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. bhartman36

    I don't agree with people doing this, but as long as they're adults, I support their right to do it.

    June 2, 2012 at 4:48 pm |
  2. Christopher

    Why is this on the front page? Stop giving ignorance a platform.

    June 2, 2012 at 4:47 pm |
    • Chuck

      Christian Bashing is PC these days don't you know

      June 2, 2012 at 4:50 pm |
  3. youthechristians

    "The snake stood up for evil in the Garden" – Robert Frost "The Ax-Helve" -1923-

    June 2, 2012 at 4:47 pm |
  4. dubrats

    you can't fix stupid.............

    June 2, 2012 at 4:47 pm |
  5. budshot

    Why does it continue? Why do you think it continues – there's money in it for the preachers.

    Religion is the oldest scam in the world.

    June 2, 2012 at 4:47 pm |
  6. Lord Of the Ring

    Praise the lord! Praise the lord! Praise the lord! 🙂 They should have fed his body to the python. 🙂

    June 2, 2012 at 4:47 pm |
  7. tet1953

    Hey, it puts butts in the pews and $ in the coffers.

    June 2, 2012 at 4:47 pm |
  8. JC

    It continues because people are incredibly stupid, and stupidity is passed down. Fortunately, the universe has ways of taking care of stupid people. Unfortunately, the sometimes get to procreate first.

    June 2, 2012 at 4:46 pm |
  9. stephendouglas

    I can hear the Looney Tunes theme song playing while Bugs Bunny cracks, "What a bunch of ma-roons!"

    I just hope the guy had no children. Not because I care about them, but because I hate to think his genes are still able to spread.

    June 2, 2012 at 4:46 pm |
  10. Scarlet Bigler

    CNN, please make a correction to this article. There are no such things as "poisonous" snakes. The snakes at issue are venous. Venom is a an injected toxin, poison is ingested. Mr. Wolford did not eat the snake.

    June 2, 2012 at 4:44 pm |
    • The Killer Rabbit of Caerbannog

      Venomous. Venous means it has veins.

      June 2, 2012 at 4:47 pm |
    • Vinny

      Well to be fair....we don't know to what extreme they practice their idiocy. He may very well have eaten that thing, in the name of the holy spirit. BAHAHAHAHAHAHA!

      June 2, 2012 at 4:50 pm |
    • David Dee

      No matter, he's still dead!

      June 2, 2012 at 5:32 pm |
  11. Peter

    Second runner up in this year's Darwin Awards goes to...

    I make no comment on mainstream christianity, however, this story speaks volumes about tradition, and fanaticism in America.

    June 2, 2012 at 4:44 pm |
  12. ldean50

    What is with the Washington Post writing all these articles highlighting a minute, very very minute groups of people in the South and further perpetrating the stereotypes of ignorant hillbilly??? On May 20, Somashekhar took some guy in Arkansas, quoted him and then painted the whole state (and included all the southern states) with his paintbrush.
    NOW.. this Julia Dinn has gotten out her paintbrush and gone after everyone in Appalachia. Had she done her research, she would know that snake handling exists in Alberta, Canada, Victoria BC, Indiana, Michigan and Ohio. I bet if we looked under enough rocks, you might find one or two in DC – for crying out loud. Stop holding up a couple of people in some state and assigning that behavior to a whole region.

    June 2, 2012 at 4:44 pm |
  13. simplysage62

    Nuts, just plan and simple crazy.

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

    Religion sure does make people do stupid things. Most of the problems of OUR world are rooted in religion. The more educated we become.......... oh hell what a stupid way to die.

    June 2, 2012 at 4:44 pm |
  15. George

    Not too bright.

    June 2, 2012 at 4:44 pm |
  16. Easter Bunny

    maybe they should try skydiving

    June 2, 2012 at 4:44 pm |
  17. blake

    Not a single example in Scripture of people intentionally handling snakes for the purpose of authenticating the gospel message. There is one instance in the Acts 28 of the apostle Paul suffering no consequences when bit by a snake while gathering firewood. And there is one instance in Numbers 21 of the people of Israel being protected from the consequences of snake bite while in the desert by looking up at a bronze snake that Moses had made. That is it. This is a well intentioned, but extremely foolish and presuptuous mis-application of Mark 16.

    June 2, 2012 at 4:43 pm |
    • ldean50

      to answer "Blake"... I think these are the particular scriptures that this guy believes in, and I agree – they obviously use literal translations for their belief system.
      Mark 16:17-18: "And these signs shall follow them that believe; In my name shall they cast out devils; they shall speak with new tongues; They shall take up serpents; and if they drink any deadly thing, it shall not hurt them; they shall lay hands on the sick, and they shall recover"
      Mark 16:19-20: "So then after the Lord has spoken unto them [Jesus' disciples], he was received up into heaven, and set on the right hand of God. And they went forth, and preached everywhere, the Lord working with them, and confirming the word with signs following"
      Luke 10:19: "Behold, I give unto you the power to tread on serpents and scorpions, and over the power of the enemy: and nothing by any means shall hurt you" (Kimborough 1995, 14).

      June 2, 2012 at 4:50 pm |
  18. dragonSummoner

    Lunatics ! Handling powerless snakes !
    They should handle dragons, instead.

    June 2, 2012 at 4:43 pm |
  19. RecoveringChristian

    Darwin at work...

    June 2, 2012 at 4:42 pm |
    • Robert

      Amen to that ( Pun intended)

      June 2, 2012 at 4:46 pm |
  20. Chuck

    Simple, Voodoo made its way into some churches in the south, snake handling isnt a Christian Tradition, its a Voodoo tradition

    June 2, 2012 at 4:42 pm |
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