church

On this night, seven people handle a variety of rattlesnakes, copperheads and cottonmouths. 

The church requires that you're 18 to handle snakes. But younger people are allowed to take part in the worship service.

"Some people wouldn't understand the church, but God would understand the church and I would,” church member Matthew Loop said. “Some people wouldn't, but I would."

Pastor Coots said: “When the spirit is moving, you're anointed to do anything, you're protected. God's hand protects you from all things.”

Churches that handle snakes quote the 16th chapter of St. Mark to support their practices.

“These signs shall follow them to believe. In my name shall they cast out devils,” Coots said. “And we believe in actually praying for people that are demon possessed and seeing them delivered.”

And it's not just how this congregation worships that sets it apart.

"Women wear dresses all the time. Women don't cut their hair. The men don't wear shorts.  We don't wear, like the wife beaters, tank tops, you know,” Coots said.

Fewer than 50 members worship here.  Some travel hours to attend services on Saturday nights and Sunday morning'.

Nathan Evans and his wife live in Buchanan County, Virginia.  They spend the night at Pastor Coots' house every weekend.

Cora Garrett lives in Lee County, Virginia.  It takes her an hour to get to Middlesboro.

“I handled my first serpent in West Virginia,” Garrett said. “Yeah, parents took us out there when we were teenagers and the Lord moved on us a man to bring us a serpent. We held our hands out and it was great. And I've handled them here ever since. It's my life.”

Coots also mentors young ministers, like 21-year-old Andrew Hamblin, a pastor in LaFollette, Tennessee.

“I would tell the ones that think I'm crazy, you know … I am a sound mind man,” Hamblin said. “I've got four children and one on the way. A beautiful wife.  I've got a good home. I've got a good church pastor. I'm not a crazy man. I don't preach to people and say this rattlesnake is going to take you to heaven because we're not begotten by them snakes. We're begotten by the word of God.”

Both Hamblin and Coots have been bitten several times.

“I made a vow when I first started handling serpents that I would never go to a doctor,” Coots said. “That has kept me from going. There's been times had I not made that vow I don't know what I would have done.”

But others didn't survive.

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