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. Smoke

    Darwin smiled. Natural selection, just deselected YOU, Mr Wolford!

    June 2, 2012 at 4:00 pm |
  2. liz


    June 2, 2012 at 4:00 pm |
  3. Kyle Michel Sullivan

    Talk about natural selection...

    June 2, 2012 at 3:59 pm |
  4. Patricksday

    Wacky "Christians" who need professional help, what is with the people in the South???

    June 2, 2012 at 3:59 pm |
    • Mark Taylor

      Um... West Virginia was part of the Union, in fact West Virginia exists because that part of Virginia was not comfortable with the iidea of slave ownership and the state was divided.

      June 2, 2012 at 4:01 pm |
    • mike

      Who the heck was talking about the civil war? Or slavery?

      June 3, 2012 at 10:05 pm |
  5. The King

    The uneducated, unpopular, and underachievers tend to be the ones who really engage in this fringe stuff. They spend their lives as social outcasts, yearning for acceptance. This extreme "religion" is their ticket to what they perceive as "success". Their entry into a realm where THEY are the chosen ones, the winners, and everyone else are the ones that are the "losers". I've known a lot of Pentacostals, not one of them were educated or succesfull in any venue. Sad lot indeed, I pray for them.

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

      I find it interesting in light of your response that you respond to yourself as "the King"

      June 3, 2012 at 2:47 am |
  6. Kingofthenet

    IF God didn't protect 6 million of his 'Chosen People', what chance do YOU think you got?

    June 2, 2012 at 3:59 pm |
  7. patrickford

    I think the reason this still around is that there are just not enough snakes to go around for these idiots.

    June 2, 2012 at 3:58 pm |
  8. Tim Jordan

    Don't care if these crazy adults want to kill themselves, but I am concerned about children in these "services." There's a church in Oregon that has several cases of adults denying medical care to their children using faith as an excuse. Why does any government tolerate this nonsense?

    June 2, 2012 at 3:58 pm |
    • Because

      The Constitution of this fine country protects your right to be a complete and utter moron as long as it involves relgion or guns.

      June 2, 2012 at 4:01 pm |
  9. Mike P

    Yeah, this is totally bent. The Bible says you *can* do these things, not that you *should* do these things. When Jesus was tempted by the devil, one of the temptations was to throw Himself from a great height and see if God would send angels to catch him. Satan even quoted scripture saying, "See, angels will catch you! It says so in the Bible!" But Jesus wouldn't do it, saying, "You shall not tempt the Lord your God." These pastors are falling right into Satan's trap, and every time one of them dies, it just makes Christians and Christianity in general look stupid.

    June 2, 2012 at 3:57 pm |
  10. UhYeaOk

    The CNN anti Christian propaganda machine is at it again. Not a day goes by where CNN doesn't try to paint Christians in a negative light. Funny how their stories which are now on a daily basis rarely if ever show Christians doing anything positive. Lets ignore the millions of dollars they donate to feed the hungry, clothe the poor, build schools, medical facilities etc. When they post these stories the anti religion nut cases come out in droves to post their insults and hate.

    June 2, 2012 at 3:57 pm |
    • Tim Jordan

      Christians do a great job painting themselves in a poor light. CNN is just reporting the story which originally ran on PBS.

      June 2, 2012 at 4:00 pm |
    • Robairdo

      Because you are not Christians, you are anti-Christians. You hate many groups that are different from you and judge others even though Christ said not to judge. You promote concentration camps of gays & lesbians.... Just to start.

      June 2, 2012 at 4:02 pm |
    • MrHanson

      That is ture.

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

      @Robadaro, you don't know anything about me to say I am not a Christian. Being a Christian doesn't mean suddenly you live a perfect life, free of sin. Everyone is a sinner, your judgement on me tells me a lot about you. As for Christians being to blame for their negative press, for every negative story printed, I could find you 20 that are good stories but will never see the front page of CNN. Negativity sells, and people like you feed on it.

      June 2, 2012 at 4:06 pm |
    • Jacqui

      This story made news because it is hilarious.

      June 2, 2012 at 4:42 pm |
    • Robairdo

      @uhyeahok. Every so called Christian I have met has been right wing reich that has wanted to force EVERYONE to live by their bible and they mostly don't even know what that bible says.

      June 2, 2012 at 4:50 pm |
  11. jimranes

    Its hard to believe that anyone could be that stupid. His father died from a snake bite. You have to have faith, be weak minded to believe in Chistian fairy tales!

    June 2, 2012 at 3:57 pm |
    • UhYeaOk

      Yea, we should all listen to you right jimranes, you know it all, please tell us how life came into existence? You are all knowing please enlighten us.

      June 2, 2012 at 3:58 pm |
    • patrickford

      It would most likely be abiogenesis, UhYeahOK. You can look it up. You know, science and all.

