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. the voice of reason

    Oh, I forgot to mention that poisonous snakes don't always inject venom when they bite. They have that ability. It's pure defense in that situation, and they ALWAYS inject when they kill for food. 45 years of working with snakes gives me that knowledge.

    June 2, 2012 at 4:27 pm |
    • The Killer Rabbit of Caerbannog

      So you are saying that the snake wanted him for dinner?

      June 2, 2012 at 4:32 pm |
  2. Nick

    ...Who cares? They're taking the risk upon themselves and accepting the consequences. This doesn't require discussion unless someone's being forced into the practice. Let's pretend we're still in a free country, shall we?

    June 2, 2012 at 4:27 pm |
    • Fred M.

      He's free to do that and I'm free to make fun of him.

      But why the hell should he be allowed to torment snakes due to some idiotic religious beliefs?

      June 2, 2012 at 4:33 pm |
  3. steve

    what an idiot
    no pity for stupidity

    June 2, 2012 at 4:26 pm |
  4. robert

    It's too bad, he could have been the next leader of the republican party.

    June 2, 2012 at 4:26 pm |
    • Fred M.

      But then Jeebus called him home.

      June 2, 2012 at 4:27 pm |
  5. erich2112x

    And most folks have no idea that this is just nothing but Christian trickery and sleight of hand. These charlatan preachers will actually milk these snakes dry of their venom just before a Sunday service so that if they are bitten there'll be a slimmer chance of death. It takes a venomous snake at least a day to regenerate more venom after a full milking. In the case of Mack Wilford, however, he probably failed to milk one of the snakes completely-the on the bit him, no doubt.

    June 2, 2012 at 4:25 pm |
  6. you'rekiddingright?

    WHY does it continue? BECAUSE ....they are IDIOTS!

    June 2, 2012 at 4:25 pm |
  7. Christianity-is-Evil

    Christianity – what a nutty religion. I can't believe so many people can be so stupid. It has shown itself to be wrong time and time again throughout history and has committed the most cruel acts against others. Yet, people continue to follow it – now that redfines blind stupidity.

    June 2, 2012 at 4:25 pm |
    • Fred M.

      Amen! 😉

      June 2, 2012 at 4:34 pm |
  8. steve h

    Darwin award

    June 2, 2012 at 4:25 pm |
  9. Larry L

    Chlorine for the gene pool.

    June 2, 2012 at 4:25 pm |
  10. El Duderino (if you're not into the whole brevity thing)

    Too bad the Republican candidates don't appeal to the fringe Christian right by handling snakes and kissing them like babies.

    June 2, 2012 at 4:25 pm |
    • El Duderino (if you're not into the whole brevity thing)

      Ironically, they don't let Cheney handle babies for fear that he'll unhinge his jaw and swallow them whole.

      June 2, 2012 at 4:26 pm |
    • Fred M.

      The Republican candidate ARE snakes.

      June 2, 2012 at 4:34 pm |
    • Ozzy Mandias

      With Dumbo-crats stainchly on the abortion bandwagon, it's lucky the USA still has any kids being born. Ya gotta question the intelligence (? – NONE!) of a political party that won't execute murderers but is thrilled like a birthday party to murder 'em before they're even born!

      June 2, 2012 at 4:36 pm |
  11. robert

    What a surprise, the faithful doing something stupid. Next thing you know they will be believing in an invisible sky daddy who came to earth so he could have himself killed in order for him to forgive us for the sins he says we have. This is just evolution in action.

    June 2, 2012 at 4:25 pm |
  12. John

    Natural selection – science in motion.

    June 2, 2012 at 4:24 pm |
  13. R Burns

    Our society was built on the concepts brought forth by Christ, and under that system we have a marvelous and previously unknown ability to do all these things without permanent harm. This is true regardless of one's personal philosophy – what Jesus established is truly universal and timeless. There are many "religions" like the one in this article that promote putting God to the test, contrary to His commands. The scriptures are full of warnings to be careful what and whom you follow. If your religion promotes going directly against New Testament teachings, beware!

    June 2, 2012 at 4:24 pm |
  14. howlyn

    What a moron.

    June 2, 2012 at 4:24 pm |
  15. astutemind

    What do you want to bet that this knucklehead who perverted the Bible scripture to make believe that Christians are mandated to pick up poisonous snakes in an affirmation of their faith is a Republican.

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


    June 2, 2012 at 4:24 pm |
  17. BlindbyFaith

    Religion is the downfall of humanity.

    June 2, 2012 at 4:24 pm |
  18. the voice of reason

    These idiots never realize that the bible just says serpents.....not poisonous serpents. Many snakes will not bite you if you handle them gently. The problem starts when the snake is having a bad day and is venomous. The loser got what he deserved. Give him the Darwin award.

    June 2, 2012 at 4:23 pm |
  19. LARRI

    Well. He won't do that again

    June 2, 2012 at 4:23 pm |
  20. Cricket

    To quote Ratso Rizzo, "What a bunch of wackos!"

    June 2, 2012 at 4:23 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.