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

Three years after his father was killed during a service, Cody Coots carries on as pastor of the South’s most famous signs-following church. In a town rife with drugs and poverty, Coots leads a group of congregants who live and worship in extremes — and who, by engaging with death, show their faith in a God they believe delivers life.

Illustration of a snake handler Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Welcome to The South Week at The Ringer. We’re celebrating — and reporting on — the richness of the region. You’ll find stories from all over the map, exploring topics such as the enduring legacy of Confederate monuments in Richmond and Montgomery, the evolution of Charleston barbecue, and the intersection of faith and football in Lubbock. We’re also ranking the best Southern rap albums, imagining the André 3000 mixtape we all deserve, and arguing about what even constitutes the South anymore. In the words of two great Southerners, nothin’ is for sure, nothin’ is for certain, nothin’ lasts forever.

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.

They handle snakes because it’s safe. It says so right there in the King James Version of the Bible, Gospel of Mark, chapter 16, verses 17 and 18. “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.” They call themselves “signs-following” churches, those whose belief is proved through their tongues speaking, poison drinking, snake handling, and faith healing. By engaging with death, they show their faith in a God they believe delivers life. “It’s just a feeling that’ll come over you, unlike anything you ever felt before,” says Shelby Nolan, a 21-year-old member of the church and one of Cody’s closest friends. “Just the fact that God instructed you to handle something that can kill you. You can hold something deadly in your hands and trust that God will protect you.”

Their church sits nestled among the Appalachians, just a few miles from the Cumberland Gap, in the region where Kentucky and Tennessee and Virginia all meet. On the way into town from Tennessee, you wind through the mountains, soft and rolling and giving way to valleys that stretch as far as you can see. After passing through the Cumberland Gap Tunnel, Highway 25 spits you out right there in downtown Middlesboro, where you’re greeted by fast food chains and strip malls and streets filled with long-neglected homes. Here in Bell County, the population is mostly white, undereducated, and poor. Only 10 percent of residents have graduated college (compared to 33 percent nationwide), and only 66 percent have graduated high school (88 percent nationwide, including GED recipients). Forty-five percent of the population lives in poverty; 60 percent of the working-age population has no job. Opioids are rampant. So is meth.

Much of the population is evangelical Christian, but even in a sea of conservative Christianity, the snake handlers stand out. “The world thinks we’re a bunch of hillbillies who don’t know nothing,” a young church member preaches one Sunday. “They think we’re backwards because of the way we listen to God.” Church members tell stories of coworkers who tell them they’re crazy, of family members who beg them to attend a more mainstream church. “This world,” Pastor Bruce Helton, who heads another snake-handling church in nearby Harlan County, explains to me one afternoon, “is wicked.” If it weren’t, the thinking goes, fewer people would fear taking up snakes.

Snake handling traces its lineage back to a man named George Hensley, an early-20th-century moonshiner turned minister based in Cleveland, Tennessee. Hensley preached in Pentecostal churches known for ecstatic worship styles, where churchgoers danced and wept and spoke in tongues, in the belief that the Holy Spirit had compelled them to do so. Hensley became transfixed by Mark 16:17–18, the passage that references taking up snakes. People in the faith say that to him, the most important word in the passage was the word “shall.” Hensley saw this as a commandment. If you followed Jesus, he believed, then you drank poison and handled snakes. One day, Hensley ended a sermon on the passage by pulling a rattlesnake out of a box and holding it as he preached. He then handed it to congregants, and they passed it among themselves. Soon Hensley began traveling around the Southeast, preaching and handling and drinking strychnine at churches throughout Appalachia. Within a few years, the practice became routine at a small number of churches scattered throughout the region.

Jordan Ritter Conn

Years passed and Hensley floated in and out of the church, returning to his moonshine business, marrying four times, entering and then escaping from prison. He settled in Kentucky, where snake handling in religious services was outlawed in 1940. Police, though, rarely paid much attention to snake handlers unless someone ended up dead or in the hospital — which they did, from time to time. Hensley and others established small churches, often with a couple dozen congregants or fewer, and continued their practice, largely undisturbed.

