Touching Death: The Turbulent Life of One of America’s Last Snake-Handling Preachers

Cody Coots looks comfortable, standing in the spot where his father was killed. Behind him sits a guitar, before him a glass of strychnine poison. To his right there’s a drum set, to his left a few venomous snakes. He’s at a lectern in a large room in an old house on a back street in Middlesboro, Kentucky, deep in rural Appalachia. This is his pulpit. Before that it was his father’s, and before that his father’s father’s, and before that his father’s father’s father’s, all of them pastors here at Full Gospel Tabernacle in Jesus Name, a church that promises salvation but sometimes delivers death.

Cody is short and plump, his hair buzzed and his brown eyes big. He wears a white button-down and oversized khakis, and as he peers out at the group of about 20 worshipers, he leans into the microphone and begins. “Time to get the service started,” Cody says, his voice a rhythmic twang. “I ’preciate the Lord for being here. I ’preciate all he done for me and mine.” He asks for prayer requests. A few congregants speak up from the pews.

“Remember Mamaw Bobby. She been in the hospital, you know.”

“I’m having problems with my bowels. Going to see the doctor on Tuesday. Bring your prayers for me.”

“Pray for my daughter. She ain’t living right. She tried to attack a prison guard the other day. Pray the Lord help her turn her life around.”

Now the congregants kneel, and together they pray, all out loud, a cacophony of voices filling the room. When they finish, the music starts — Cody on guitar, his mother, Linda, on the drums, voices rising and feet stomping all across the room. They sing and they shout, songs about Jesus and about the Devil, about living right and doing good, about strychnine and serpents and heaven’s streets of gold. Soon a few start jumping, hopping up and down across the room with their eyes closed. A few more start speaking in tongues, a practice common in Pentecostal churches throughout the United States and much of the rest of the world, wherein worshipers utter a prayer language, often unintelligible to most listeners, that they believe emerges only when the Holy Spirit descends.

And when the time comes, when they sense that the Spirit has led them to do so, a few kneel down toward the collection of boxes congregants brought with them for the service. They unlock the hinges and reach inside, and when they emerge, they hold poisonous snakes. A cottonmouth. A copperhead. A rattlesnake. They hold them as they worship, lift them to the sky as they dance, crying out to Jesus and touching death while they sing his name.

They handle snakes because it’s dangerous. Serpent venom is meant to paralyze prey, attacking the nervous system. Vision blurs. Nausea builds. Pain spreads. As the venom courses through the veins, blood cells are destroyed. Victims hemorrhage. Occasionally, they die.

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