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. Dana

    Remove brain. Insert dogma.

    June 2, 2012 at 5:17 pm |
  2. Tara Hill

    This is absolutely what God and Jesus wants us to do. If you are a Christian and truly believe, then go out and drink poison. God WILL protect you!!!! Show your love for Jesus, drink some poison, do it.
    –See ya,

    June 2, 2012 at 5:15 pm |
  3. ObamaUnitl2016

    On the plus side, this is another Romney voter that won't be voting in the fall..
    (What? Too soon?)

    June 2, 2012 at 5:15 pm |
  4. brown

    hahahaha! Die f ocker!

    June 2, 2012 at 5:14 pm |
  5. Buddy Darwin

    Evolution @work, narrow minded religious fanatics, being idiots and killing themselves!

    June 2, 2012 at 5:14 pm |
  6. Sam

    Darwin Award nominee???

    June 2, 2012 at 5:14 pm |
  7. Y

    It's very odd for churches to have such practice since serpent has always been a symbolic expression that could mean evil, satan, temptations, and more spiritual than physical. There's no part in the bible that tells believers to handle snake like this. What purpose does it serve if one handles snakes with skills yet live a wicked life?

    June 2, 2012 at 5:14 pm |
    • logan5

      Read Mathew 16:16-18. It clearly states that believers shall be endowed with the ability to pick up serpents and drink their poison with no ill effect. It's all there in black and white. But you really can't blame these people. This is what happens to those who allow themselves to be taken by the absurdities of the Abrahamic religions.

      June 2, 2012 at 5:37 pm |
  8. Kris

    Answer: Because they're idiots.

    June 2, 2012 at 5:14 pm |
  9. ObamaUnitl2016

    Right about now, there are dozens of radical right wing extremists saying that it's Obama's fault.

    June 2, 2012 at 5:14 pm |
  10. dscon

    The Department of Agriculture will save us !!!

    The food stamp program, part of the Department of Agriculture,
    is pleased to be distributing the greatest amount of food stamps ever.

    the National Park Service,
    also part of the Department of Agriculture,
    asks us to "please do not feed the animals,"
    because the animals may grow dependent
    and not learn to take care of themselves.

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

      The National Park Service is NOT a part of the Dept. of Agriculture. It is part of the Dept. of the Interior, and having people NOT feed the animals is for for their safety as well as the animals. Humans think it is funny to feed items to animals that will eventually kill them.

      June 2, 2012 at 5:18 pm |
    • dscon

      "Humans think it is funny to feed items to animals that will eventually kill them."
      regardless it is funny that the fed govt will talk crap out both sides.
      and encourage feeding animals/humans that will the destroy the us economy.
      youve made my point silly!

      June 2, 2012 at 5:25 pm |
    • logan5

      They ask us not to feed the animals so they will not lose their fear of man. It's for our safety and theirs and has nothing to do with them not being able to take care of themselves, genius. LOL

      June 2, 2012 at 5:41 pm |
  11. Jez

    aaaahhhhhhHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA! That's the funniest thing I have heard in a long time! Darwin's theory in action!
    Thanks for the laugh CNN!

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

    One less brainwashed religious fool.

    June 2, 2012 at 5:13 pm |
  13. Perry B.

    The answer to the question of "why do they do it" is: Why ask? People skydive, they test new flying suits by leaping off cliffs, they bungie jump. This group believes that playing with killer snakes and living is a way of demonstrating how their faith protects them. So the thrill is publicly demonstrating their relationship with God. It is a thrill seekers behavior but with the intention of proving that God will protect them. It's no worse than the other thrill seekers, and it has an extra dimensionthat gives their lives meaning. An an atheist I say, leave them alone. They only harm themselves. The outcome is a forgone conclusion. If a snake bites you, you die. If he doesn't, you get to believe God proected you and go home feeling pretty good about yourself. It's a pretty good way to demonstrate you really believe deeply in God. Evan as an atheist, I can truly respect this. What they don't understand is that they learn to handle deadly snakes such that it does not feel the need to always bite. But hey, if they believe God is doing it, it is no more deluded than people who think God cured their cancer. Or God won their team's baseball game. Or God allowed the pitcher to throw a perfect game. At least here they put their life on the line to prove their faith. It is so couragious and deluded at the same time. But no more deluded than the pitcher, or baseball fan, or the cancer vicim.

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

      He didn't have much faith now, did he?

      June 2, 2012 at 5:20 pm |
    • BBK


      June 2, 2012 at 5:32 pm |
  14. palintwit

    I'll bet they're having a hell of a party at the ol' trailer park tonight !

    June 2, 2012 at 5:13 pm |
  15. Fred

    The verses at Mark 16:9-20 are recognized as spurious by many Bible translators who have earlier manuscripts in the original Greek language than what were available in 16th century England. The New Revised Standard Version, The New American Standard Bible, The New King James Version among many other modern translations note that those verses do not appear in most of the oldest manuscripts of Mark’s Gospel.

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


      June 2, 2012 at 5:18 pm |
  16. Dan

    It's always amusing when people think the bible is factual.

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

      It's always amusing when people think the progressive mindset is rooted in facts.

      June 2, 2012 at 5:18 pm |
    • logan5

      You don't see those of the progressive mindset picking up rattlesnakes with their bare hands, do you??

      June 2, 2012 at 5:55 pm |
    • dscon

      logan .5;
      no, but i have seen them worship another snake.......
      till the end.

      June 2, 2012 at 6:10 pm |
  17. joy

    Well it's nice that some idiots have this way of offing themselves. Too bad it's a practice not too prevalent in the whacko portion of the population.

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

      the libs/washington are eating themselves alive too!

      June 2, 2012 at 5:16 pm |
  18. Bill

    I'd like to be a fly on the wall at the pearly gates when this guy meets Jesus.

    Mack: Why did you let the snake kill me?
    Jesus: I told you to be a Christian, not an idiot.

    June 2, 2012 at 5:11 pm |
    • Craig Doug

      It's more like...

      Jesus: The Lord your God doesn't bless stupid.

      June 2, 2012 at 5:16 pm |
  19. 60minuteman

    He should have traveled to Arizona. I'm certain he could have found lots of followers there.

    June 2, 2012 at 5:11 pm |
    • arthurpendragon2

      Yes – and Arizona has more lethal snakes...

      June 2, 2012 at 5:26 pm |
  20. Mike Scott

    Stupid hics...

    June 2, 2012 at 5:10 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.