It’s unclear how many snake-handling churches exist today. Estimates in the last two decades have ranged from about 40 to as many as 125, all of them small, most concentrated in the Southeastern United States. While Pentecostalism has exploded globally, with tongues-speaking and faith-healing denominations growing exponentially in Latin America, Africa, and Asia, snake handling remains a practice almost entirely unique to the American South.

The Full Gospel Tabernacle in Jesus Name was founded in Middlesboro in 1978 by Cody Coots’s great-grandfather, Tommy Coots, who eventually turned the church over to his son Greg, who can still be found playing guitar and singing and occasionally preaching on Sunday afternoons or Saturday and Wednesday nights. Greg Coots, though, didn’t feel led to pastor the church for long. Instead, he turned it over to his son Jamie, who passed it down, after more than two decades, to Cody.

Growing up, Cody didn’t want to be a pastor. Maybe that was right for his family’s previous generations, but not for him. He found himself curious about life outside of snake-handling churches. Though he was homeschooled, he made friends from around town, and he drifted in and out of other worlds. As a teenager, he went one Sunday with a girlfriend to her Baptist church. Only then did he begin to realize that his family’s tradition existed outside the mainstream.

But by the time he approached his 18th birthday, Cody was back in his father’s church for every service. He couldn’t wait to turn 18. Not because it meant graduating high school or buying cigarettes. In Cody’s world, your 18th birthday meant only one thing: He could handle snakes. (Waiting to handle until adulthood was not mandated by scripture but was rather the church’s policy. Children and visitors are both barred from handling.) Beginning with the first service after his 18th birthday, Cody packed a box of several snakes for every service, riding to the church alongside his dad, who brought his own box with his own snakes, and they laid them out together by the pulpit, alongside plenty of others, maybe 15 snakes present for worship in all. Cody handled whenever he felt the Spirit move, and at that time, the Spirit moved in almost every service.

It was strange, the way a snake’s effect could change depending on when and where he touched it. Cody would go snake hunting with his dad — taking four-wheelers off-road in the mountains from Kentucky to South Carolina, crouching down with poles, reaching under logs and boulders, sometimes staring eye-to-eye at four or five rattlers in the wild. “That,” he says, “is the ultimate adrenaline rush.” But he felt no adrenaline when he handled snakes in church. From afar, it may look thrilling, but up close, he says, it’s something altogether different, serene. “It’s completely peaceful,” he says. “I’m just blissed out. I never feel so close to God.”

Yet the experience can hit different people in different ways. Says Nolan: “I’ve had it come over me just completely peaceful, like someone could walk through the door and point a gun at me and I wouldn’t care. Then sometimes it feels electric. I get a churn in my stomach. It just depends on how the Holy Spirit moves on you.” No one, though, ever describes snake handling as routine or mundane. To handle a snake is to worship with an intensity otherwise unknown, to transcend the life that exists before and after you hold death in your hands. The practice can numb or it can enliven, but it always, for at least a moment, transforms.

Jordan Ritter Conn

“It’s a high,” says Nolan. “It’s a high you can’t explain.” Nolan himself knows other highs. His father died of an overdose when Nolan was 15, and afterward he turned to drugs himself. He dropped out of high school and spent his days drinking and smoking pot and popping pills. The drugs delivered momentary relief from an emptiness that consumed him. Yet the desperation felt ever-present, just barely underneath the buzz. So when an aunt invited him to her church, another snake-handling congregation in Harlan County, Nolan went with her. He got clean. Once he turned 18, he started handling snakes. “When you’re on drugs,” he says, “you get that one big high the first time, and you go back after that same one. But it gets weaker. Your body gets used to it. With God, that high always comes the same. It’s a feeling that’s completely unexplainable. The hair on your head and your arms stands up. It’s something better than drinking, smoking, or pill taking. It’s better than all of that.”

