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Death of snake handling preacher shines light on lethal Appalachian tradition
Mack Wolford and his father were both serpent handlers who died of snake bites.
June 1st, 2012
09:19 PM ET

Death of snake handling preacher shines light on lethal Appalachian tradition

By Julia Duin, Special to CNN

(CNN) – Mack Wolford, one of the most famous Pentecostal serpent handlers in Appalachia, was laid to rest Saturday at a low-key service at his West Virginia church a week after succumbing to a snake bite that made headlines across the nation.

Several dozen family, friends and members of Wolford's House of the Lord Jesus church in tiny Matoaka filled the simple hall for the service, which lasted slightly more than an hour. At the request of pastor's widow, Fran Wolford, media were forbidden inside the building.
Wolford's own dad was a serpent handler who died from a snake bite in 1983.

Mack Wolford, who was 44,  was bitten by his yellow timber rattlesnake at an evangelistic event in a state park about 80 miles west of Bluefield, in West Virginia’s isolated southern tip.

He enjoyed handling snakes during worship services, but it’s a tradition that has killed about 100 practitioners since it started in the east Tennessee hills in 1909.

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In recent years, Wolford feared the tradition was in danger of dying for lack of interest among people in their 20s and 30s. It’s why he drove to small, out-of-the-way churches around Appalachia to encourage those who handle snakes to keep the tradition alive.

“I promised the Lord I’d do everything in my power to keep the faith going,” Wolford said last fall in an interview I conducted with him for the Washington Post Sunday magazine. “I spend a lot of time going a lot of places that handle serpents to keep them motivated. I’m trying to get anybody I can get.”

He hadn’t much hope for churches in West Virginia, where serpent handling is legal. Some surrounding states, including Tennessee and North Carolina, have outlawed it. He had his eyes on a Baptist church near Marion, North Carolina, where, he said, “there’s been crowds coming” and its leaders wanted to introduce serpent handling, the law be damned.

“I’m getting the faith started in other states, where I am seeing a positive turnout,” he said. “Remember, back in the Bible, it was the miracles that drew people to Christ.”

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Wolford wanted to travel to the radical edges of Christianity, where life and death gazed at him every time he walked into a church and picked up a snake. That’s what drew the crowds and the media; that’s what gives a preacher from the middle of nowhere the platform to offer the gospel to people who would never otherwise listen.

“Mack was one of the hopes for a revival of the tradition,” said Ralph Hood, a University of Tennessee professor who’s written two books on snake handlers and is probably the foremost academic expert on their culture. “However, I am sure others will emerge, as well.”

Indeed, others are emerging, including a growing group of 20-somethings clustered around churches in La Follette, Tennessee, and Middlesboro, Kentucky. Their individual Facebook pages show photos of poisonous snakes and “serpent handling” appears on their “activities and interests” lists.

Pentecostal serpent handlers - they use "serpent" over "snake" out of deference to the Bible - are known for collecting dozens of snakes expressly for church services.

At church, they’re also known to ingest a mixture of strychnine - a highly toxic powder often used as a pesticide - and water, often from a Mason jar. These same believers will bring Coke bottles with oil-soaked wicks to the church so they can hold flames to their skin.

Key to understanding this culture are a pair of verses from the Gospel of Mark in the New Testament: “And these signs will follow those who believe: in My name they will cast out demons; they will speak with new tongues; they will take up serpents; and if they drink anything deadly, it will by no means hurt them; they will lay their hands on the sick, and they will recover.”

Mainstream Christians - Pentecostals included - do not believe Mark 16:17-18 means that Christians should seek out poisonous snakes or ingest poisonous substances.

But experts say that several thousand people – exact numbers are hard to come by – in six Appalachian states read the verse differently. Known as “signs following” Pentecostals, they see a world at war with evil powers and believe it’s a Christian’s duty to take on the devil by engaging in the “signs.”

Thus, a typical service in one of their churches will also include prayers for healing and speaking in tongues.

But it’s the seeming ability to handle poisonous snakes without dying from their bites that makes these Pentecostals believe that God gives supernatural abilities to those willing to lay their lives on the line. If they are bitten, they refuse to seek antivenin medication, believing it’s up to God to heal them.

At the Church of the Lord Jesus in Jolo, West Virginia - one of the country’s most famous “signs following” churches - a group of worship leaders passed around a rattlesnake at a service last year on Labor Day weekend. The snake twisted as it was passed from man to man.

The women clapped, and one tried handling the serpent but quickly gave it back to a man. The pastor, Harvey Payne - who has never been bitten by a serpent - posed for the cameras, the reptile twisting and curling.

“My life is on the line,” he exulted. “All Holy Ghost power!”

If a believer is bitten by a snake and dies, these Pentecostals reason, it is simply their time to go.

