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. JacoB

    2012 people, it truly is time to stop all the voodoo. Forget your heavenly fathers, they are in your head. Humans are morons at this point in our timeline, what makes anyone on the planet think they have anything right? Let alone all this prayer mumbo from a few centuries ago. Check back again in the year 3963 once more dimensions have been found (gods home anyone?) and the velocity of the expansion has shown its true curve.

    June 2, 2012 at 3:36 pm |
    • George

      Whatever you're drinking, can I have some??

      June 2, 2012 at 3:38 pm |
    • Robairdo

      Most likely what our ancients thought were God(s) were actually Aliens screwing around with our DNA.

      June 2, 2012 at 3:41 pm |
  2. Bob

    This is why everyone involved with religion is stupid.

    June 2, 2012 at 3:36 pm |
    • Lil

      So sad Bob – that this is all you know about Christians.....The Christian Church at large is looking after the orphans on this planet and feeding the poor. It is sad you have these southern folk in the US that do these weird things....but this does not represent the millions of christians in this world

      June 2, 2012 at 3:47 pm |
  3. Rachel

    What a bunch of idiots!!! This is NOT the way.

    Gawd, how pathetic.

    June 2, 2012 at 3:36 pm |
  4. albert

    It's a shame when these scam artists make a mockery of God and the Bible. The biggest shame is the blind that will continue to practice these false teachings.

    June 2, 2012 at 3:36 pm |
    • ax

      It is a great shame.....it is also a shame how many on this wall are celebrating and wishing death on others....very sad

      June 2, 2012 at 3:39 pm |
    • The Bottom Line

      Jesus was a scam artist. So was Mohammed and Joseph Smith and all the other religion makers. It's always been a lucrative gig. Jesus did not have to work – free food and clothes and housing as he freeloaded.

      June 2, 2012 at 3:40 pm |
    • albert

      The Bottom Line, you get the troll of the day award. Obviously you are a loser who was molested as a child, no friends. So now you are angry at the world. OK we get it. Please go away now.

      June 2, 2012 at 3:54 pm |
  5. Charles Gannon

    Let them eat poop and howl at the moon – it is none of yours or my business what other people do.

    June 2, 2012 at 3:36 pm |
  6. Brian

    Raise your hand if you think religious freaks have even the slightest sliver of an ounce to do with God.....on the contrary, they make the biggest mockery of God ever known.

    How brainwashed.

    June 2, 2012 at 3:35 pm |
    • albert

      I am going to have to sit on both hands for that one. What these people are doing is pathetic.

      June 2, 2012 at 3:37 pm |
  7. mdc

    The thinning of the herd. True story.

    June 2, 2012 at 3:35 pm |
    • Mike

      aka The Choice of Natural Selection 🙂

      June 2, 2012 at 3:37 pm |
  8. Animenut

    No boubt God called him home. I'd rather go a different way.

    June 2, 2012 at 3:35 pm |
    • albert

      I do realize that you are being sarcastic, however i want to point out that God does not "Call people home" This is another false teaching from these make pretend Christians.

      June 2, 2012 at 3:39 pm |
  9. Brad

    and the darwin award goes to...

    June 2, 2012 at 3:35 pm |
    • Mama


      June 2, 2012 at 3:46 pm |
  10. al

    How stupid could you be?

    June 2, 2012 at 3:35 pm |
  11. Ron

    Why does the tradition continue?

    Ignorance and gullibility. That's standard for ALL faiths.

    Much like the CNN piece about 46% of Americans being Creationists, it is the same thing, choosing belief over reason and facts. The snake man decided he would rather pray than seek medical attention, not a lot you can do about that. The only real problem is that these people breed and continue to dumb-down our society.

    June 2, 2012 at 3:35 pm |
    • albert

      More people die from medical treatments than from snake bites. Just saying.

      June 2, 2012 at 3:41 pm |
    • The Bottom Line

      Based on that fine thinking, albert, you should definitely stop taking medical treatments.