When handling, Cody says, he feels present in his body like in no other moment. His eyes close or they wander, barely paying any mind to the creature in his hands. He is fully submissive — not to the snake, he believes, but to God. “I feel,” he says, “like nothing in the world can hurt me in that moment.”

And yet, of course, something has.

Cody’s mother, Linda, is a firecracker of a woman, gray-haired and usually long-skirted, often found at the drum set, where she bangs and harmonizes her way through the most upbeat of worship songs, or sitting on the back pew, where she tends to grandchildren. On occasion, when she feels led by the Holy Spirit, she speaks.

Like right now. “I got something to say,” Linda announces. It’s a Sunday afternoon in August. The service has drawn near its close. Today, like many days, the snakes have remained in their boxes, the strychnine in its jar. The crowd is thin, and no one felt the Spirit move them to follow the signs. Together, they’ve sung a few worship songs and listened to a short sermon on 1 Samuel 1. The chapter tells the story of Samuel’s birth. His mother, Hannah, had prayed for years that God would give her a child. When that child was born, she dedicated him to God and gave him over to Eli, who would raise him to serve in the temple.

Linda is sitting in the back pew, feeling reflective. The rest of the church turns around to listen. Women do not often preach in snake-handling churches, just as they don’t in most conservative Christian traditions, but near the ends of services here they often “testify,” speaking to the congregation about ways God has affected their lives. “God knew,” she says. “God knew that she had made a vow to him, that she was gonna give this child to him.”

She adjusts in her pew, expression soft, gaze wandering. “You know,” she says, “sometimes God keeps us out of trouble because of the things we say and the vows we make.” She tells a story. Back in 1993, a few years after she and Jamie were married, he suffered a bite on his left arm from a rattler. He collapsed there in the church, the poison working its way through his veins. For years Jamie had been adamant: If he ever went down with a bite, or from drinking too much poison, God would heal him. And if God didn’t heal him, well, then it must have been his time to go. So no paramedics tended to him. Instead, the church members knelt down and prayed.

“I said to God,” Linda remembers, “‘God, please do not let him die. God, if you save him, I will never eat chocolate candy ever again.’” Now she stops. She looks around, shaking her head. “I was new to snake handling back then. I didn’t have no sense or nothing.”

And yet she was desperate, flailing, watching her husband’s color drain. Only later did she realize: “You don’t make deals with God. If it was Jamie’s time, there was nothing I coulda done. He was gonna go anyway.”

Only he didn’t. Jamie recovered despite never seeing a doctor. He returned to the pulpit, and five years later, when another rattler bit his right middle finger, turning his arm purple and pocking his body with blisters, the venom killing the tip of his finger until it fell completely off, he refused to see a doctor once again. Jamie became famous. CNN came to Middlesboro. So did a parade of curious worshipers from around the country. He welcomed them all, insisting that the attention would help him spread the gospel. He was living the way God intended, Jamie believed. He didn’t care if that meant he’d eventually die. In 2012, he told WKYT-TV, “I don’t actually want to die of a serpent bite, but I’d rather die and leave these walks of life with a serpent bite knowing there are people standing around me praying than to be in a car wreck and people standing around me cussing. I would rather die in that spiritual atmosphere, even if it does mean a serpent bite.” In 2013, National Geographic aired a reality show about Jamie and others in the snake-handling community. The show, Snake Salvation, ran for one 16-episode season in 2013 before the network canceled it.

The next February, Jamie was bitten for the ninth and final time. During a Saturday-night service he handled three snakes at once. One, a two-and-a-half-foot long timber rattler, struck him on the back of his right hand, near the base of his thumb. He dropped the snakes and moments later he collapsed, face tingling, on fire. A friend and fellow evangelist, Andrew Hamblin, helped Jamie stand and walk to the bathroom, near the back of the church. There he lay down. He would wait out the bite’s effects on his own, refusing medical attention just as he always had. God would heal him or take him. No human doctor would intervene.

He lost strength by the second. He spoke, weakly, not to his congregants but to Christ.

“Lord, come by.”

“Oh, God, no.”

His final words: “Sweet Jesus.”