“It devastated me,” one Tennessee serpent handler confided to me about Wolford’s death last week. “It just shook my very foundation. But (handling snakes) is still the Word of God.”

Vicie Haywood, Wolford’s mother - whose husband died 29 years ago from a rattlesnake bite during a worship service - is heartbroken. But she has no doubts about the righteousness of serpent handling. “It’s still the Word, and I want to go on doing what the Word says,” she told the Washington Post on Wednesday.

Last fall I asked Wolford if handling serpents wasn’t tempting God, a common question from mainstream Christians.

“Tempting God is disbelief in God, not belief in Him,” he said, citing an incident in the Old Testament in which Moses slapped his staff against a rock to provide water in the desert rather than speak to the rock as God had commanded.

By using his own resources – a stick – rather than counting on God to act when Moses simply spoke to the rock, the patriarch was condemned for lack of belief and forbidden to enter the Promised Land.

He added that he regularly drinks strychnine during worship services, to show God has power over poison.

“In my life I’ve probably drunk two gallons of it,” Wolford said. “Once you drink it, there is no turning back. All your muscles contract at once. Your body starts stiffening out. Your lungs; it’s like you can’t breathe.”

He’d gotten sick from strychnine a handful of times. “I was up all night struggling to breathe and move my muscles and repeating Bible verses that say you can ‘drink any deadly thing and it won’t hurt you,’ ” Wolford told me, recounting one episode. He said a voice in his head taunted him as he struggled to recover.

“The devil said, ‘You’re going to die, you’re going to die,’ ” he said. “You can’t go to the hospital. There is not a lot they can do. But (seeking medical help) means you’re already starting to lose faith.”

After he was bitten last Sunday, Wolford may have thought his faith would bring him through that trauma, as it had so many times before. He had four spots on his right hand from where copperheads had bitten him.

When he finally gave his family permission to call paramedics, about eight hours after being bitten, he must have known his battle was near over. By the time he arrived at the local hospital in Bluefield, he was dead.

- CNN Belief Blog

Filed under: Christianity • Death

soundoff (7,439 Responses)
  1. Ningspooppink

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    December 13, 2013 at 12:09 pm |
  2. Lara

    I am a Christian & I will tell you right now that in the bible it says nothing about handling snakes and burning theirselves. All they are doing is fiddling around with satans power. & I just think that snake handing is absolutly outrageous & inhumane. The Lord does not want us to harm ourselves and really does not want us to play satans works.

    December 4, 2013 at 11:43 pm |
    • avidtrober

      Snake handlers are typically using Mark 16:18 as justification to do this.
      They fail to recognize other scriptures, like Luke 7:35.

      There's little-to-no doubt Christ used hyperbole, e.g. John 6:54, Mark 9:34, and more.

      There's little reason to believe Christ meant to pick up reptile snakes with one's hands; you'd have to ignore many other scriptures to do that.

      Biblically, a serpent is Satan or an agent of Satan himself, e.g. Matt 12:34. Christ is saying they won't have dominion over someone in relationship with Him, doing His will with their lives.

      The hyperbole continues with drinking poison. It's foolish to put one's self in harm's way to prove God will bail you out to prove His dominion, e.g. Matt 4:6. The poison hyperbole is having to deal with the world's ilk, it won't hurt you to have to get your hands dirty dealing with it, again, if you're doing God's will in the process. The -context- being to bring the Gospel to the world, one will naturally have to deal with the world doing so.

      December 7, 2013 at 2:07 pm |
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    November 28, 2013 at 2:18 am |
  4. submitter

    Before the Jew – Roman war roughly in 66AD, we knew that Nasoreans Jew sect opposed the new doctrine invented by Paul that Jewish rites should be abolished and it is only enough to just have faith in heart and be saved.

    Certainly these Nasoreans do not use Greek gospels that supported Paul. Now the question is, where is the texts used by Nasorean? Or famously termed as Logia of Jesus / Q doc (in Aramaic/Hebrew). Why was it lost after the Jew-Roman war 66AD? What was the purpose of Pauline influenced Romans Fathers destroying it?

    October 7, 2013 at 11:05 pm |
  5. CrimeDawg

    It is often repeated that snake-handling started in the east Tennessee hills in 1909.

    However, a Kansas group called "The True Followers of Christ" settled in Langdon, near Hutchinson, and made interesting copy for the Topeka Capital in June of 1909. For their "prophet" and spokesperson John Meyers took a large rattlesnake to a gathering, passed it among sixteen people, and then set it down to roam freely. Three people were bit at that time, and one disappeared.

    And the founder of Appalachian snake-handling, George Went Hensley, introduced snake handling practices to the Tennessee in 1910.

    So Governor Brownback, Pastor Phelps, and their like in today’s Kansas need yield to no one. The wacky religious venom Kansas is known for today started there.