      Try to remember your brilliant insight as you a rushing to the emergency room. Then have the courage to say "No! Medical science is bad! I think I'll just pray instead, because prayer works!"

      June 2, 2012 at 3:43 pm |
    • albert

      The same plague that harms religion, harms what you refer to as "reason" greed. Many medical treatments are pushed through for the sake of the almighty dollar. People ""Reason" that since it is from science that it must be safe and factual. Blind sheep are everywhere my friend not just in religion. Science has it's fair share of false prophets, messiahs, and blind followers. Only a fool would think otherwise.

      June 2, 2012 at 3:45 pm |
    • albert

      The Bottom Line, stop putting words in my mouth. i never said that I refuse medical treatment. My point is that people blindly believe that science is infallible. Tell that to my friend who went in for a simple blood transfusion and contracted AIDS. Many people have died as a result of the science God.

      June 2, 2012 at 3:49 pm |
  12. Godfrey

    Religion makes people do stupid things. This is news?

    June 2, 2012 at 3:34 pm |
    • Lil

      No this is clearly CNN news – gay agenda up – gotta bring christians down

      June 2, 2012 at 3:44 pm |
  13. BlackDynamiteNYC

    Why do stupid people do stupid things?

    Stupid is as stupid does, I guess......

    June 2, 2012 at 3:34 pm |
  14. Mary B.

    I'm sorry but I laughed right out loud. Literally. I'd feel bad but I just don't. What an idiot.

    June 2, 2012 at 3:34 pm |
    • ax

      As stupid as this was....what if it was one of your relatives...? We can gasp in disbelief and still be respectful

      June 2, 2012 at 3:43 pm |
  15. DJL

    "So why does the tradition continue?"

    Because humans (generally speaking) are stupid.

    June 2, 2012 at 3:33 pm |
  16. Trilobites

    I feel sorry for the snakes.

    June 2, 2012 at 3:33 pm |
  17. palintwit

    What a freaking idiot teabagger trailer trash !! He should have stuck to boinking his sister every Friday night. He'd still be alive.

    June 2, 2012 at 3:32 pm |
    • TheMovieFan

      Before your comment is deleted, I wanted to let you know you are correct.

      June 2, 2012 at 3:36 pm |
    • Dan Green

      What does the Tea Party have to do with any of this (it's called "Tea Party")? I think the Tea Party is right about a lot of things, and I'm an atheist. I wouldn't mix the idiocy of religion with the fiscal responsibility advocated (or "preached" it you'd like) by the Tea Party.

      June 2, 2012 at 3:40 pm |
  18. Richard "BONEHEAD" Cheney

    The tradition continues because they are Republicans!

    June 2, 2012 at 3:32 pm |
    • Mark S

      Wow... you really said that. No one in their right mind would knowingly handle venomous snakes, Repubs or Dems. Write something a little more thoughtful than that. I'll bet you would be happy in a communist controlled state... I'll bet you love Hugo Chavez. Open your mind and stop listening to the talking heads and think for yourself.

      June 2, 2012 at 3:38 pm |
    • ax

      So much hate and lies.......Obama is a christian, so are the Clintons....should I continue?

      June 2, 2012 at 3:42 pm |
    • Dan Green

      I wouldn't exactly put all Republicans into this group. I could find just as many cuckoo people on the left. I'm an atheist Republican, and not the only one, either.

      June 2, 2012 at 3:44 pm |
  19. Rags

    It appears to be very true that stupidity runs strongly along family lines. You know the old saying: "You can't fix stupid, not even with duct tape".

    June 2, 2012 at 3:32 pm |
  20. glenn

    Too bad he lived to reproducing age..would have been nice to get him out of the gene pool earlier....

    June 2, 2012 at 3:31 pm |
    • DJL


      June 2, 2012 at 3:34 pm |
    • asdf

      like x 1000000

      June 2, 2012 at 3:38 pm |
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About this blog

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.