Cody didn’t expect his father to die that night. They’d handled dozens of snakes together, and when Cody was a child he’d watched his father handle hundreds more. He’d seen him bitten. He’d seen snakes sink their teeth into his flesh without producing any venom, leaving no more than a couple marks from their fangs. He’d seen his father get woozy, seen him need some rest, seen his arms swell up and turn purple and seen the tip of his right finger fall off. He knew the drill. They would ride back to the house and sit up the whole night and pray. God would heal him. That Sunday or the following Wednesday, Jamie would be back in church, likely handling snakes once again.

So when Jamie died, Cody was too stunned to be able to feel. Even if he didn’t expect it, he knew this could happen — God gives life and God takes it, after all — but the image of his father, dead, still felt like too much for Cody to comprehend. Others in the church insisted that this was what God wanted, that Jamie’s time had come. They praised the Lord in their joys, so they’d praise him now in their grief. Jamie had been a wonderful man, a loving father, but this must have been God’s will. They canceled church that Sunday, buried Jamie the next Wednesday, and came back together the following Sunday, ready to move on. They needed a new pastor. Few questioned who that man might be. One week after his father’s death, Cody took over the church. He was 21 years old.

When Jamie was still alive, he taught Cody all he could about pastoring their church. He taught him to memorize scripture and to capture rattlesnakes. He taught him how to play worship songs and the right way to counsel a married couple considering divorce. He showed him the proper methods for storing poison, how to lead a congregation in prayer, and how to pray when a snake sunk its teeth in someone’s flesh — as happened from time to time, and as had killed a church member named Melinda Brown back in 1995. He also passed down wisdom on how to respond when the cops show up, as they sometimes do after bites, given the fact that snake handling remains illegal. Be polite. Shake their hands. But know your rights. By law, pastors are shielded from divulging information given to them by members of their churches. So when someone goes down and the police want to know who brought the offending snakes or jar of poison, just shrug and say, “pastor’s privilege.” That, Jamie said, should be enough to get the police to leave you alone.

The week after his father died, Cody stood before his congregants in his place. He sang and he preached and he pulled out the very rattler that had killed his father and he handled that snake and praised God. Within weeks he settled into a rhythm as a pastor, setting up and breaking down before and after their thrice-weekly services, taking late-night phone calls from congregants who wanted to tell him about their struggles with sin. That was the hardest part, listening to those confessions. He heard about affairs and about crimes, about drug abuse and drinking, and occasionally, he says, about things he can’t even bear to think about anymore.

Pastoring was exhausting. By age 21, Cody already had a wife and a child. He had a job hauling furniture for E-Z Rentals. Pastoring the church paid virtually nothing. Attendance was too sparse and the congregation too poor for the offering plate to bring in any significant money. He would be up late at night listening to churchgoers’ confessions, offering prayers for their ailments, both physical and spiritual. Then he’d be up early and off to work. Sometimes he wondered why he did it. Sometimes he wondered why God hadn’t called someone else.

Then he got bit. In June 2014, he pulled out a rattler mid-sermon and it struck him on the side of the head, near his eye socket. When he tried to pull the snake away, it bit him on the ear before he could throw it to the ground. Even after the bite, Cody continued preaching for three minutes. His face bled. His vision blurred. His balance weakened. Finally, there in the pulpit, he collapsed.

Cody had said before that he wanted to follow his father’s example, refusing medical treatment for any snakebite. Others in the congregation felt differently, though, believing that turning to modern medicine didn’t necessarily mean turning away from God. God had created the doctors, after all. Surely their skills could be put to use in service of God’s will. So while Cody lay on the ground, a church member said to him, “You’re either going to the hospital right now, or you’re going as soon as you pass out.”

His memory from the hospital comes in flashes. Lying in bed, unsure of where he was or how he got there. A tube down his throat, causing more pain than he’d ever felt from any bite. His wife, Brittany, by his side, hysterical. And the moment, soon after his arrival in the hospital, when he asked the doctor, “Do you think you can save my life?”

