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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. Woody

    "Almost heaven, West Virginia.........."

    June 2, 2012 at 2:40 am |
  2. chosen2

    Today's Christianity = Babylon (confusion)
    The Bible is a spiritual book God reveals His truth to His chosen people. Spiritual prosperity is to trust in Christ for the salvation of the soul; and every thing is God's will; in the last days people will believe lies.
    Get some free water @ http://www.chosen2salvation.net

    June 2, 2012 at 2:33 am |
    • JWT

      makes me even happier not to be one of the chosen.

      June 2, 2012 at 2:41 pm |
    • Jeff Williams

      Here's one excellent real life application of the theory of evolution. Eventually these Pentecostals will self-ignorant themselves right off the tree.

      June 2, 2012 at 3:53 pm |
    • Terri

      chosen2...I am a christian. But, with the logic you posted....we have been in the "last days" for many years then. Because the people are still determined to listen and believe the lies from every politician in the country. How many years is the "last days" going to go on? I'm not joking or picking on you. I want to understand your statement.

      June 3, 2012 at 12:35 pm |
  3. tallulah13

    He chose his own path. People do dangerous and stupid things all the time. It is not at all surprising that this man's foolish habit of playing with poisonous snakes literally bit him back.

    June 2, 2012 at 1:35 am |
  4. yahmez

    Evangelical preacher wins a Darwin Award. He should have stuck with badgers and mushrooms.

    June 2, 2012 at 12:47 am |
    • Dabb

      Lol........

      June 2, 2012 at 6:50 pm |
  5. PrimeNumber

    As some people would have it, the Bible made these "Christian nutjobs" handle snakes. These same people say this in full view of a secular culture rife with drug addiction, school violence and bullying. THe Virginia Techs and Columbines in this society weren't caused by interpretation of the Bible. The best we can do, in our helplessness, is make fun of a few fundamentalist fanatics that the media points out.

    June 2, 2012 at 12:46 am |
    • LesT

      A "a few fundamentalist fanatics" by my standards there are tens of millions of those in our country.

      June 2, 2012 at 9:11 pm |
  6. Tria MacLeod

    All religious motivation aside, I would think there is an underlying pathology to snake handling. Perhaps an adrenalin addiction or an ego issue. The Bible says a lot of ridiculous things, please don't start with the whole 'you're just Christian bashing' thing, if you have ever actually read the Bible it flat out says some horrible and ridiculous things and MOST Christians know to overlook them. But why latch on to something as dangerous as handling venomous snakes? Do they follow all the strange mandates of the bible such as the codes of Leviticus or do they only accept the New Testament? I am honestly curious as to what motivates them.

    June 2, 2012 at 12:12 am |
    • Keith

      You have made a common mistake, you assume that logic has something to do with Religion.

      June 2, 2012 at 4:12 pm |
    • Crazyhorse

      Keith, reason and faith go hand in hand. It is akin to holding up a lamp in the darkness. So, I disagree with your logic.

      June 2, 2012 at 4:19 pm |
    • DAT67

      And you're not called Crazyhorse for nothing.

      June 2, 2012 at 9:25 pm |
  7. Thou Shall Not

    tempt the Lord thy God!

    June 2, 2012 at 12:00 am |
    • Orwell prefers Guyana punch

      He was not tempting, he was evangelizing. I guess this proves him and his blood father were not with Jesus when they got bit.

      Time now for their church to double up, on serpents. To do else wise would demonstrate a lack of faith in the bible and God.

      June 2, 2012 at 6:08 pm |
    • Dabb

      Lol.........Damn!

      June 2, 2012 at 6:51 pm |
  8. G. Zeus Kreiszchte

    Numbers 31:17-18
    17 Now kill all the boys. And kill every woman who has slept with a man, 18 but save for yourselves every girl who has never slept with a man.

    The bible also mandates that you kill your enemies *real good*, but make sure to keep the virgin girls to have fun with later. Does that mean there should be a branch of the Judeo-Christian faith that practices this mandate? After all it is, in context, a direct commandment from Yahweh. How ridiculous?! The bible says a lot of ridiculous crap you're not supposed to take literally/seriously!

