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Snake-Bitten Preacher Hoped to Pass on Church Leadership to Son 'Before It's Too Late'

KY Forward Staff Report

George Went Hensley lasted longer than Jamie Coots before succumbing to a snake bite while practicing the religious ritual the East Tennessee native either invented or spread or both. He was nearly 75 when he died from snake bite in 1955. Kentuckian Coots was only 42.

Coots, known for his starring role on the reality show Snake Salvation, died Saturday, Feb. 15, two hours after being bitten during a church service by a rattlesnake. According to Little Cody, the son to which he intended to pass the reins of the American Pentecostal church, the pastor’s last words were: “Sweet Jesus.” Coots died at home after refusing treatment.
 
Coots was a third-generation snake handler who hoped Little Cody would become the fourth. In an episode entitled Deadly Legacy of the National Geographic channel show, the pastor said his son was “great with snakes” but had a lot to learn about leading a church and being a pastor. The elder Coots said his son lacked the compassion and sensitivity he needed to deal with people “who haven’t found God.”

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Pastor Jamie Coots outside his church in Bell County (Photo from National Geographic Channel)

Episode producers said the episode was about the pastor “finding a way to bring Little Cody around before it’s too late.”
 
The Bell County pastor was among a small group of church leaders who believed the practice of being bitten by snakes and not dying was evidence of infilling of the Holy Spirit. They based this on a very specific interpretation of the Gospel of Mark.
 
Although no one knows for sure the location of all snake handling churches or congregations, some facts are known. According to National Geographic, the first documented case of death from a serpent bite during a snake-handling service was in August of 1919.
 
Coots was given a one-year probation beginning last February for having crossed into Tennessee with venomous snakes.
 
It is illegal in Kentucky, Tennessee and every other state except West Virginia. Coots was also arrested in 2008 for keeping 74 snakes in his home.
 
Kentucky was actually the first state to pass an anti-serpent-handling law after a resident of Harlan County, John Day, complained to police in 1940 that his wife had begun snake handling in a Pineville church. Pineville is the county seat of Bell where Coots practiced the snake handling that killed him.

Top photo: Felix, a child from Pastor Jamie Coots’ snake-handling church, runs around church with a toy snake in imitation of his elders. (Photo from National Geographic Channel)