    June 29, 2013 at 9:13 pm |
  6. Susan Keller

    I have a neighbor who found himself at one of these churches a number of years ago. He wanted to date this girl but the girl's father was a bit uneasy about this (and, in defense of the father, I don't really blame him for this, my neighbor was a bit scrappy back then). The father of the girl said "sure you can date my daughter...if you go to church with her." My neighbor didn't see the problem with this. He winds up in church with them and things start getting a little animated. He thinks to himself "I can handle this, I'm a Baptist". Then people start jumping around and dancing and the like and he thinks to himself "I can handle this, I'm a Baptist". Then they start speaking in tongues. The girl he wanted to date gets involved too but my neighbor still thinks to himself "I can handle this, I'm a Baptist". Then the snakes came out. My neighbor told me "That's when I said to myself, okay, time to go." He left as quick as he could. Girl or no girl he wasn't staying for the snakes. He was willing to put up with a certain amount of craziness but the snakes he said, were his limit.

    BTW this is a true story. It actually happened.

    May 31, 2013 at 10:23 am |
  7. Morri

    Life imitates art in "Appalachia," from Doug Long's recently published ebook of 55-word short stories, The Fool Who Invented Kissing (http://fictivepress.com/the-fool-who-invented-kissing.htm):

    APPALACHIA

    For decades, the Appalachian preacher had taken up serpents (Mark 16:17-18). So, the Devil sent a rattler that hadn't read the Bible.
    With the preacher comatose, the faithful called upon God; the faithless called 911.
    Doctors amputated an arm, and saved his life.
    Recovered, he tells his flock, "See what God can do!"

    (Copyright 2012 by 2815699 Canada Inc.)

    July 18, 2012 at 10:48 am |
    • Luis

      yes God can do wonders , however this verses are to be interpreted in the context of that if you encounter a serpent just as San Paul did nothing will happen , but not to be use as to temptation to the Lord , so they follow half of the verse and not the other half , because it also says that can drink any deadly drink too , see there is not need to be a super holly to know that if you dare to chalenge God and drink Poison you will surely die and won't be by chance like snakes .

      July 18, 2012 at 10:27 pm |
    • jeff

      I always thought Moses couldnt enter because he put himself on par with God
      he struck the rock instead of speaking to it, but that is not why I think Moses was forbidden to enter into the promise land
      he said " here ye rebels must we fetch you water " The Lord said because " you failed to sanctify me in the eyes of this congregation."

      January 8, 2013 at 8:34 pm |
  8. d.s.

    CNN only did this story as an attack on religions deemed strange by some in an effort to stir the whole Romney Mormon church deal.............to scare people.
    This country was founded by settlers from England that fled there so they could worship freely.
    I wish people could see how CNN is constantly running stories that ARE DIVISIVE and try to steer people from Republicans and Romney.

    July 17, 2012 at 9:04 pm |
  9. Darryl

    God does not want us to tempt him with such acts. He was tempting God everytime he preached with a snake in his hands. That is not wise.

    Preaching the gospel is one thing I support, I'm all for that but preaching and playing with snakes while preaching, you can have dat, because I think that's crazy. Lean not to thy own understanding.

    July 10, 2012 at 10:04 pm |
    • Michelle

      I agree I would never handle a Snake I don't like Snakes at all yes we are not to lean into our own Understanding, Life is to short to be bitten by a Snake and not go and seek Help right afterwards. I think Churches that Do Snake Handling are Crazying Luke 10:19 say we have all authority to trample on Snakes and SCorpians but not to be bitten by them Shalom

      July 14, 2012 at 4:48 pm |
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  11. Rynomite

    Funny stuff.

    July 6, 2012 at 10:11 am |
    • higgs boson

      the human gene pool is the big gainer on that bit of lunacy

      July 6, 2012 at 9:56 pm |
  12. Henry James

    Did the snake live?

    June 17, 2012 at 12:40 pm |
    • Jesus

      Probably so. The snake had more in the brain department that these moron preachers.

      June 21, 2012 at 4:40 pm |
  13. Milton

    I guess this kind of thing, could only happen in a 3rd Word country! The man's an idiot, and should be up for a Darwin Award.

    June 17, 2012 at 12:21 pm |
    • tomMan

      I think you are too stupid not to know people in 3rd world might be smarter in handling wild animals... retard

      July 18, 2012 at 2:00 am |
  14. cmaglaughlin

    "Handling serpents" is an Aramaic idiom and common in other Eastern languages which, when RIGHTLY interpreted means, "overcoming one's enemies." "Drinking poison" means "attacks against one's character." King James translators knew NO Aramaic language or culture. Jesus spoke Aramaic. They simply mistranslated. Scriptures admonish against tempting God. Taking idioms literally CAN be deadly. So IS unbelief, the ONLY sin that will keep you out of God's Heaven.

