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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. 82aw4rbkkg9c24ri1i

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    June 2, 2012 at 9:44 pm |
  2. Joyce Godsen

    There is a huge disparity between the nature of "the Christian God" and the nature of many of His "well-meaning followers." As for me, I put my faith in Jesus Christ at age 11 at a Christian summer camp. Something inside of me just "clicked" at the time. I understood that I was a sinner in need of a Savior to connect me with a Loving Heavenly Father... a God, a Creator and Father whom I did not know- but whom I somehow always really wanted to know. I can honestly say that the kids at the summer camp were pretty nasty kids and the counselors were not particularly loving or caring towards me either... but I wasn't deterred or distracted by these people, who behaved no differently from any others I had known. My focus was on getting to know this God I was learning about through the Bible teaching... a God who took my attention away from the oddities and pettiness of the people around me... a God who had come to place His love and His Spirit inside of me... me: a person who would otherwise be filled with all kinds of anxieties, hatreds, fears, addictions, sins etc. Somehow, I understood that this is the true nature of Christianity: being in a committed relationship with a loving, Holy God who has a perfect plan for the saving and redeeming of a lost and broken world. Miracles do flow out of such a relationship with this God... but the right relationship and the right Spirit should be there testifying to the surpassing nature of God in Christ Jesus, not simply performing a trick or a ritual for the sake of that trick or that ritual (which, unfortunately happens more often than it should). Certainly, I believe that there are other spirits and other types of "magic", manipulations and "miracles" in this world, but if they do not point to the redeeming love of God, then I believe it comes from and draws people to a dangerous place, where, like this pastor, they may not be protected. Therefore, people need to be educated and gain greater discernment in order to distinguish truth from the lies and deception, which generally accompany and cloak the truth.

    June 2, 2012 at 9:43 pm |
    • archimedes109

      The length of your post shouts out in all caps, "I'm a religious nut job!" Not wanting to be too hasty, I started reading and found that...well, you know...initial impressions are sometimes meaningful.

      June 2, 2012 at 9:46 pm |
  3. jon

    A dying breed that drinks strychnine=acid=LSD= rat poison. No wonder they're crazy. Give em free snakes so they become extinct.

    June 2, 2012 at 9:40 pm |
  4. gggggg

    Well, the Lord spoke through the snake. He says he doesn't like this practice.

    June 2, 2012 at 9:39 pm |
  5. archimedes109

    These people are dying because of religion. Why is it so hard to understand? If it requires your belief to exist, then it does not really exist.

    June 2, 2012 at 9:38 pm |
  6. Jo Hargis

    One word: Darwin.

    June 2, 2012 at 9:38 pm |
  7. 21k

    we need to make snake-handling a more common tradition among xtians. it will weed out the weak-minded from the gene pool and free-up food, water and resources for the rest of us. and yes, it will reduce the amount of mindless hate in the world.

    June 2, 2012 at 9:35 pm |
  8. Johnny Obvious

    So despite delieving that "seeking medical help means you’re already starting to lose faith,” on his death bed he abandoned faith and chose reason instead, calling the first responders? I love it! That's the opposite of what Christians are sure atheists do!

    I love it when religion has a head-on collision with reality

    June 2, 2012 at 9:35 pm |
  9. Dave

    I am pretty sure Jesus will ask Mack why he was such an idiot and would send him to hell for being such a fool.

    June 2, 2012 at 9:35 pm |
    • Johnny Obvious

      No. They both are dead, which means they both totally stopped and nothing more is happening. Death is exactly what it looks like – no magic kingdoms or torture chambers or reincarnation, you just stop.

      June 2, 2012 at 9:37 pm |
    • Serious Question

      Is there any Biblical passage that denies Heaven to the stupid?

      June 2, 2012 at 9:41 pm |
  10. tony

    Looks like Discus is a dead duck if anyone can do this to it.

    June 2, 2012 at 9:34 pm |
  11. Germain

    Call me insensitive, but he got killed by the serpent himself.
    I mean, really?
    The serpent deceived eve, and you celebrate it.
    Christ died on a cross and you hold it sacred.

