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. benandjerrygirl

    Reblogged this on Benandjerrygirl's Blog.

    June 2, 2012 at 4:41 pm |
  2. They Hate Gays Too!

    Play with fire and get burned. Play with a deadly snake, get dead.

    June 2, 2012 at 4:41 pm |
    • Chuck

      Isnt that what people said about Gays and AIDs?

      June 2, 2012 at 4:44 pm |
  3. midogs2

    Ooooooooooooookay! That's a new twist to christianism.

    June 2, 2012 at 4:41 pm |
  4. Jimmy

    I am a born again, bible believing, southern baptist, church going country boy.Jesus didn't tell me to pick up no snake and I ain't.End of story.

    June 2, 2012 at 4:40 pm |
  5. If horses had Gods .. their Gods would be horses

    Absolutely love the headliine on the front page, it reads ... "Belief A lethal tradition" LOL very clever CNN!!

    June 2, 2012 at 4:40 pm |
    • Just -In

      CNN is Anti-Christian so why is that so clever? In regards to these people that handle snakes. They are trying to prove there loyalty to God in a very abstract way. They fogot the scriptures that read ,None are worthy.not even one. Thou shalt not tempt the Lord they God. Would you stand in front of a bus,then call on God?Would you tempt fate in Any way,then call God? No,of course not. They mean well but miss what the scriptures mean. They cauase others spiritual damage because God doesnt swoop down and save them. Dont tempt God by putting yourself in harms way for ABSOLUTELY NOTHING!! Peace to all the brothers and sisters In God>And may you none believers have peace too!

      June 2, 2012 at 4:47 pm |
  6. avidquilter

    There will always be fools who misinterpret scripture, to the detriment of the church. This man is a prime example. He learned foolishness from his father. Like many Pentecostals, unfortunately, they rely more on emotion and frenzy rather than the expository teaching of God's Word. They take verses out of context (like the verse in Acts about snakes) and try to build a sermon around it. That is NOT how you teach the Bible. It sets a lousy example for his family and I pray to God his children do not follow the same path of foolishness. It also makes minsters out to look like idiots and sullies the name of Jesus. People in this church need to learn the Bible and study it and not pick and choose verses at random.

    June 2, 2012 at 4:40 pm |
  7. Rod

    Too stupid to live... enough said.

    June 2, 2012 at 4:40 pm |
  8. Nancy

    Give 'em all Darwin awards.

    June 2, 2012 at 4:39 pm |
  9. MV

    Darwin wins again.

    June 2, 2012 at 4:39 pm |
  10. Marlou Ordelt

    Yep! Religion will make you crazy stupid. It's caused alot of wars because of people's beliefs.

    June 2, 2012 at 4:39 pm |
    • Just -In

      And,,the last war will take you where you are going ,,,,wont it?

      June 2, 2012 at 4:51 pm |
  11. chelle52370

    These folks believe in an invisible man. They believe in this invisible man because someone wrote a book 2,000 years ago (which has been edited HEAVILY ever since then) and said that he existed. According to them, the invisible man was also the author of the book, so evidently the only proof he offers of his existence is his own word. They also believe in burning bushes speaking to people, a man being able to survive inside a huge fish for months on end, the entire world being wiped out except for one guy and his family, a man being capable of building a boat large enough to fit 2 of every animal on earth inside it – the list goes on and on. In addition, though they believe this invisible man lets loose natural disasters, plagues, diseases and other tragedies that kill millions of his "children" every year, they still worship him and insist that he is a mighty, benevolent, ominpotent and omniscient being, so he gets no blame for throwing temper tantrums that kill entire populations of people. He does however get credit for curing disease and healing people (so why we send doctors and surgeons to college for years and years is beyond me) because there is great power in wishing. They use the invisible man's book as justification for persecuting and hating anyone that's not like them, although the invisible man's son explicitly commanded them not to do so. And you wonder why they think it's okay to handle deadly snakes in the invisible man's name?