“I don’t know,” the doctor said. “Do you promise you’re gonna stop handling snakes?”

Cody looked back up at him, grinning. “Let me die,” he said.

He lived. He spent 10 days in the hospital, then another 20 out of work. When he came home, Cody noticed, the entire world felt different. It wasn’t just the lingering pain, not simply the weakness from the poison. His mind had changed. He looked around him and saw everyone as a threat. At night, instead of going to bed, he sat awake in his camo recliner and he stared at the door to his family’s apartment. Someone was coming to get him, he thought. He didn’t know who and he didn’t know why, but any moment someone might burst through the door and kill his entire family. He knew it, believed it as solidly as he’d ever believed anything else. He had to stay vigilant. He had to keep watch.

Sitting awake and staring at the door, he allowed his mind to wander. He flashed to dark images. His father snakebitten and dying, along with every other violent memory his conscious mind could find.

He started collecting guns. A .357 with a six-inch barrel. A Glock that held 21 rounds. When that didn’t feel like enough, he bought himself a 32-round clip. Then there was the pair of brass knuckles, good for any situation when a deadlier weapon might be out of reach. He found himself consumed by thoughts of violence, desperate for someone to give him an excuse to inflict pain. Strangers cut him off in traffic and Cody tailed them, inches from their bumpers, fantasizing about sending them flying off the road. An aunt upset him and he slashed her tires. Coworkers bossed him around and he imagined going back home for his brass knuckles, then seeing what they’d say when he returned.

He resigned as pastor. He couldn’t lead the church while consumed with so much anger. He needed space. He needed a breath. Rather than replacing him, the church continued without a pastor. A rotating group led songs of worship. Cody’s grandfather Greg often preached. But no one else ever took over Cody’s spot. Church members told him they believed God wanted them to wait until the day he returned.

He still went to church. Sometimes, at least. He sat in the back and said little, and he never dreamed of handling snakes. Snakebites were mysteries in his and other worshipers’ minds. But they all believed one thing to be true: If your heart was in the wrong place, or if your mind was fixated on sin, you should stay far away from the snake boxes and the strychnine jar. Serpents loved nothing more than sinking their teeth into the flesh of sinners. Only the righteous belonged at the front of the church.

So Cody abstained. Instead he sat and stewed, and sometimes he carried his guns with him into the church house, just in case someone pissed him off, just in case he needed to up and shoot somebody right then and there.

Finally, he stopped going altogether. He didn’t belong in church. Not even on the back pew. He started drinking. Instead of using shorthand like “eff” and “BS,” he started saying “fuck” and “bullshit.” He gave himself fully to his anger, not worrying what God would think. In the car, he turned on the radio and tuned into the local rock station. He listened to songs about drugs and sex and he sang along. He went to an AC/DC concert. Never had Cody felt so rebellious. Once, he saw a man wearing a cross necklace. He reached for the man’s neck, grabbed his cross, and flipped it upside down.

One night, he sat awake in his recliner, listening to AC/DC songs on YouTube. He played his two favorites: “Hells Bells” and “Highway to Hell.” He started wondering to himself: Was hell even real? If it was, he knew he was going there — the drinking and cussing and rock listening made him sure of that — but what if it wasn’t? Maybe, he thought, he’d been raised in a lie. Maybe, he thought, God didn’t even exist.

The possibility of losing belief terrified him the moment it entered his mind. Up until now, he’d been sinning consciously. He believed in God; he just chose not to follow his religion’s teachings. Now, though, Cody was entertaining something altogether different. As long as he had his belief, he could turn back toward a holy path at any moment. Once he lost that belief, Cody had no idea where he might end up.

He decided then and there that he had to go back to church. He started in the back pew, then moved up a few rows, then finally returned to the front, where he played and sang in the worship band. Here and there, he even handled snakes, though not as often. His anger remained, and he knew better than to handle while his mind was consumed by violence. He prayed that God would heal him, that his rage would dissipate. Desperate, he went to see a psychiatrist. He told her the story of his life, about the loss of his father, about the stresses of pastoring, about his paranoia and rage, about the way it all consumed him after he suffered the head trauma of the snakebite. She told him he had symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder. He began receiving treatment. Soon, his anxiety started lifting. His head started clearing. He’d already sold his guns at his wife’s request, and now he didn’t even miss them. For the first time since he got bitten in the head, Cody felt some sense of peace.

