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. Northerndude

    Hahaha. Evolution at its best, survival of the fittest. The dumb die off first.

    June 2, 2012 at 3:46 pm |
    • lkjljk


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

    Typical rednecks that have more so called religion than brains! 

    June 2, 2012 at 3:45 pm |
  3. Alan

    This is a classic example of taking a passage of scripture out of context. If you read Mark 16:16-20, to the end of the chapter, you see that this was a special ability Jesus gave to his Apostles just before the assention, to attract the attention to the teachings of Jesus, and to show the people that Jesus had given them special powers. No where does it say that succeeding generations, or future pastors of churches, were to follow this procedure. No where in the Bible do you find where anyone took up snake handling, were bitten, and died.

    June 2, 2012 at 3:45 pm |
  4. mhez

    Why continue
    People are stupid
    Religious people are stupid and brainwashed fools.
    Extra special religious like this, Mormonism, Jehova witness, Scientology, and the like are either using their 'faith' to get what they personally want and have no real belief or they are both thoroughly brainwashed by the growing up with it and thoroughly stupid for believing in something so ludicrous.

    June 2, 2012 at 3:44 pm |
  5. bad2worse

    "RUN OUT IN FRONT OF THAT SPEEDING TRAIN CHURCH OF JESUS" a new religious sect I am starting. If you want to join, that would be great. Only rule is, you have to go first.

    June 2, 2012 at 3:44 pm |
  6. Robairdo

    current Ancient Alien theorist hold that at least two groups of Aliens came to Earth during the formation of our religions. One group the rather benign Gray Aliens really were trying to help mankind. Another Alien group came here to mine our Gold and other resources and used humans as Slaves. These two Alien Groups were seen as God(s) which explains the many contradictions in the Bible and other religious text.

    This also explains why many cultures belief in multiple gods.

    June 2, 2012 at 3:44 pm |
    • Henry

      That is almost as stupid as...believing snake handling is a good idea.

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

      Why is that Henry? It is far more plausible than the fairy tale bible.

      June 2, 2012 at 3:46 pm |
    • lkjljk

      lay off the pipe

      June 2, 2012 at 3:46 pm |
    • Henry

      Because humans are so unimaginative that they need aliens to show up to invent a power behind a force(s) they don't understand? I am pretty sure they can do that without alien intervention.

      June 2, 2012 at 3:50 pm |
    • Robairdo

      Ancient humans weren't that dumb. They recorded some amazing things and all over the globe including America and India. I do believe they witnessed some very advanced technology from either a God or Aliens. Personally I think Aliens are far more plausible.

      June 2, 2012 at 3:52 pm |
  7. wachterchris

    The reason this stuff happens, occasionally, in the Bible is to express a deeper spiritual reality: that Christians are protected eternally from the greater "bite" of the greater "snake", Satan. It's a shame when people make the lesser bites (or no bites) of lesser snakes more important and more central to their ministry than the gospel.

    June 2, 2012 at 3:43 pm |
  8. reasonablebe

    brilliance. interesting that the verses are quoted. I have not seen the actual words before, but based upon the language quoted, seems to me that the 'tongues' part means you'll learn foreign languages (as in not the one from the area you grew up in), not you'll make up gibberish or speak in some alien (as in not of this workd) language.

    So where does the fall to the floor speaking 'tongues' as in gibberish that no one has ever heard or can understand come from?

    June 2, 2012 at 3:43 pm |
  9. evets2010

    Dear God,
    I'm sorry American Christians are such idiots.

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

      Why stop at just American Christians?

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

    What a shame; and just before he was to be picked as Romney's VP candidate!

    June 2, 2012 at 3:42 pm |
  11. pmmarion

    There are fools and damn fools. I guess he was a damn fool...lol

    June 2, 2012 at 3:42 pm |
  12. Sue

    Darwin award contender! Thou shalt be removed from thine gene pool now!

    (ps. my faith will save me, my faith will save me, my faith will save me, my faith will save me, my faith will save me, my faith will save me, my faith will save me, my faith will save me, my faith will save me, my faith will save me.....its been 8 hours and I'm not better?? call the human medics!!)

    June 2, 2012 at 3:42 pm |
    • Nathan

      Probably not eligible due to already having reproduced.

      June 2, 2012 at 3:43 pm |
  13. agathokles

    "In recent years, Wolford feared the tradition was in danger of dying for lack of interest among people in their 20s and 30s."

    Gee. I wonder why? 🙂

    June 2, 2012 at 3:42 pm |
  14. Mike

    Sometimes I wish more evangelicals would handle snakes and drink poison...Fred Phelps for one.

    June 2, 2012 at 3:42 pm |
  15. Mamo29

    It's called thinning out the herd. We need more thinning out......

    June 2, 2012 at 3:42 pm |
  16. Claire

    The bible is for idiots.

    June 2, 2012 at 3:41 pm |
    • arthurrrr

      That means YOU should read it!!!!!!!

      June 2, 2012 at 3:47 pm |
    • Susan Linnea

      The Bible is wonderful and full of hope and peace. It can't save idoits. Every religiion picks and chooses what part they
      want to obey. It all comes down to love. Love from God, love for God, and love for others. No one can stand judgemental Christians, but the people writing on here are judgemental and full of hate. Way to go!

      June 2, 2012 at 3:53 pm |
  17. Ronnie Harper

    Absolutely unbelievable.

    June 2, 2012 at 3:41 pm |
  18. FlyingSpaghettiMonster

    Yet another exhibit in the case why extreme religious beliefs should be classified as a mental illness. It's clear to anyone with a functioning brain stem that "god" offers no such protection or mandate regarding the handling of these snakes. The Bible is full of tall tales and false promises. It's too bad people have to die before they can figure that out.

    June 2, 2012 at 3:41 pm |
    • sharkfisher

      I'm sorry that you can't trust anything or anyone but yourself. I'll pray for you..

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

    in a country with "whites" being the dominant ethnicity, it only stands to reason that there are gonna be a heap of 'em that are just plain 'ol fvcking retarded (no offence to the retarded ok). thank god they practice these kinds of idiotic things so as to reduce the surplus population of idiot whites...

    June 2, 2012 at 3:41 pm |
  20. Datch

    "Why does the tradition continue"?

    Same reason as the religion continues.


    June 2, 2012 at 3:40 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.