    June 2, 2012 at 4:39 pm |
    • If horses had Gods .. their Gods would be horses

      The invisible man part was wriiten many thousands of years earlier, the suppossedly visible man of 2000 years ago was written about many decades after his suppossed death and, as you stated, heavily edited and with only the choicest of passeges, not all. Oh, and not the only invisible Man or Men along with other various Gods, demigods and godesses. gotta love religious "reality".

      June 2, 2012 at 4:45 pm |
  12. Clem Vinson

    Literal interpretations lead to insanity like this. Why is it so hard for people to accept that the bible provides guidelines for moral and ethical existance. Ultimately it is up to each individual in the moment to decide what is moral and ethical. Seems to me handing someone a poisonous snake is very rarely a moral act. But, these events are brought to you by the same people who used literal interpretation to define marriage, c'est le vie. (Is that speaking in tongues?)

    June 2, 2012 at 4:38 pm |
  13. NateFromIndiana

    Very simple answer: it only counts as a Darwin award if the contestant fails to procreate before his spectacular exit.

    June 2, 2012 at 4:37 pm |
    • The Killer Rabbit of Caerbannog

      So world-class stupidity is not enough anymore? Gosh, I remember back when a total moron could become president in this great land of ours. Way way back in 2000 it was. Heck, he even got a do-over and flubbed it again!

      June 2, 2012 at 4:44 pm |
  14. Darwin

    Please accept this award from me on behalf of the rest of the gene pool.

    June 2, 2012 at 4:37 pm |
  15. Dennis Freeman

    It continues because they are idiots – stupid gets redefined everyday.

    June 2, 2012 at 4:37 pm |
    • Vinny

      Indeed. These people are not being ìdiotic because they like being ìdiots.....they don't know any better. Those southerners are not too bright. Very low IQ.....many borderline retârded.

      June 2, 2012 at 4:40 pm |
  16. G Dogg

    Stupid is as stupid does.

    June 2, 2012 at 4:37 pm |
    • Just -In

      Vinny,,Most of the military geniouse of this country comes from the South. The best foods come from the South. The best crops come from the South.The best looking women are from the South. The most polite and well meaning males come from the South. You,,obviosely are not one of them. My Mother came from the South as well. And,,so did Elvis!!

      June 2, 2012 at 4:54 pm |
    • JT

      stupidity is it's own punishment

      June 2, 2012 at 4:54 pm |
  17. Potrzebie

    These people should be allowed to drink all of the poison they want.

    June 2, 2012 at 4:36 pm |
  18. WCCT

    "Wolford feared the tradition was in danger of dying for lack of interest among people in their 20s and 30s."

    Pretty sure this won't help.

    June 2, 2012 at 4:36 pm |
    • Newmoon2

      Obviously people in their 20's and 30's are smarter than he was.

      June 2, 2012 at 4:47 pm |
  19. bigbill8517

    Actually, Holy Ghost Power is having God work in you each and every day to make you more Godly. More loving, more joyful, less angry, i.e., a person that God can use.

    June 2, 2012 at 4:35 pm |
    • chelle52370

      So evidently the holy ghost just didn't like these guys, eh? Or maybe logic and reason are necessary for the human race to survive, and believe in mythical beings is not. There's always some excuse for why god fails his followers but he never seems to have to answer for any of it. Just another of his wonderful "mysteries".

      June 2, 2012 at 4:42 pm |
  20. Chrisitans hate YOU!

    Why are americans so dumb?
    Perhaps christians are the reason why america is bankrupt.

    June 2, 2012 at 4:35 pm |
    • Mushadori40

      America is being systematically dismantled by radical communist/marxist Left Wing loonies, not people of God. Perhaps you might tune in before you turn....shall we say....zombie?! Cao!

      June 2, 2012 at 4:43 pm |
    • racquetman

      Hahaha. Ya, it's only Americans. There aren't any religious nuts any where else in the world. Hahahaha.

      June 2, 2012 at 4:44 pm |
    • Just -In

      Soken like a commi russian

      June 2, 2012 at 4:55 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.