    June 1, 2012 at 11:49 pm |
    • Mennoknight

      G. Zeus Kreiszchte,
      What you ask is a very valid question.
      I am a Christian who is a Mennonite and I read the the whole bible through the lens of the New Testament, in particular what Jesus taught.
      Jesus said he came to fulfill the law. By preaching sermons such as the Sermon on the Mount He was giving us the New Law to live by.
      That new law said love your enemy, pray for those who persecute you and deal with the sin that is in your own life before you even think about trying to help others with their sin.
      I hope that this helps.
      Blessings and Peace

      June 2, 2012 at 12:29 am |
    • Justin

      How can you so blindly trust the words of men? If you don't take one part seriously, how do you not laugh at it all? It's all absurd, a sort of mind control set in place by people who desired power. Even if there was any truth to be had in the ORIGINAL bible which no living man has ever read, guaran-f'in-teed, it has been altered BY MAN into an unrecognizable carcass of leather and paper. There's more truth in Homer's Odyssey.

      June 2, 2012 at 4:05 pm |
    • mdmann

      "That new law said love your enemy, pray for those who persecute you and deal with the sin that is in your own life before you even think about trying to help others with their sin."

      Mennoknight, how do you think Christians are doing with this new law? I'm particularly interested in how they are following that last bit..."deal with the sin that is in your own life before you even THINK about trying to help others with their sin." Seems to me that much of Christendom is and has been an UTTER FAILURE in this regard, for many centuries.

      If this is true, then why should this religion be so important in this country? Why is it not relegated to a much less important place in the affairs of the country than it is? Why does it feel like there are unrelenting forces trying to set up a Christian theocracy in this country when they can't even seem to follow Christ's teachings? Why should these people not be swatted down like flies?

      June 4, 2012 at 4:44 am |
    • All sin

      Past present and future is dealt with at the cross of Jesus Christ. There is no cleaning up ones act to be acceptable to God, all sin and fall short of the glory of God. The passage you reference speaks to an honest and sincere help being offered by the believer as opposed to the hypocrisy that was (and is ) prevalent.

      June 4, 2012 at 4:51 am |
  9. Jimmy The Foul Tempered Mutant Sea Bass

    We need a lot more snakes!

    June 1, 2012 at 11:49 pm |
    • Keith

      That is what I am thinking

      June 2, 2012 at 4:14 pm |
  10. Wrath of Lucifer

    At least his family will be left with a Darwin award.

    June 1, 2012 at 11:43 pm |
    • Mike

      Sadly no, as he reproduced.

      June 2, 2012 at 3:23 pm |
    • Dabb

      Lol.........What the Faheezy!

      June 2, 2012 at 6:53 pm |
  11. Hahahaha

    lol just lol
    good riddance, Christian moron (tho i guess "Christian moron" is a redundant phrase, lol)

    June 1, 2012 at 11:19 pm |
    • Sam Yaza

      "Christian moron" is an oxymoron you moron,.. the word Christian comes from the anglicized word cretin,.. which means fool or moron

      June 1, 2012 at 11:37 pm |
    • Dabb

      Lol.....Sam Yaza, OMG! Lol.......

      June 2, 2012 at 6:55 pm |
  12. Mennoknight

    This is all based on Mark 16:18.

    If anybody has a modern bible translation it will say this at verse 9:
    [The earliest manuscripts and some other ancient witnesses do not have verses 9–20.]

    This was because the beginning and the end of the book of Mark has been lost as what happens to many ancient scrolls.
    Bad idea to base your life on a part of the Bible that isn't really part of the Bible.

    June 1, 2012 at 10:54 pm |
    • Sam Yaza

      so one the bible is not the word of God
      or two God laid

      take your pick figs

      June 1, 2012 at 11:08 pm |
    • Sam Yaza

      this is the passage for you biblically illiterate

      They will be able to handle snakes with safety, and if they drink anything poisonous, it won't hurt them. They will be able to place their hands on the sick, and they will be healed. Mark 16;18

      June 1, 2012 at 11:09 pm |
    • Orwell prefers Guyana punch

      Hats off to the Christians who think the bible is the perfect word of god, to claim that their version is correct, and other Christians have bad copies. Having god put out a corrected version, the original one, would be helpful.

      June 2, 2012 at 6:16 pm |
    • Zarooo

      You have to read the Bible in context....was this verse written for a certain time/place? The Bible's message is a message of love and redemption! God created man in his own image, man disobeyed God and committed sin, evil took hold of the world, God in His infinite love wanted to save his creation and sent Jesus (God in the flesh) to take our sins away on the cross....if you believe in Jesus, you will be saved, it is the work of Grace!

      June 2, 2012 at 7:06 pm |
    • mdmann

      "You have to read the Bible in context....was this verse written for a certain time/place?"

      So then are you claiming that these Pentecostals are not being very intelligent when then take a verse of scripture, meant for some other group at some other time in the history of mankind, and they apply it to themselves today? Because that is exactly what many other people here are saying. They are extending that argument to include pretty much everything stated in the Bible, because if parts of it are not specifically meant to be taken literally, because it was intended for a different reader at a different time, then why is it not possible that ALL of it should be viewed the same way?

