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. Webhoncho

    No one should insult other peoples' beliefs, customs or religion. However, most educated persons agree that putting yourself or anyone else in mortal danger in the name of God is just plain stupid!

    Remember the joke about the man trapped on his house as flood waters rise up? He claims to have perfect faith in God to keep his safe and refuses 3 chances to be rescued. - "The flood waters kept rising and the man in the house drowned. When he got to heaven, he asked God where he went wrong. He told God that he had perfect faith in God, but God had let him drown.
    "What more do you want from me?" asked God. "I sent you two boats and a helicopter."

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

      "...and on one beautiful September morning, I sent you four airplanes."

      June 2, 2012 at 4:21 pm |
    • Webhoncho

      YPB – You write like you have a lot of anger and frustration. You need to calm down before it eats up your insides...

      June 2, 2012 at 4:33 pm |
    • fairshare2

      @ Webhoncho.....Thanks, We most certainly can use a little humor here in all this nonsense. I do hpe that they are not putting children in harm's way with this stupid act of theirs. If so, then Child Services should start monitoring them NOW.

      June 2, 2012 at 4:42 pm |
  2. YBP

    As a recovered Christian, indoctrinated as a child, cured upon receiving an education in science and history, I say it's time to put all religion on display in its proper place: on a shelf in the Museum of Falsehoods, Deceptions and Tragic Human History.

    June 2, 2012 at 4:05 pm |
    • Raoul Duke, Jr.

      Amen 😉

      June 2, 2012 at 4:06 pm |
  3. edsr of Dallas

    "This ole snake ain't gonna' bite me cause I got religion.......this here serpent represents Satan and he ain't gonna' bite me cause I got religion!"......the guy didn't know that the snake was Muslim........too bad....should have checked its credentials.

    June 2, 2012 at 4:04 pm |
  4. Chrisitans hate YOU!

    We have seen a lot of religious crooks and pedo pastors on CNN, but those gullible followers still believe them. Let them die!

    June 2, 2012 at 4:04 pm |
  5. palintwit

    "Dueling Banjos" anyone ?

    June 2, 2012 at 4:04 pm |
  6. mike

    Jesus just exclaimed "ROTFLMAO"

    June 2, 2012 at 4:03 pm |
  7. James

    And the winner of this weeks Darwin's Awards is...

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

      Did he have kids? When you read that his father died the same way, I'd guess it's a dominant gene (although perhaps it could be recessive, I'm really bad at pedigree analyses). The best deleterious genes emerge after an individual's prime reproduction period. If the astounding-stupidity allele is autosomal he could pass it to his kids, and therefore he did not remove that variant of stupidity from the gene pool. I think that might be grounds for disqualification.

      June 2, 2012 at 5:00 pm |
    • Jacqui

      Also, I believe the Darwin Awards are annual.

      June 2, 2012 at 5:03 pm |
  8. BralenX

    People are stupid.

    June 2, 2012 at 4:02 pm |
  9. Keith

    Where can I send the snakes? I am just hoping all Christians go for this, I will supply the snakes.

    June 2, 2012 at 4:02 pm |
    • fairshare2

      Where's the humour?

      June 2, 2012 at 4:52 pm |
  10. liz

    To believe that we can recreate the miralces of God at will is not good Christianity but more indicative of the ego of man

    June 2, 2012 at 4:02 pm |
  11. Tim Jordan

    Every time I read stories like this it reaffirms my atheism.

    June 2, 2012 at 4:02 pm |
  12. Chrisitans hate YOU!

    His god said it is ok to die hard.

    June 2, 2012 at 4:02 pm |
  13. Giggles

    Look, It's a picture of Rush Limgaugh and his handler!

    June 2, 2012 at 4:02 pm |
    • edsr of Dallas

      You really mean....Obama!

      June 2, 2012 at 4:06 pm |
    • edsr of Dallas

      Maybe the minister was a "birther" and the Muslim snake was incensed?

      June 2, 2012 at 4:08 pm |
  14. GoRemote

    I don't see anything wrong with this......

    June 2, 2012 at 4:01 pm |
  15. Mike - WA

    Can you spell "m-o-r-o-n"? Like the rest of the evangelical movement the last 30+ years, this is all fake Christianity. Modern day Christianiity is all about making a buck or worshipping those that do.

    June 2, 2012 at 4:01 pm |
    • Mark Taylor

      Generalization. The church I attend distributed almost 500,000 meals to the less fortunate last year. We also help run a free medical clinic. No strings attached. No interest in making a buck. Lots of interest in helping the less fortunate among the community though.

      June 2, 2012 at 4:06 pm |
  16. Craig

    Thou shall reap what you sow! Enough said.

    June 2, 2012 at 4:01 pm |
  17. Trish in Texas

    Unfortunately, at his age he has probably already had children - otherwise, I'd suggest that snake handling is a great way to eliminate stupidity in the gene pool.

    June 2, 2012 at 4:01 pm |
    • fairshare2

      I would like to know where in the bible they read about such practices. Otherwise, the government should banned it.

      June 2, 2012 at 4:21 pm |
  18. TJeff1776

    I dated a girl in W/VA once. She was a knockout- a real movie-star type. BUT into wrestling matches and church consisted, in part, of a show of faith via snake biting. She, and her family, was really into that stuff bigtime. When I shipped out, never saw her again. Never could muster enough faith for that. An el snako scares hell out of me- especially the poison ones.

    June 2, 2012 at 4:01 pm |
  19. Brad Simmons

    They keep doing it because they think they're protected by a higher power but the thing is... there's no such thing. Now he's dead because of his stupidity. Plain and simple.

    June 2, 2012 at 4:01 pm |
  20. Scholar

    The natural laws of survival of the fittest continue to rule life on Earth.

    For those who think that the recently deceased was placing his trust in God, perhaps that is true also, but, why should anyone have the hubris to think that his play-acting at piety, or what he thinks is piety and faith should be worthy of God's reward and not punishment?

    June 2, 2012 at 4:01 pm |
    • Jeff Williams

      These acts with the snakes are not examples of faith – they are displays of arrogance.

      June 2, 2012 at 4:07 pm |
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