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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. bernie

    Thulsa Doom!

    June 2, 2012 at 3:55 pm |
    • Conan

      I pray to Krahm, and sometimes the 4 winds.

      June 2, 2012 at 4:22 pm |
  2. Get A Clue!

    "Why does the tradition continue"?
    A very simple answer ... NATURAL SELECTION!
    Charles Darwin covers this very eloquently in his literary works. ;-)~

    June 2, 2012 at 3:55 pm |
    • Freedom From Religion

      B-I-N-G-O!

      June 2, 2012 at 3:57 pm |
  3. Chrisitans hate YOU!

    God punishs christian because christians preach HATE.

    June 2, 2012 at 3:55 pm |
    • Robairdo

      BINGO they are about as anit-Christ as you can possibly get.

      June 2, 2012 at 3:59 pm |
    • Ceri

      Do they really? I don't, and I don't know anyone who does.

      June 2, 2012 at 4:04 pm |
  4. rickp530

    I attended a Pentecostal church with my aunt when I was young. The preacher was proceeding down the aisle hollering and pointing at people that they needed to be saved. All of a sudden this woman behind me starts slapping the back of the bench that I'm sitting on and starts speaking in what they call tongues. All as I heard was a bunch of blah blah blah and crying. The preachers eyes focused upon me and he pointed at me and said "You need to be saved." I looked at my aunt and said "I'll see you outside" and left the building. I never went back to that church again. That was definitely not my cup of tea.

    June 2, 2012 at 3:55 pm |
    • Kingofthenet

      That's Pentecostalism in a nutshell

      June 2, 2012 at 3:56 pm |
    • Thoughtpolice

      You were saved... from my lunacy

      June 2, 2012 at 3:57 pm |
  5. Bubba

    Just another daily illustration of how rabid and insane the religious right has become.

    June 2, 2012 at 3:55 pm |
  6. will fargo

    Don't forget, for millions, religion keeps them from killing each other. It's a mixed bag and the majority of humans on the planet are probably in it somewhere. Rhetoric trashing all religion shows as much stupidity as the serpent handling idiots.

    June 2, 2012 at 3:55 pm |
    • DXing

      It is ludicrous to assert that religon keeps many people from killing each other. History has proven quite the contrary!

      June 2, 2012 at 3:56 pm |
    • Jeff Williams

      """religion keeps them from killing each other"""

      Sunnis and Shi'ites – ever heard of them?

      June 2, 2012 at 4:00 pm |
  7. Freedom From Religion

    Here's PROOF that religion causes mental retardation!

    June 2, 2012 at 3:55 pm |
  8. Hello, get a brain.

    A stupid man, following a stupid religion, will always get stupid results.

    June 2, 2012 at 3:54 pm |
  9. Forrest

    I will now begin to worship snakes... as they are ridding this world of what ails it.

    June 2, 2012 at 3:54 pm |
  10. Chrisitans hate YOU!

    It is so sad that America is STILL a Nation of the christian cult.
    These crazy christians and Mormons shouldn't be allowed to vote.

    June 2, 2012 at 3:53 pm |
  11. Billy

    Asinine!!!

    June 2, 2012 at 3:52 pm |
  12. drew

    Perhaps, these appalachian might appreciate natural selection.

    June 2, 2012 at 3:52 pm |
    • timelord7202

      "Natural selection" doesn't apply to people pulling stunts in order to draw crowds and take their money in return for the show...

      June 2, 2012 at 3:55 pm |
  13. Dan

    According to his religion he wasn't a true believer.

    June 2, 2012 at 3:52 pm |
  14. Star Spangled

    I know lots of christians through my family and they are not like this dude......kinda shocked at all of the hate on this wall – even wishes for more death

    June 2, 2012 at 3:52 pm |
    • Mike

      I can understand the desires for that. If you have ever had Phelps show up to protest in your home town (for any reason) you may have the same desires, especially if 'moderate' Christians in the town refuse to denounce what he is advocating.

      June 2, 2012 at 3:54 pm |
  15. alexwilliamstakesphotos

    ummm......I think the practice survives because of simple Darwinism.

    June 2, 2012 at 3:52 pm |
    • timelord7202

      Darwin had more fun looking at how animals adapted to their environment.

      Most people around here are thinking of the cynical creator of the so-called "Darwin Awards"...

      June 2, 2012 at 3:53 pm |
  16. Jo

    Can you say clueless? Talk about not learning from ones mistakes.

    June 2, 2012 at 3:52 pm |
  17. mark

    north carolina outlaws it? how odd..unless it's because the sect of christians that rule there aren't he serpent ones and they'll have none of any other flavor..that would make sense.

    June 2, 2012 at 3:52 pm |
  18. Brian

    He died because claims in the bible are garbage. As are every other "holy book". People who think that their "god" will reward them for being stupid deserve what they get when their "god" doesn't show.

    June 2, 2012 at 3:51 pm |
  19. Kingofthenet

    So there's this really religious guy named Jim. He's always praying and going to church and loving Jesus and what not.

    The Weather Forecast is for a HUGE Flood, but Jim doesn't pay it any attention because he ONLY wants a sign from God.
    One day there is a big flood and the whole town starts to fill up with water. Jim is not worried. He is quite sure that he is on Gods good side.

    The water fills up the first floor of his house, so he has to sit up in his upstairs bedroom. Outside his window he sees his friend Fred going by in a rowboat. Fred says "Hey Jim! Get on this boat and we'll be safe!". Jim replies "No Fred, I am waiting for a sign from God!". Fred rows away.

    The water gets higher and Jim has to sit on his roof. Then Fred comes by again. "Hey Jim, get on the boat!" he says. "No Fred," Replies Jim "I am waiting for a sign from God"

    The water gets even higher and Jim has to sit on the chimney. Then he hears Fred approaching in a helicopter. "Get in the helicopter Jim!" says Fred. "No," Says Jim "I am waiting for a sign"

    Then the water gets even higher. Then Jim dies.

    Jim goes to heaven and he sees God on his way in. Jim is a little bit miffed at God. He says to him "God, I've been a good man all my life! Why did you let me drown in the flood? Why didn't you send me a sign?"

    And God says:

    "What are you talking about Jim? I sent you a weather forecast, 2 boats and a helicopter!"

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

      That's assuming God wants him alive 🙂

      June 2, 2012 at 3:55 pm |
  20. DrIrony

    Darwin would be laughing in his grave knowing his law of evolution is hard at work here. Only the strong and smart survive, and well, dumb is just dumb.

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

      Unfortunately these kind of idiots live long enough to breed.

      June 2, 2012 at 3:56 pm |
    • Ceri

      Actually I don't think Darwin said that at all.

      June 2, 2012 at 4:07 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.