      June 4, 2012 at 4:51 am |
  13. Fred

    If snake-handling was the only dangerous thing that people did, it would be different.
    What about mountain climbing? There have been a bunch of people who died recently while mountain climbing.
    Instead of ridiculing them, people choose to ridicule church people. I think they choose to ridicule church people
    in some feeble, sad attempt to feel better about themselves.

    June 1, 2012 at 10:48 pm |
    • tallulah13

      You have a point, fred. The climbers who died and the snake handlers who die all suffer from the delusion that they are more powerful than nature.

      June 2, 2012 at 1:31 am |
    • Keith

      No we ridicule Church People because they are so stupid

      June 2, 2012 at 4:16 pm |
    • mdmann

      "If snake-handling was the only dangerous thing that people did, it would be different.
      What about mountain climbing? There have been a bunch of people who died recently while mountain climbing.
      Instead of ridiculing them, people choose to ridicule church people. I think they choose to ridicule church people
      in some feeble, sad attempt to feel better about themselves."

      First of all, you are incorrect that the mountainclimbers who died were not ridiculed. You obviously didn't read the CNN blogs on the day that article was printed.

      Second, these mountainclimbers did not die trying to push some wacked out, irrational religious belief onto others. They were simply taking on a personal challenge. I still believe what they did was stupid, but what they were doing could not be used to direct governments to deny rights to people, start wars against nations, damage the environrment, etc. Nobody is trying to create a "mountainclimbing theocracy." There most certainly ARE nefarious forces trying to create a Christian theocracy in this country, and their intention is to make EVERYONE submit to their religious views or lose their liberties. The parallel you are trying to make makes no sense because the underlying danger of these religious beliefs taking hold and drawing a wider audience DWARFS by a large margin the danger posed to civilization by some mountainclimbers trying to reach the top of Everest.

      I'm sorry, but your argument makes no sense.

      June 4, 2012 at 5:00 am |
  14. SurRy

    The US really is the laughing stock of the industrialized world.

    June 1, 2012 at 10:45 pm |
    • Duhhuh

      Where you from Sri Lanka you idiot?

      June 2, 2012 at 5:47 pm |
  15. Wunk

    Snake!

    June 1, 2012 at 10:38 pm |
  16. chimichanga

    Don't tempt fate.

    June 1, 2012 at 10:15 pm |
  17. Rick James

    While I don't want to make fun, you had to know this was coming. Heck his own Dad died to the same thing. More proof that common sense> religion.

    June 1, 2012 at 10:01 pm |
    • Fred

      What about the four previous times when he was bitten?
      Non-religious people do dangerous things every day in the name of having a good time.
      Oh, I see. That doesn't feed your anti-religion rant.

      June 1, 2012 at 10:42 pm |
    • silence, troll

      shut the f up and go back to loserville

      June 1, 2012 at 11:16 pm |
    • mdmann

      "Non-religious people do dangerous things every day in the name of having a good time."

      And they are stupid when they do so. Many of them have been winners of Darwin Awards. There is no reason why this guy should be excepted. At least you haven't presented a cogent argument as to why this guy should be excepted.

      I take great issue with you trying to argue some parallel between someone espousing certain very dangerous and off-the-wall religious beliefs, and teaching /spreading those to others, and some fool (for example) strapping a rocket to his back and trying to fly. One of these CLEARLY poses dangerous implications to our society while the other does not. I'll give you a hint if you're having trouble distinguishing between the two: the rocket fool didn't convince, coerce, or force anyone else to strap themselves to his rocket.

      June 4, 2012 at 5:08 am |
  18. Sam Yaza

    hahahaahhahah

    Python 1
    Christian god 120,045 1/23

    .......so the basta.rd is still wining,... don't worry better luck next time. don't worry if we pull all of are points together thats like

    United Pagan Forces 62,450 22/7 Christian god 120,045 1/23

    June 1, 2012 at 9:32 pm |
  19. It wasn't death by stupidity; it was just a snake-induced rapture

    Darwin moment.

    June 1, 2012 at 9:27 pm |
  20. xmatman

    Those who live by the snake...?

    June 1, 2012 at 9:26 pm |
    • Gary R.

      The snake got tired of being molested, so it bit him. Good for the snake. It was God's will!!

      June 3, 2012 at 4:05 am |
      • xmatman

        Is the snake O.K.?

        June 7, 2012 at 12:37 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 with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.