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. Chris

    I suppose many comments here are correct but the lack of compassion for this man, his family and friends is as great as the ignorance that cause these people to play with the poisonous snakes to begin with. Which is worse? Being ignorant or un-compassionate. I don't have much use or inclination for either camp of folks. Both really quite sad to me...

    June 2, 2012 at 4:58 pm |
    • Heroicslug

      Nature has no compassion for the stupid and neither do I.

      I'll let Al Gore care about the environment and the snake-bitten hicks for me, thank you.

      June 2, 2012 at 6:19 pm |
  2. Robairdo

    Current Ancient Alien theorist hold that at least two groups of Aliens came to Earth during the formation of our religions. One group the rather benign Gray Aliens really were trying to help mankind. Another Alien group came here to mine our Gold, chlorofluorocarbon, protein and other resources and used humans as Slaves. These two Alien Groups were seen as God(s) which explains the many contradictions in the Bible and other religious text.

    This also explains why many cultures belief in multiple gods.

    June 2, 2012 at 4:57 pm |
  3. Geoff

    Well, Darwin wins again.

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

      Actually Darwin is dead too.

      June 2, 2012 at 5:08 pm |
  4. seanx40

    It continues, like religion itself, as there are stupid, gullible people. Who refuse to grow up, and think for themselves.

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

      Actually there are non-religious people who are this way too. Try a better argument.

      June 2, 2012 at 5:09 pm |
  5. Ed Pri

    The section in Mark's Gospel about picking up serpents and handling them was added to the original Mark. In other words, the original "Word of God" did not say that Christians should be able to handle poisonous snakes with no fear of dying from a bite-that was added by some later scribe to Mark's Gospel. I am hopeful that scribe is paying a price in eternity for what he did, his words have killed thousands over the centuries. End of story-

    June 2, 2012 at 4:56 pm |
    • Orwell prefers Guyana punch

      So who has the original Mark? Got a copy Ed? Bible is the inerrant word of God, there cannot be another version.

      Personally I prefer per-Nicene, like from the Nag Hammadi library. Jesus 911, as a post resurrection character seems more plausible than the book of revelation. All powerful, all knowing, always available to show up in the flesh when invited to settle apostle debates.

      June 2, 2012 at 5:40 pm |
  6. bob

    Paul taught us what to do with snakes...throw them in the fire.

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

      paul was a fuggin idiot

      June 2, 2012 at 5:01 pm |
  7. rob public again

    II hope the snake is OK ???

    June 2, 2012 at 4:56 pm |
  8. Orwell prefers Guyana punch

    Bible is literal, it says handle those serpents.

    Strychnine not doing it? try ricin or cyanide for a more accurate proof of your God given supernatural powers.

    If you die? proves you are not with Jesus, and going to hell as a false prophet.

    If you don't do it? proves you are not with Jesus, and going to hell as a heathen coward.

    It is true because it is in the bible, no more said.

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

      Orwell, the Bible is just like your science book – in the wrong hands it is dangerous. The science books defy the laws of physics regarding matter and energy to set a premise for the universe, the bible has things it in for certain times that people try to pull forward to today. I always remember Judas – he saw Jesus but still did not believe.

      June 2, 2012 at 5:06 pm |
    • Robairdo

      The bible is mostly a book of fairytales.

      June 2, 2012 at 5:11 pm |
    • Orwell prefers Guyana punch

      Science is imperfect, it improves through research and a willingness to reject prior scientific knowledge when proven wrong, to test scientific theories with provable hypotheses. For science to defy physics, then it is not science by definition.

      On the other hand, the bible is the word of God, and therefore is perfect without error. It by definition defies the laws of physics and human reasoning.

      So Rodboy, go back to reading the bible, stay away from science, and stop using technology to write posts on CNN. Spend more time, as always, thinking about Judas. You clownboy.

      June 2, 2012 at 5:28 pm |
  9. Vinny

    I think more republican congressman should focus on handling venomous snakes. They sure as shìt ain't focusing on what's best for the country.

    June 2, 2012 at 4:55 pm |
  10. david

    NOT the gospel

    June 2, 2012 at 4:55 pm |
  11. Chuck

    They should do more civilized things like some religions, you know cutting peoples heads off, hanging sisters, blowing up crowds of people to get close to god, a snake bite seems pretty mild

    June 2, 2012 at 4:55 pm |
    • Y

      What the s- are you talking about?

      June 2, 2012 at 5:07 pm |
  12. Phattee

    Why does the tradition continue? Because people are idiots, duh.

    June 2, 2012 at 4:54 pm |
  13. artie2

    Preach that s8it to the Taliban. Give a whole new meaning to preach and kill – namely their own.
    Ahhh, Tailban, seize the snake, feel its power, feel it's breadth, feel it's bite.......
    Bye Bye

    June 2, 2012 at 4:54 pm |
  14. Heroicslug

    He gave his life to prove Darwin's natural selection correct.

    May the nonexistent gods bless this man.

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

      Hero, better go back and read your physics books, because something out there created the universe, the question should who is the real G O D, not if there is one. Read the second law of nature and it will scare you.

      June 2, 2012 at 5:09 pm |
    • bigdakine

      Roadboy, if you meant tio refer to the seciond law of thermodynamics, please stop. The second law doesn't prevent evolution from happening. Lay off the budweiser maybe you'll start thinking clearer.

      June 2, 2012 at 5:29 pm |
  15. Mopery

    If you live by the snake...

    June 2, 2012 at 4:54 pm |
  16. Joe

    let the hypocrite liberals start with their magnified baseless opinions

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

      I don't think our opinions are magnified nor baseless, you holy rollers are a fairly entertaining lot, and not in a good way either.

      June 2, 2012 at 6:08 pm |
  17. Pokydoke

    I applaud this handling of poisonous snakes, I think it should be adopted by all Christian denominations. The worst that could happen would be to prove Darwin's theory of evolution and a reduction of our Christian population, win win as far as I'm concerned.

    June 2, 2012 at 4:54 pm |
  18. wrm

    Do whatever floats your boat... or sinks it.

    June 2, 2012 at 4:54 pm |
  19. annebeth

    I grew up in Mingo County WV, where there are snake handling churches and these people truly believe that by having the courage to handle snakes, means they have total faith in God. This is there way of showing the world that they have no fear and put ALL their trust in God. I don't understand it but there are really people who believe this.

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

      If they truly believe in G-d, he would know....and there's no need to "prove it" to anyone. Right? This is just plain vanity, arrogance and stupìdity. So yeah, I'm all for hìcks playing with venomous snakes 😛

      June 2, 2012 at 4:58 pm |
    • Rodboy

      They forget about the parts about not tempting G O D – because they just study little parts of the B ible – and not the whole thing.

      June 2, 2012 at 5:11 pm |
  20. Brian T.

    Pay attention Creationists, that's Natural Selection at work.

    June 2, 2012 at 4:53 pm |
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