      June 2, 2012 at 4:01 pm |
    • MrHanson

      Life is just a puposeless accident. That's the answer you'll get from atheists. They don't know how it happened and how complex biosystems came to be, but we know it just happened. It takes faith to be an atheist. Cambrian explosion deniers. I get sick of CNN and their articles like this. Yes these idiots, much like Fred Phelps deserve to die.

      June 2, 2012 at 4:11 pm |
  12. Larry

    I am sure the Bible tells us that we are not to tempt God. As for the non believers, read the book Revelations and you will see that the things that are happening (high gas prices, earthquakes in different places and the weather) are signs that Christ' return is near.

    June 2, 2012 at 3:57 pm |
    • Drew

      The events of Revelation were supposed to happen during the time of the Roman Empire.

      June 2, 2012 at 3:58 pm |
    • Gabe

      High gas prices? lol

      June 2, 2012 at 4:02 pm |
    • Jacqui

      High gas prices?

      June 2, 2012 at 4:03 pm |
    • Deist

      I myself do not believe in religion but believe in a more powerful being. You cannot question the fact that the bible was written by man and not god and I see it as a form of disrespect to god to follow religious practices that are morally wrong(not all of them) such as prosecution of gays, judgement of others safe and good beliefs(saying someone is going to hell for not being a certain religion for example). I see the universe as a perfect and balanced place created by god in his own special way, he is all powerful and evil does not exit rather the ability to have freedom of will. People kill because they choose to not because the "devil" influenced them. People are gay because they choose to not because "satan" has corrupted their souls. God is all powerful and therefore there is no hell or satan...those who do wrong such as killing out of their own free will are simply neglected upon death and those who live good lives will rejoice. If god did not want gay's then there would not be any, if god did not want freedom of religious expression then he would simply not allow it. If you truly believe in a god then you must accept this world for what it is, not doing so is questioning his supposed "plan" if he even has one.

      June 2, 2012 at 4:16 pm |
    • CJ0194

      You're citing Revelation to justify current events? Have you ever tried to read that kookiest acid-induced of books of the bible? Complete gibberish and obviously an accident that it didn't fall to the editing floor back in the dark ages.

      June 2, 2012 at 6:26 pm |
  13. JSS

    "That's why God created free will" is the usual religiously-grounded answer for this. Sort of like the free will to pick and choose which passages of the Bible you want to enforce on others because the fit your world view the best. Ah, blind faith.. Must be blissful to be that naive.

    June 2, 2012 at 3:57 pm |
    • UhYeaOk

      And equally blissful to be so arrogant and ignorant at the same time....

      June 2, 2012 at 4:03 pm |
  14. mat

    It would have been nice to note in this article that many biblical textual critics feel that Mark 16:9-20 were probably not even original verses and were added later to agree with other new testament books. So these people are putting their life on the line for a verse that might not even be the "word" of god. Pretty sad.

    June 2, 2012 at 3:57 pm |
  15. SickofXcuses

    As a Christian, I have never understood how the context of the Scripture could be so misconstrued. To my knowledge, the world's greatest evangelist, Billy Graham, has never handled a snake.

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

      How unfortunate for the thousands of people from whom he swindled.

      June 2, 2012 at 4:05 pm |
  16. n2video

    Live by the snake...die by the snake.

    June 2, 2012 at 3:56 pm |
  17. Charles

    Just goes to prove that you can't cure stupid.

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

      Charles, there is a cure for Stupid. It is called Snake Venom.

      June 2, 2012 at 4:13 pm |
  18. MP

    For those that do not believe in Darwinism I present Exhibit A.

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

      "If a believer is bitten by a snake and dies, these Pentecostals reason, it is simply their time to go.
      '… (seeking medical help) means you’re already starting to lose faith.'
      When he finally gave his family permission to call paramedics…"

      Hypocrite. Why not, instead of consuming small amounts of strychnine and developing tolerance, did he not test his and his congregation's belief by doling out Flavor Aid, as per Jim Jones’s recipe?
      I hope this man did not reproduce and I feel immense pity for the kids who grow up with this.

      June 2, 2012 at 4:30 pm |
  19. maximusvad

    Watching Christians is like watching the Jacka $ $ movies. They are always doing something "extraordinary" .

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

      Yea, watching them feed the hungry, clothe the poor, bring medical aid to areas without it, build schools, create clean, safe water sources is a riot. What do you do for others maximusvad? Give out free opinions and advice?

      June 2, 2012 at 4:02 pm |
    • MrHanson

      Yes the Wright Brothers, Charles Babbage, Newton, Faraday, JRR tolkien, CS Lewis, etc.., etc.. were quite extraordinary. Oh and I forgot Dr. Ben Carson, who was almost denied speaking at Emory University because of his doubt in Darwinism. Just shows how 'tolerant' atheists can be.

      June 2, 2012 at 4:16 pm |
  20. awaysaway

    Darwin awards?

    June 2, 2012 at 3:56 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.