Later that month, he went to church with an announcement. He was ready to come back. Not just as a church member, but as pastor.

The snakes are back in the boxes. The guitars rest neatly against the walls. The churchgoers sit in their pews, quiet and enraptured. For the first time in more than a year, they have a full-time pastor. Up in the pulpit, Cody grips a microphone and he speaks. “I’m gonna tell it like it is,” he says. “I’m gonna preach what the Lord put on my heart, and if you don’t like it you can get up and go.”

Signs-following preachers rarely prepare sermons in advance. To write down their words is to rely on their own wisdom, they believe. Instead, they think and pray and wait for whatever scripture they believe God gives them, and then they speak extemporaneously on that scripture, led by the guidance of the Holy Spirit. Cody opens up his Bible and turns to 1 John 4:7. “Beloved,” he reads, “let us love one another: for love is of God; and every one that loveth is born of God, and knoweth God.”

Cody pauses. He scans the room, sweat beading on his brow. “This is what the Lord spoke to me,” he says. “This is the message he gave me.” He preaches about avoiding gossip, about the evil of talking about brothers and sisters behind their backs. In this church, members drift in and out of services, between lives of sinfulness and holiness, between handling snakes and using drugs. This is why church members welcomed Cody when he decided to come back. Everyone in the church has struggled with their own sins — be they using drugs or alcohol, soliciting prostitutes, dancing in bars, or watching Game of Thrones. Hamblin, a former star of Snake Salvation, went to jail for reckless endangerment after firing a gun in the vicinity of his children and their mother. Now Hamblin is back, playing music and singing and handling snakes.

In the church, though, gossiping about others’ sins can masquerade as sharing concern for their souls. No one knows this better than Cody, the wayward pastor now returned. “You shouldn’t be talking about me behind my back,” he preaches. He glowers around the room, listening to a chorus of amen and glory and come on now. “Don’t talk about me behind my back!” he shouts. “That’s not me saying it! That’s what the Lord spoke!”

He settles in, calmer now, and behind him a young man starts playing guitar as a soundtrack to the rest of the sermon. “I backslid,” Cody says. Backsliding is the term used for anyone who falls into sin and away from God.

Cody continues. “I backslid and I thought I might never come back. I prayed for God’s will, but I wasn’t listening to God.”

He’s listening now, he says. One night he sits in his living room and explains what keeps him in the faith. “This is a dying religion,” he says. “I look around, and I see people ain’t doing it like they used to. People think we’re hillbillies. But this is my religion. I done been raised in it, and it’s the only path I know. It ain’t for everybody. I always say it ain’t for everybody. But if I’m not willing to take a stand for it, to be in it, then I’m leaving behind something that’s a big part of who I am.”

And although he admits he’s gotten angry with God, and although he’s questioned whether God even exists, still, through all of his life, both the faithful times and the backslidden times, in trauma and triumph, Cody has never, once, questioned the theology of handling snakes. “I guess that was just bred into me,” he says. Once, during the time when Cody wasn’t going to church, a coworker asked him if he’d consider becoming a Baptist. “I flew off the handle,” Cody says. “I said, ‘Eff you and eff your God. If I’m not gonna handle snakes, then I might as well go to hell drinking beer and smoking pot and doing whatever else.’”

But why, the coworker said, couldn’t Cody find a middle ground? Why did he have to be handling snakes or abusing drugs? He careened from one extreme to another, just like so many in his congregation, some of whom are either in the church with a rattler in their hands or out on the street with a needle in their arms. Cody works for $9 per hour. When he’s backslidden, he leaves work and wants to get blackout drunk. When he’s faithful, he leaves work and wants to pick up a poisonous snake. Both pull him out of the mundane and into the extreme. He encounters both the sacred and the profane through rituals of escape.

