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. Laurie

    Scripture says that true believers will be protected from harm but not from foolishness. Scripture also says whoever loves danger, will perish by it. Sirach 3:26. (Catholic Bible) The protestants took that book out of the Bible; therefore, he would not have come across that passage.

    June 2, 2012 at 5:10 pm |
    • ןןɐq ʎʞɔnq

      Tell that to the millions of African children who died in the last year. Yeah, they were really foolish.

      June 2, 2012 at 5:12 pm |
  2. cj

    no large soft drinks, but playing with venomous creatures is ok

    June 2, 2012 at 5:10 pm |
    • cj

      the bible is a neat story, maybe we should produce it even more. So is the The Quran, Bhagavad Gita, Tao Te Ching, Torah,
      Book of Mormon

      June 2, 2012 at 5:22 pm |
  3. Amhlair

    I see the hate missionaries are out in force as usual. I'm not the first one to mention that most of the comments are by people who you have to wonder why they're in the Religion/Belief part of CNN. Kindof makes you wonder if they feel they're lacking something and might just be fighting against the promptings. The Bible said this would happen, you know.

    June 2, 2012 at 5:10 pm |
    • jungleboo

      If you need "the bible" to tell you this would happen, you are indeed a slow learner.

      June 2, 2012 at 5:11 pm |
    • Budda belly

      Because CNN threw out a softball front and center to show how stupid religion can be. This guy proves the point more than most.

      June 2, 2012 at 5:12 pm |
    • jungleboo

      And, no Dear, we are not cuddling up to the Belief Blog just to tickle our secret fetish for being "saved". We come here to participate in free discourse, in hopes that some young men and women who have been brainwashed by their elders will come to their senses. We would like them to understand the superst.ition that has been painted across their minds. SUPERST.ITION. Does that word look familiar to you?

      June 2, 2012 at 5:22 pm |
    • Amhlair

      @Jungleboo – Ohhh, so YOU'RE the smart one and we're the dumb miguided rubes?

      See, I would have thought it was just the opposite.

      June 2, 2012 at 8:17 pm |
  4. Ian Weber

    God has clearly spoken ... he does work in mysterious ways.

    June 2, 2012 at 5:10 pm |
  5. adrifter

    If this wasn't pathetic, tragic and bizarre, it would be hilarious.

    June 2, 2012 at 5:09 pm |
  6. Big Gay Al

    Morons can handle dangerouse snakes and get killed, yet gay people can't get married. Makes sense.

    June 2, 2012 at 5:09 pm |
  7. Steve

    I believe it should not be illegal, except for minors. We can't outlaw stupidity. By killing themselves off, they are just proving Darwin's survival of the fittest. Doesn't the Bible say "Professing themselves to be wise, they became fools?"

    June 2, 2012 at 5:09 pm |
  8. Lindalou

    Wow, what people convince themselves to do in the name of God continues to amaze me.

    June 2, 2012 at 5:09 pm |
    • The Dude

      No sheet. And I thought praying was the ultimate stupidity.

      June 2, 2012 at 5:11 pm |
  9. big banjo

    even thru natural selection such as these people there will never be a shortage of stupid people on this earth

    June 2, 2012 at 5:09 pm |
  10. palintwit

    If the toothbrush had been invented anywhere else but in the south it would've been called a teethbrush.

    June 2, 2012 at 5:09 pm |
  11. elias godinez

    Even de anti-Christ is making things like this to cause deceptive in the world, Why? because no one must to being making shows to others in order of gain their faith, better than expose to descredit to their church is help to understand the reason of the gospel whit out causing terror, Paul as apostol was bitten for snake but the big diference is realy once to show the power to unbelivers but no belivers. What about new visitors in ths kind of churches? I prefer the knolowdge rather than shows to scare to new specters.

    June 2, 2012 at 5:09 pm |
    • The Dude

      I am the Anti-Christ. I had nothing to do with this.

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

      English helps if you have a point to make.

      June 2, 2012 at 5:13 pm |
    • jungleboo

      Good luck, Elias.

      June 2, 2012 at 5:13 pm |
  12. jungleboo

    This kind of stupidity is at the core of the writers of the Bible. Thousands of years ago, ignorant people with power issues practiced or imagined this goof ball stuff. Nuts are drawn to it like moth to the flame. Centuries of Stupidity masquerade as Ultimate Wisdom, and only now have we the freedom of information to expose it. These fundamentalist sects operate with no oversight, and simmer a deadly stew of ideas. They are ignorance personified, a carnival midway.

    June 2, 2012 at 5:08 pm |
  13. Jeff Lucas

    Why's it ok for this guy to play with poisonous snakes as a part of his faith, but me smoking pot cause my Bible says I can is considered a heinous crime?

    the Drug Enforcement Agency needs to give me a religious use exemption from the CSA, they're infringing on my first amendment rights

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

      You just figured that out?

      June 2, 2012 at 5:13 pm |
    • brown

      You have no rights. Tool.

      June 2, 2012 at 5:13 pm |
  14. Gavin Ford

    Guess it goes to show....you play with fire you get burned.

    June 2, 2012 at 5:06 pm |
  15. magneticink


    June 2, 2012 at 5:06 pm |
  16. harpman

    duh, we just don't get it.

    June 2, 2012 at 5:06 pm |
  17. palintwit

    Why didn't that other idiot teabagger Sarah Palin stop him from doing that ?

    June 2, 2012 at 5:05 pm |
    • Bob_Lawbla

      You are the front runner for id-e-ut of the day. Good luck.

      June 2, 2012 at 5:07 pm |
  18. The Dude

    There must be an easier safer way to separate idi0tic Christ Cultists from their money. Speaking in tongues seems to work.

    June 2, 2012 at 5:05 pm |
    • The Dude


      June 2, 2012 at 5:06 pm |
  19. Martin

    “Tempting God is disbelief in God, not belief in Him,” he said...That's not what the Lord Jesus said when Satan tried to tempt Him to jump off the top of the temple by twisting the Scriptures...Matthew 4:5 Then the devil took Jesus up into the holy city, set Him on the pinnacle of the temple, 6 and said to Him, "If You are the Son of God, throw Yourself down. For it is written: 'HE SHALL GIVE HIS ANGELS CHARGE OVER YOU,' and, IN THEIR HANDS THEY SHALL BEAR YOU UP, LEST YOU DASH YOUR FOOT AGAINST A STONE.' " 7 Jesus said to him, "It is written again, 'YOU SHALL NOT TEMPT THE LORD YOUR GOD.' "

    June 2, 2012 at 5:05 pm |
  20. Budda belly

    This doesn't make much more sense than devoting your life to a made up dude and way of life. The Bible was written two thousand + years ago by men who believed in fire breathing dragons and thought you'd fall off the earth. Science and knowledge has proven neither exist so how is it that this science fiction novel is still ruining peoples lives and along with other religions may end human life? This religion however does use venomous snakes at least making some sense for putting your money in the collection plate for a real show of idiots.

    June 2, 2012 at 5:05 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.