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.

CNN’s Belief Blog: The faith angles behind the biggest stories

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.”

Follow the CNN Belief Blog on Twitter

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. Cal Jammer

    You can't legislate stupidity.

    June 2, 2012 at 4:53 pm |
  2. agooyers

    Young people not interested? MARKET IT AS AN EXTREME SPORT!!! "This week on the Fringe Christianity X Games, Bo Bob McBillybob of the Hill People handles a bushmaster, a puff adder, a king cobra, and oh he's dead... TUNE IN NEXT WEEK, TO THE EXTREME!"

    June 2, 2012 at 4:53 pm |
  3. Chut Pata

    Believe in fairy tales. Believe in Thor son of Oden, or Hercules son of Zeus, or Jesus son of Jehovah, or Krishna son of Brahman. Then believe they will save you when the snake bites you ... and then die.

    June 2, 2012 at 4:53 pm |
  4. anthony stark

    "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."

    And that's why some traditions deserve to die. Remember slavery? Yes that was a biblical traditional too.

    June 2, 2012 at 4:52 pm |
  5. palintwit

    The "new" republican party !!! Hahahaha

    June 2, 2012 at 4:52 pm |
  6. ldean50

    This is not an "Appalachian tradition"... it exists also in Canada (Alberta and Victoria) the states of IN, MI and OH. Do any newspapers left in America employ editors and factcheckers?

    June 2, 2012 at 4:52 pm |
  7. Sudhir

    They need Black Mambas.

    June 2, 2012 at 4:52 pm |
  8. Camille Mseikeh

    I'd never do it in a thousand years; but I got a question for all those who have harsh words; WHAT IS THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN THIS TRADITION OF SNAKE HANDLING AND PLAYING A SPORT THAT DAMAGES YOUR BRAIN? What is the difference between this guy who is defending his beloved tradition, and the other guys who is defending his brain wrecking sport?

    You may disapprouve it; but get real; "PEOPLE ARE THE SAME WHEREVER YOU GO"; though I'd like to give this phrase another dimension here....

    June 2, 2012 at 4:51 pm |
    • ldean50

      excellent point.

      June 2, 2012 at 4:53 pm |
    • booskoo

      God Sneezed, and missed it, sorry.

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

      If you are talking about American Football I can't stand that sport, I prefer the real football (soccer).

      June 2, 2012 at 4:55 pm |
    • Camille Mseikeh

      To Robairdo; it is exactly my point. That crap they call football; and the fact they insist "soccer is not manly enough". I tell them "Why not watch dog fight? isn't that what you realy want?....

      June 2, 2012 at 4:59 pm |
    • Budda belly

      One has nothing to do with the other. Hence sport and fairy tale.

      June 2, 2012 at 5:00 pm |
    • Jdsf73

      The difference is that playing sports is a profession, one that puts bread on your families plate. And there have been no deaths on the sporting fields of professional basketball, or modern pro-football. People play these games because it is a job that affords them and their families the ability to prosper and be successful in life. Snake handlers do it because they want to feel super-human, which is about as selfish a thing can be, when you truly are risking your life at the expense of your children

      June 2, 2012 at 5:09 pm |
    • Camille Mseikeh

      To Jdsf73
      Are you telling me religeous function does NOT place bread on the table? Or are you telling me sport champs do NOT feel super human? Didn't O.J. Simpson feel super human? Untouchable to do all that he has does?
      My point is that people get blinded by their love or by their devotion and the rest is the same...I don't see the difference you're trying to point out.
      How could the WHOLE world find succer manly enough? and can we realy believe the American when they say it is not? Aren't they a bit blinded like the poor pastor and doing harm to their sons? Instead of enjoying an clean sport?

      June 2, 2012 at 5:26 pm |
  9. agooyers

    A lack of interest among young people? MARKET IT AS AN EXTREME SPORT! "This week on the Wierdo Fringe Christianity X GAMES, Robert Bo-Bob McBillybob handles a bushmaster, a king cobra, and oh he's dead."

    June 2, 2012 at 4:51 pm |
  10. fsmgroupie

    eight hours later, as prayer seemed to only make things worse,he abandoned his faith and called the parametics -– no wonder god killed him and sent him straight to hell

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

    This snake-handling tradition sounds like Lt. Dan in Forrest Gump – each man in the family must go to war, and each one gets killed until lucky for Dan, Gump sort of breaks the curse.

    June 2, 2012 at 4:51 pm |
  12. DE

    This is just more proof that religion can make someone as stupid as a humna can be.

    June 2, 2012 at 4:51 pm |
    • elflander

      What's a humna?

      June 2, 2012 at 4:56 pm |
    • USDude

      So what's a humna Mr. Smart Guy?

      June 2, 2012 at 4:56 pm |
  13. Budster

    So why does the tradition continue? Because they are ignorant, misguided simpletons worthy of nothing more than pity...

    June 2, 2012 at 4:50 pm |
  14. jezabel

    stupid is as stupid does

    June 2, 2012 at 4:50 pm |
    • musings

      I see you have some Gump-tion.

      June 2, 2012 at 4:55 pm |
  15. viaquest

    this is natural selection at it's finest, leave it alone! Darwin Award winner for sure!

    June 2, 2012 at 4:50 pm |
  16. Are You Kidding?

    you know this was god way of saying....that's what you get for playing with a snake that happens to be poisonous only a true fool would handle a snake in the way this guy did. there is dieing for your country in the armed forces and then there are people like this that die for nothing.

    June 2, 2012 at 4:49 pm |
  17. Scott Deaver

    What part of natural selection do you not understand?

    June 2, 2012 at 4:49 pm |
  18. bobby

    Well i know whay they do it....they do it because they are phukkkn stupid.

    June 2, 2012 at 4:48 pm |
  19. Art Gregoire

    Stupid is as stupid does.

    June 2, 2012 at 4:48 pm |
  20. Tom

    Perhaps they should get more snakes.

    June 2, 2012 at 4:48 pm |
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 22 23 24 25 26 27 28 29 30 31 32 33 34 35 36 37 38 39 40 41 42 43 44 45 46 47 48 49 50 51 52 53 54 55 56 57 58 59 60 61 62 63 64 65 66 67 68 69 70 71 72 73 74 75 76 77 78 79 80 81 82 83 84 85 86 87 88 89 90 91 92 93 94 95 96 97 98 99 100 101 102 103 104 105 106 107 108 109 110 111 112 113 114 115 116 117 118 119 120 121 122 123 124 125 126 127 128 129 130 131 132 133 134 135 136 137 138 139 140 141 142 143 144 145 146 147 148 149 150 151 152 153 154 155 156 157 158 159 160 161 162 163 164 165 166 167 168 169 170 171 172 173 174 175 176 177 178 179 180 181 182 183 184 185 186 187 188 189 190 191 192 193 194 195 196 197 198 199 200 201 202 203 204 205 206 207 208 209 210 211 212 213 214 215 216 217 218 219 220 221 222 223 224 225 226 227 228 229 230 231 232 233 234 235 236 237 238 239 240 241 242 243 244 245 246 247 248 249 250 251 252 253 254 255 256 257 258 259 260 261 262 263 264 265 266 267 268 269 270 271 272 273 274 275 276 277 278 279 280 281 282 283 284 285 286 287 288 289 290 291 292 293 294 295 296 297 298 299 300 301 302 303 304 305 306 307
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.