“That’s just who I am,” Cody says. “If I’m gonna be in this religion, I’m gonna be all the way in it. If I’m not in it, I’m not going to any other religion. I can’t be any other way but this way.”

He shrugs. “Maybe it’s crazy,” he says. “But that’s just who I am.”

Snake handlers drive to Middlesboro from all across the Southeast every August, gathering here for a weekend of worship they call “Homecoming.” Many churches have weekends like this, a few days when others in the faith travel from around the region to worship together and catch up with old friends. Pews fill with pilgrims coming from as far away as Alabama. A church that typically welcomes about 15 worshipers now fills to the brim with more than 50. A pulpit that usually allows space for three or four boxes of snakes now makes room for about a dozen. Cody preaches. Others preach, too. Most sing. Some take up snakes, one after another, singing praises as they dance with the creatures that could strike them dead.

On Sunday morning, homecoming winds down. The service is relatively subdued. Worship songs echo through the building. A few snakes find their ways out of boxes and into hands, lifted high. At one point, a young church member, a mountain of a man who just a few weeks ago preached against the theory of evolution — “I ain’t come from no monkey,” he said — reaches for the jar of strychnine. He takes a sip. Then he lifts it again for another. Finally he takes a third sip — a gulp, really — before he returns the poison to the lectern and takes his seat in the pews.

Cody remains in the pews, too, and Helton, the pastor from nearby Harlan County, steps to the pulpit. “I believe in good singing and taking up serpents,” he says, “but there’s a whole lot more that’s important.” He launches into a tirade against the sins of the flesh — against drinking alcohol and smoking pot, against wearing short skirts and looking at women who wear short skirts. “If you ain’t hearing this,” he says, “you go find you a Baptist church.” At this, the churchgoers all laugh, and Helton’s face contorts into a grin. “If you ain’t hearing this, you ain’t good for nothing,” he says.

After the service, the churchgoers drive across town to the Middlesboro Community Center for lunch. Cody walks in alongside the man who took a few gulps of strychnine in the service. He is struggling. He sits down and he grabs a plate and he eats a bite of macaroni and cheese and then his face twitches. He turns to barbecue chicken and his body spasms. Soon he gets up and he leaves, Cody alongside him, and they go back to Cody’s house to rest and pray, and by the time they arrive, a group of about seven men dragging his 300-pound body through the front door, he is going in and out of consciousness, spasming and vomiting and speaking only to say, “I ain’t going to no doctor.”

But he is. The Gospel of Mark may say that believers shall take up serpents and drink poison, but it doesn’t forbid seeking medical help — that was just Jamie Coots’s personal philosophy. Cody doesn’t want any more death in his church. So someone calls 911 and soon the sirens sound in the distance, closer now, until paramedics rush inside to find the man in a pool of his own vomit. They load him onto a stretcher and carry him out of the house, and Cody is left behind, using a wash rag to clean vomit from his carpet. Soon the cops will be here, asking for a statement. They’ll want to know whether anyone forced the man to drink the poison. The answer, of course, will be no. They’ll want to know whether the poison belonged to Cody. That answer, likewise, will be no. Then they’ll want to know where it came from, who brought the strychnine to church and how that person got it.

Cody doesn’t have time for these questions. He has a church to pastor and a family to raise. The man who drank the strychnine is going to be just fine. He’s already alert in the ambulance, and by tomorrow he’ll be out of the hospital. But still, for now, Cody needs to offer prayers and comfort to the man’s family, to calm the rattled members of his church. He can’t get entangled in a legal mess. Not now. Not today. So when the police come, he’ll recite the same words his father taught him, long before he died.

“Pastor’s privilege.”

An earlier version of this piece incorrectly quoted a member of Full Gospel Tabernacle in Jesus Name in a passage describing his sermon commenting on evolution. He said, “I ain’t come from no monkey,” and did not use the word “damn.” Further, this piece originally used that church member’s name without his permission. His name has been removed from the piece.


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