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. jimmy

    Leave them alone! It's natural selection at work.

    June 2, 2012 at 4:10 pm |
    • Alien Orifice

      I disagree. The snakes did not agree to this. This is animal cruelty.

      June 2, 2012 at 4:14 pm |
  2. Chris

    I find it fascinating that all of you who espouse tolerance, wish harm upon the religious. Hypocrites.

    June 2, 2012 at 4:10 pm |
    • Alien Orifice

      I don't wish harm upon them. I wish only common sense to they don't get killed by poisonous snakes like total idiots.

      June 2, 2012 at 4:13 pm |
    • DoNotWorry

      I don't wish harm on them either, but they sure are dumber than a post. Sometimes they VOTE.

      June 2, 2012 at 4:19 pm |
  3. Zig

    " they will take up serpents; and if they drink anything deadly, it will by no means hurt them..." Sounds clear enough to me. Where's your faith, o Christian?

    June 2, 2012 at 4:10 pm |
    • Alien Orifice

      Tip of the day: Don't play with creatures evolved to live in a completely different environment and use their venom to survive in nature.

      June 2, 2012 at 4:18 pm |
  4. esteban

    I admire his faith but i condemn his stupidity. pooor guy he had a choice of life and he refused it rip.

    June 2, 2012 at 4:09 pm |
    • BRUCE


      June 2, 2012 at 4:11 pm |
    • Alien Orifice

      You admire his faith? His faith in what? You are as dumb as him!

      June 2, 2012 at 4:20 pm |
    • Dana

      Do you admire his lack of common sense or his belief in an imaginary friend?

      June 2, 2012 at 5:16 pm |
    • just sayin


      "I admire his faith but i condemn his stupidity."

      The stupid require faith to get past what they do not understand or wish to deal with. If you condemn his stupidity then you condemn his faith.

      June 4, 2012 at 2:27 pm |
  5. edmundburkeson

    The Appalachian region still has elements of primal nature religion which clouds their interpretation of the Bible.

    June 2, 2012 at 4:09 pm |
    • DoNotWorry

      Nope, this is pure Bible. I come from the Pacific Northwest and have elements of primal nature religion. This ain't it.

      June 2, 2012 at 4:20 pm |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      You "have elements of primal nature religion"?

      Care to explain what "elements" you have?

      June 2, 2012 at 4:22 pm |
    • edmundburkeson

      It's my old friend Tom. I don't know how I got your permission to post here ... but I sure do appreciate it. My natural elements are that I've given up snake handling to have this discussion with you.

      June 2, 2012 at 11:45 pm |
    • edmundburkeson

      Hee! Hee!

      June 2, 2012 at 11:48 pm |
  6. Chrisitans hate YOU!

    Religions cause the bankruptcy of America.

    June 2, 2012 at 4:08 pm |
    • edmundburkeson

      You are thinking of Karl Marx's religion – secularism. By the way I think the progressive liberal experiment in modern social values is going extremely well [sic] ... what do you think?

      June 2, 2012 at 4:12 pm |
  7. mike

    You know, now that I think about this, this is the kind of church I could get into going to. I love to see dumb people gather and hurt themselves.

    June 2, 2012 at 4:08 pm |
  8. Huh?

    Why continue? Because it's what inbread, uneducated, no common sense people from banjo country do.

    June 2, 2012 at 4:08 pm |
    • Norm

      Amen. Stupid is as stupid does....

      June 2, 2012 at 4:13 pm |
    • DoNotWorry

      When did they get in bread? The word is inbred.

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

      Nice bigotry on display guys.. keep it up!

      June 2, 2012 at 4:22 pm |
  9. Christine Bluestone

    That guy just won the Darwin award! People who are that stupid deserve what ever they get. Talk about tempting fate, God sent him a sign all right, he got bit and died from a snakebite, guess that was the wrong thing to do.

    June 2, 2012 at 4:08 pm |
  10. Ed

    Lord, protect me from your followers!

    June 2, 2012 at 4:07 pm |
  11. Tim Jordan

    Too bad the bible didn't call for Russian Roulette as a proof of faith. That'd be entertaining.

    June 2, 2012 at 4:07 pm |
  12. Chrisitans hate YOU!

    These hateful christians need more snakes and bombs.

    June 2, 2012 at 4:07 pm |
  13. pknabenshue

    Natural Selection – in progress. Just another bizarre and stupid religious practice....lets see...Don't go to confession – don't go to heaven. Eat Pork – don't go to heaven. Don't believe in our god (pick name of religion here) – don't go to heaven. Don't pray when we say you have to pray...don't go to heaven. Drive a car – don't go to heaven...you get the point..common theme: Live in fear – or don't go to heaven.

    June 2, 2012 at 4:07 pm |
  14. Jason

    its obvious isn't it? God hates them. they wouldn't have died if they were real christians.

    June 2, 2012 at 4:06 pm |
  15. Lisa

    Why are these freaking people so crazy?????????

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

      What else is there for the poor and uneducated? It makes them tingle with life and a sense of righteousness when they survive. Those with more money jump out of airplanes, off cliffs holding onto kites, dart into rush hour traffic on a motorcycle, bungee jump, scale cliffs, motocross, and so on.

      June 2, 2012 at 4:25 pm |
  16. Crazyhorse

    God bless him for putting his belief into action. How many of us pass by a beggar only to scoff in judgement.

    June 2, 2012 at 4:06 pm |
    • Ralph Waldo

      So you think intentionally handling poisonous animals because of a literal interpretation of one of many thousands of Bible verses is the same as passing a homeless man on the street. Really? Please elaborate.

      June 2, 2012 at 5:03 pm |
  17. Steven

    Darwin's wins again!

    June 2, 2012 at 4:06 pm |
  18. longshot

    religion stops a thinking mind

    June 2, 2012 at 4:06 pm |
    • JIm Marler

      You hit the nail on the head...good post.

      June 2, 2012 at 4:17 pm |
  19. Danno


    June 2, 2012 at 4:05 pm |
  20. Justin

    How can you so blindly trust the words of men? If you don't take one part seriously, how do you not laugh at it all? It's all absurd, a sort of mind control set in place by people who desired power. Even if there was any truth to be had in the ORIGINAL bible which no living man has ever read, guaran-f'in-teed, it has been altered BY MAN into an unrecognizable carcass of leather and paper. There's more truth in Homer's Odyssey.

    June 2, 2012 at 4:05 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.