    June 2, 2012 at 9:34 pm |
  12. Ron

    I hereby solemnly and admiringly nominate the late Reverend Mack Wolford for the 2012 Darwin Award.

    June 2, 2012 at 9:33 pm |
    • If horses had Gods .. their Gods would be horses

      you have a second!!

      June 2, 2012 at 9:34 pm |
  13. If horses had Gods .. their Gods would be horses

    "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."
    -There are no believers when they have the choice to call paramedics!!

    June 2, 2012 at 9:31 pm |
    • Drew

      hahaha a very nice inversion of the oft-cited atheist-foxhole principle

      June 2, 2012 at 9:35 pm |
  14. R

    Hey Tria,
    The commands given in the book of Leviticus are anything but ridiculous. Not until recently have medical professionsals learned that foods prohibited to be eaten by God's chosen people contained high cholesteral. Pork is about 26% fat and bacon and sausage are about 80% fat. Fish with fins are healthy to eat and animals with hooves that "eat the cud" are lamb and beef, healthy high protein food choices. General George Washington followed the commandments given in the book of Leviticus to protect his troops and keep them healthy. So have most generals since him! It took man thousands of years to learn the earth was round, yet in Isaiah 40:21-22, a spherical earth is described as "the circle of the earth". It took physicians thousands of years to learn what gave flesh its life. Yet in Leviticus 17:11 it states "For the life of a creature is in the blood-It goes on an on, yet people who consider themselves intelligent continue to ridicule God and his word which was written by prophets into the Bible. I would not be calling anything in the Bible ridiculous.

    June 2, 2012 at 9:31 pm |
    • If horses had Gods .. their Gods would be horses

      Leviticus doesn't ban twinkies .. and they're full of bad shtuff too. Guess God(s) didn't see twinkies coming.

      June 2, 2012 at 9:33 pm |
    • Hey R

      You're so full of sh!t your eyes are turning brown

      June 2, 2012 at 9:41 pm |
    • Drew

      I don't know why you guys keep citing the "circle of the earth" thing. The earth was a sphere not a circle. Also, plenty of people in the ancient world actually knew the world was round; that theory was lost in the dark ages

      June 2, 2012 at 9:41 pm |
    • DarthWoo

      Other civilizations had long since discovered that the Earth was spherical before the writing of the Bible. The Earth is also hardly a two dimensional "circle." The same Bible also makes note of the four corners of the Earth, and that if you are at a certain high point, that you can see all of it, which certainly implies flatness. Try again.

      June 2, 2012 at 9:43 pm |
  15. Johnny Obvious

    I wonder if the spammer who hit this site knows that he actually ran the click count way up for CNN, which lets them make more money on advertising?

    June 2, 2012 at 9:30 pm |
  16. Michael

    People who focus on one line out of scripture will always fail in their understanding of the Bible! It simply shows their immaturity in literal interpretation! Guess I have to go pluck out my eye now as I just looked at a naked woman. Same analogy applies here!

    June 2, 2012 at 9:29 pm |
    • Dave

      Mack is an idiot. This is what stupidity will do to you.

      June 2, 2012 at 9:33 pm |
  17. J. Martinez

    These people are dying because of their ignorance. The Bible never says handle snakes and if you are bitten you will not die, but If you are bitten by them they will not harm you. That means: if serving god you accidentally are bitten by one you have the promise of God not to allow anything bad happen to you. These people, because of ignorance, are losing their lives! God have have mercy on their souls.

    June 2, 2012 at 9:23 pm |
  18. anna capella

    isn't anybody concerned about the snake??? how is it going to get that taste out of its mouth? this is cruelty to animals!

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

      Not to mention animal cruelty

      June 2, 2012 at 9:40 pm |
  19. pacman357

    Morons. It's not God's will, you're playing with venomous animals. Further proof in evolution, however...the smart and the strong don't die this way.

    June 2, 2012 at 9:22 pm |
  20. calvin

    And I'm gonna be stupid...ah, and handle this snake...ah, and...oh, s*** !

    June 2, 2012 at 9:22 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.