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. pop

    Does CHRISTIAN know King James bible isn't REAL HOLY BIBLE?

    it was burned in 13-1400s.

    June 2, 2012 at 4:17 pm |
  2. Chrisitans hate YOU!

    Pastors are snake oil salesmen and pedos.

    June 2, 2012 at 4:17 pm |
  3. Brad

    Natural selection...Darwin was right :)....I say do not stop it, have more people do it....take care of a giant problem in this country!

    June 2, 2012 at 4:17 pm |
  4. lipslarew

    im sure u have a stupid tradition too. we all do

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

      You do........I dont. U speak with FORKED UP TONGUE devil worshiper Lipsarew.

      June 2, 2012 at 4:20 pm |
  5. Kim

    For some reason he didn't pay attention to the quote in the bible that says to "use sound judgment". Maybe he read it but didn't understand that it means to use common sense. This seems to have escaped him.....

    1 Peter 4:7 is what he should have payed attention to.....not the snakes.

    June 2, 2012 at 4:16 pm |
  6. rad666

    Cool. More religions need to embrace the practice.

    June 2, 2012 at 4:15 pm |
    • Maverick

      Isnt that what the Muslims are doing on all fours? Bowing down and lookin into snake hole? ....or is it to kiss the guy in front butt hole? They believe in something like that.

      June 2, 2012 at 4:22 pm |
  7. busterny

    The article also mentions cottonmouths. Are they crazy? Cottonmouths are some of the meanest snakes I know of and are very aggressive. If they are going to handle snakes, should they get the venom out of them first (they could donate it to medicine). These people come across as a bunch of cross bred country hicks.

    June 2, 2012 at 4:15 pm |
  8. iggy Collier

    They suffer from mental disorders. Just one or many things they are psychotic about.

    June 2, 2012 at 4:15 pm |
    • Maverick

      That moonshine and radiator coolant will do that to ya. Antifreeze slushies big hit during summer months.

      June 2, 2012 at 4:24 pm |
    • Maverick

      That moonshine and radiator anitfreeze will do that to ya. Antifreeze slushies big hit during summer months.

      June 2, 2012 at 4:26 pm |
  9. mike

    Its sad that it took the feeling of death in order for him to ask his family to call the paramedics and for logic and reason to kick in. But this problem of religious lunacy seems to be self correcting. Sign him up for a Darwin award!!

    June 2, 2012 at 4:14 pm |
  10. Chrisitans hate YOU!

    Santorum and Mitt should pass the snake test!

    June 2, 2012 at 4:14 pm |
    • Just sayin...

      Another great idea.

      June 2, 2012 at 4:15 pm |
  11. CommonSense

    “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.”
    Where are the demon casters? Where are their new languages? Where are they healing the sick? These nutbags read one verse in the Bible, pick and choose what they will practice, and call it "divine will". It's called insanity.
    Even Jesus preached common sense.

    June 2, 2012 at 4:14 pm |
  12. Rich

    jobs ,it's all about jobs...just sayin.......This nut earned a living praying on the less edjamacated usually down in the ole bible belt where schoolin is second to fairy tales......just sayin

    June 2, 2012 at 4:13 pm |
    • Just sayin...

      What Rich said.

      June 2, 2012 at 4:15 pm |
    • Maverick

      Yup....these sheeple breed....now we have find room bury them. Why didnt we cut their nuts off BEFORE ?

      June 2, 2012 at 4:16 pm |
  13. How To Recruit New Atheists

    1. Kiss snakes in God's name

    2. Tell people you love Jesus, then speak in tongues.

    3. Respond to any question and comments with "You're going to hell if you don't obey."

    4. Choose to side politically with unjust and inhuman stances.

    5. Share your true ideas about what Jesus does and what you have experienced. This one is usually very powerful.

    6. Quote Leviticus and Deutronomy as the kind of morality people should follow

    7. Remind people that they should FEAR God, and that He is a JEALOUS God as the 10 Commandments say, because he loves you.

    8. Explain why your religion is true. Then explain why every other religion is false and ridiculous and impossible.

    9. Ring their doorbell at dinnertime and try to tell them "the good news".

    10. When they have lost someone very dear to them, go up to them and say "It's okay; he is in a better place now."

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


      June 2, 2012 at 4:32 pm |
  14. mark

    What an idiot.....Snake lovin freak

    June 2, 2012 at 4:12 pm |
  15. Jeremy

    Love the irony here:
    [excerpt]When he finally gave his family permission to call paramedics, about eight hours after being bitten...[/excerpt]

    So I guess his "faith" held up just fine.... until, you know, he needed it. Then he wanted a doctor....

    June 2, 2012 at 4:12 pm |
    • How To Recruit New Atheists

      I missed that. Thanks.

      You'd have thought he would have asked them to up the dosage of prayer. Prayer works, you know

      June 2, 2012 at 4:17 pm |
    • Shannon

      I'd thought the same thing...what a dumba$$...well, one less in the world, at least...

      June 2, 2012 at 4:24 pm |
  16. glab

    And the we think the Taliban are crazy? When people are trained at an early age not to think for themselves but follow a path of "tradition" this is what you get.

    June 2, 2012 at 4:12 pm |
    • Lana

      Children need a comprehensive education so they can think for themselves and make wise decisions. These religions prey on the vulnerable and ignorant.

      June 2, 2012 at 4:29 pm |
  17. gnat

    Darwinism at it's best.

    June 2, 2012 at 4:11 pm |
    • Ashley

      Ironic how natural selection plagues the very people that deny it... 🙂

      June 2, 2012 at 4:17 pm |
  18. BigSkyHumanist

    If they really want to test God, they should handle the most dangerous snakes on earth and take stronger poison. Whimps :}

    June 2, 2012 at 4:11 pm |
    • Just sayin...

      Great idea, BSH.

      June 2, 2012 at 4:13 pm |
  19. Timothy

    In my humble opinion, this screwball deserved his fate. Any one who cavorts with reptiles, for any reason,
    much less to put on a religious demonstration, should be thrown into a pit of starving gian lizards. Problem
    is, we still have ten million like him in this country.

    June 2, 2012 at 4:11 pm |
  20. Chrisitans hate YOU!

    Religion = a bunch of hateful and stupid rednecks.

    June 2, 2012 at 4:10 pm |
    • Just sayin...

      Yep. Hopefully they are in decline.

      June 2, 2012 at 4:14 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.