Last week, a pastor in Kentucky was arrested as part of a sting operation associated with illegal snake trading. The snake-handling pastor had in his home the majority of the sting's more than 100 exotic and deadly snakes, including cobras.
In 1995, a Tennessee woman named Melinda Brown was fatally bitten by a rattlesnake during a Kentucky church service. She wasn't bitten accidentally. It was part of a fundamentalist religious service, mainly Pentecostal, that interprets certain scriptures in the King James version of the Bible, literally translated in that true believers can take up serpents and not be harmed.
On July 10th, Pastor Gregory James Coots, 36, was arrested and charged with "buying, selling and possessing illegal reptiles", according to CNN news. Coots was the pastor at the same church, Full Gospel Tabernacle in Jesus Name, where the woman died in 1995.
According to the AP news article,
More than 100 snakes, many of them deadly, were confiscated in the undercover sting after Thursday's arrests, said Col. Bob Milligan, director of law enforcement for Kentucky Fish and Wildlife.
Most were taken from the Middlesboro home of Gregory James Coots, including 42 copperheads, 11 timber rattlesnakes, three cottonmouth water moccasins, a western diamondback rattlesnake, two cobras and a puff adder.
The literal belief associated with snake handling comes from the New Testament books of the Bible, Mark and Luke, both of which make reference to serpents and the book of Luke, to scorpions as well:
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.
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.
Churches began springing up in the United States in the 1920s, mainly across the southern tier, practicing snake handling as a ritual of holiness. Even today, the few churches that practice snake handling are fundamentalists and believe in hands on faith healing, still talk in tongues, speak of actual miracles of healing such as being miraculously healed without medical treatment after 40 years of suffering from a debilitating disease, and many are even known to drink poisons.
The practice of snake handling is illegal in the state of Kentucky, along with many other states, and is subject to a misdemeanor fine.
The sting operation resulted in officers purchasing over 200 illegal reptiles, some for nearly $500 US dollars each. It resulted in the arrest Coots and 9 other individuals. As a result of snake handling, a member from a different Kentucky church died in 2006 from a snake bite after participating in a snake handling service. Also connected to snake handling, the husband of Melinda Brown, Reverend John Wayne "Punkin" Brown, died in Alabama three years following the death of his wife after being bitten by a rattlesnake. It was his 22nd bite. Brown's father was also a snake handler as well.
Despite being a crime, many fundamentalists still take to snake handling as a form of "proof" that one is truly a believer. For followers, the extreme belief that holding a dangerous snake as a sign of holiness may not be so foreign - informed consent for the adult believer.
But to the follower who is not yet of legal age and who succumbs to the bite of a serpent? The outcome of such a scenario will be interesting to see.