    June 13, 2012 at 12:25 pm |
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  16. Renae Scott

    The priest lacked common sense and not faith. There is a company in Australia that does what the priest does. It's called Melbourne reptile shows and parties and they cheat somewhat by using surgically devenomized snakes so that when the reptile bites, nothing happens. I posted the link here so that you can view the front page and see the images of kids holding the world's deadliest snakes in the shopping malls image to get an idea of what I mean. They've done over 10,000 trouble free shows, with a few bites thrown in, but due to the snakes lacking venom, no incidents as such.

    June 11, 2012 at 7:40 pm |
  17. Kindness

    Kindness
    For you.
    A thought to consider without an ego response

    Accept Jesus christ as your lord and saviour. You never know how soon is too late. Transcend the worldly illusion of enslavement.
    The world denounces truth....

    Accepting Jesus Christ (for me) resulted in something like seeng a new colour. You will see it .....but will not be able to clearly explain it to anyone else..... Its meant to be that way to transend any selfism within you.

    Also... much the world arranges "surrounding dark matter into something to be debated" in such a way that protects/inflates the ego.

    The key is be present and transcend our own desire to physically see evidence. We don't know anyways by defending our own perception of dark matter.

    Currently.... most of us are constructing our own path that suits our sin lifestyle. Were all sinners. Knowing that we are is often an issue. But both christians and non are sinners.

    We don't like to Let go and let god. We want control to some degree. This is what Jesus asks us to do. "Follow me".
    It's the hardest thing to do... but is done by letting the truth of scripture lead you (redemptive revelation)... as I said .

    Try reading corinthians and see if it makes sense to you. Try it without a pre conceived notion of it being a fairy tale.
    See the truth...
    do we do what it says in todays society... is it relevant... so many have not recently read and only hinge their philosophy on what they have heard from som other person...which may have been full of arogance pride or vanity..

    Look closely at the economy ponzi, look at how society idolizes Lust , greed , envy, sloth, pride of life, desire for knowledge, desire for power, desire for revencge,gluttony with food etc .

    Trancsend the temporal world.

    Just think if you can find any truth you can take with you ....in any of these things. When you die your riches go to someone who will spend away your life..... You will be forgotten.... history will repeat iteslf.... the greatest minds knowledge fade or are eventually plagerzed..... your good deeds will be forgotten and only give you a fleeting temporary reward . your learned teachings are forgotten or mutated..... your gold is transfered back to the rullers that rule you through deception. Your grave will grow over . This is truth .

    Trancsend your egoism and free yourself from this dominion of satan. Understand you are a sinner and part of the collective problem of this worldly matrix... Repent.... Repent means knowing (to change) The Holy spirit (within) will convict you beyond what you think you can do by yourself. Grace is given to those who renounce the world. That are" in" the world but not "of " the world.

    Evidence follows faith. Faith does not follow evidence..... Faith above reason in Jesus Christ.

    Faith comes by Reading or Hearing the word of god from the bible . Ask Jesus in faith for dicernment and start reading the new testament... You will be shocked when you lay down your preconceived notions and ....see and hear truth ... see how christ sets an example ... feel the truth....

    Read Ecclesiastes. Read corinthians.

    You cant trancend your own egoism by adapting a world philosophy to suit your needs. Seek the truth in Christ.

    Sell all your cleverness and purchase true bewilderment. You don't get what you want ....you get what you are in christ.

    I promise this has been the truth for me. In Jesus christ .

    Think of what you really have to lose. ...your ego?

    Break the Matrix of illusion that holds your senses captive.

    once you do . you too will have the wisdom of God that comes only through the Holy Spirit. Saved By grace through Faith. Just like seeing a new colour.... can't explain it to a transient caught in the matrix of worldly deception.
    You will also see how the world suppresses this information and distorts it

    You're all smart people . I tell the truth. Its hard to think out of the box when earthly thinking is the box.
    I'ts a personal free experience you can do it free anytime . Don't wait till you are about to die.. START PUTTING YOUR TREASURES WHERE THEY REALLY MATTER >
    Its awsome and It's just between you and Jesus

    my testimony

    Romans 10:9

    "If you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead, you will be saved."

    June 11, 2012 at 7:26 pm |
    • Pelegrim

      You do realize you're a nutter, don't you?

      June 22, 2012 at 3:12 pm |
    • An Atheist

      lol soon enough youll be playin with snakes, and when you die ill laugh like i did when i read this article.

      June 22, 2012 at 3:17 pm |
  18. Anacreon

    Like Mother Gump said: stupid is as stupid does!

    June 11, 2012 at 1:14 pm |
    • Tom

      I love it! Mother Gump said it all.

      June 11, 2012 at 11:48 pm |
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke and Eric Marrapodi with daily contributions from CNN's worldwide newsgathering team.