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. Greyhound37

    A fine example of Darwin's theory at work.

    June 2, 2012 at 9:19 pm |
  2. endeavormike

    Thank God their white.

    June 2, 2012 at 9:19 pm |
  3. Woody

    There's a snake in my boot !!

    June 2, 2012 at 9:18 pm |
  4. valwayne

    Sound like a pretty stupid way to die, but if he was happy dying for something he believe in I don't have an issue with it. As long as its voluntary and only adults 18 years or older play with poisonous snakes so be it. As for not getting treated after you get beaten. Well stupidity has a way of working itself out of the gene pool, and again if he was happy dying for his beliefs so be it!

    June 2, 2012 at 9:15 pm |
    • Peter

      From the article, he wasn't expecting to die, so the idea that he was happy to die from his beliefs isn't the case. So much so that in the end when he saw he was about to die, he relented and asked for medical help. He had no intention of dying. Either he was forsaken by his God or he was just stupid. Personaly, I believe of was the latter.

      June 2, 2012 at 9:27 pm |
    • Jason

      Muslims die for their faith too. Of course they take others with them. The only difference with Christianity now is that the secular world has civilized them somewhat so that they are not out hunting witches, or other religions in a attempt to propagate their beliefs.

      June 2, 2012 at 9:30 pm |
  5. R

    I don't recall reading anything in the Bible commanding Christians to handle poisonous snakes or to drink poison. The man had been bitten several times before. It seems God gave him numerous chances to stop drinking poison and handle poisonous snakes but he seemed hell bent on continuing the practice to draw attention to himself. Preaching is not about drawing attention to yourself, but rather drawing attention to God. Well, at least the man died doing what he enjoyed. To the people trying to push Allah because of this, your prophet was born 600 plus years after the death of Christ and your prophet copied the old and new testaments, even copying the verses of Jesus ascending into heaven, only replacing him with your prophet who was an admitted pedophile. Allah is the sun god, not the God of Abraham and Issac.

    June 2, 2012 at 9:14 pm |
    • Peter

      He was just dumb enough to believe there is a God.

      June 2, 2012 at 9:28 pm |
    • Jason

      I guess your version of Christianity doesn't focus on that verse as a basis for their faith. Just like some focus on the verse where Judah died in a field, while other focus on the verse where he hangs himself. Its almost like a choose your adventure book. Which ever way you read it you get a different story.

      June 2, 2012 at 9:32 pm |
  6. lynn morra

    Christianity is patriarchy gone mad. Please leave the poor snakes and/or serpents out of it!! The good book is not good for your health folks be it physical, mental or emotional taken to these absurd meglamanical extremes! Get a clue already!

    June 2, 2012 at 9:13 pm |
  7. Atheism is not healthy for children and other living things

    prayer changes things .

    June 2, 2012 at 9:12 pm |
    • Lilith

      Hey Just Sayin' and HeavenSent I see you're back to your old spamming tricks!!
      Are you responsible for that spamming we just experienced too?! LOL

      June 2, 2012 at 9:17 pm |
    • rdeleys

      Sure! It wastes your time.

      June 2, 2012 at 9:17 pm |
    • Greyhound37

      Ironically it didn't change the outcome for this particular nutjob.
      But hey, if you want to go out and so something equally life threatening and then pray for survival, go for it. Maybe you'll be yet another proof of natural selection.

      June 2, 2012 at 9:23 pm |
    • Jason

      Yes your mental state.

      June 2, 2012 at 9:34 pm |
  8. rdeleys

    What a crock!

    June 2, 2012 at 9:09 pm |
  9. fffr

    Natural Selection.

    June 2, 2012 at 9:08 pm |
    • Peter

      You'd think, but his father died after procreating. Hopefully, the 20 – something's the article mentions will all die out before they procreate. THAT will be Natural Selection.

      June 2, 2012 at 9:31 pm |
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    June 2, 2012 at 9:07 pm |
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      ...or just become an atheist and forget about this childish nonsense.

      June 2, 2012 at 9:32 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.