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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. Andrew Harrus

    I personally have survived quite a few things people don't normally survive. My dog was recently bitten by a rattle snake on the neck about a month ago and survived for a day and half before getting to the vet. If you are bitten by a venomous snake, the best thing you can do is try to remain calm. If your heart races or you go running and screaming, your chances of survival are much less. I don't discount Jesus's power. The complete opposite, I've survived some serious things, including poisonous things. One day I was out in the pasture by my house and walked up on a rattle snake. I was definitely in striking distances, and it didn't even rattle or snao at me. I told my told to get back, and I eased away slowly. No, I don't think small children should be handling these things, but in the Bible, Mark 16:17-18, it speaks of doing such things. Now, I don't think it would be very wise to put on a show doing such things unless it was deemed necessary by the Lord, but I've swallowed my share of poison. Don't try it at home.

    June 2, 2012 at 10:25 pm |
    • Andrew Harris

      Sorry for the typo. Funny thing about it is I didn't even type my name in there, and I spelled it right the first time. My fingers do get ahead of me at times. Later gators.

      June 2, 2012 at 10:27 pm |
  2. fairshare2

    It was a matter of time! Land of confusion......

    June 2, 2012 at 10:23 pm |
  3. KittyKat

    A nut doesn't fall far from the tree.

    June 2, 2012 at 10:22 pm |
    • oldlarry

      Problem is they don't die before they reproduce.

      June 2, 2012 at 10:26 pm |
  4. emad habib

    what is this

    June 2, 2012 at 10:19 pm |
  5. Bootyfunk

    amazing people could be that indoctrinated into a cult that they would do something so unbelievably dangerous all to appease a sky-god that doesn't really exist. but you know what's worse? christian science. with these snake dancing zombies, they choose to pick up the snake - with christian science, parents decide to pray away their child's inflamed appendix. a child that could have been saved by modern medicine is killed through her parents' religious ignorance. that's worse. snake dancing dummies kill themselves, but christian science kills other people, often children.

    June 2, 2012 at 10:15 pm |
    • Terry

      there are strange people everywhere, from every group... even your group. This guy is no different. However, to say you KNOW the secrets of the universe (that there is no God) only shows what a idiot you are.

      June 2, 2012 at 10:31 pm |
  6. No Way Yahweh

    Why cant more brainwashed people take up the perfectly safe hobby of playing with snakes?!

    June 2, 2012 at 10:13 pm |
  7. gerald lettingg

    Several thousand catholic boys are wishing that their priests played with snakes

    June 2, 2012 at 10:11 pm |
    • Cyn

      They did! The one-eyed trouser snake.

      June 2, 2012 at 11:47 pm |
  8. jb

    So much for being a snake charmer... evolution strikes again

    June 2, 2012 at 10:07 pm |
  9. MCP123

    "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.”"

    How wells that working out for ya there?

    June 2, 2012 at 10:05 pm |
  10. Bobo

    Properly disposed of!!!

    June 2, 2012 at 10:04 pm |
  11. sharkfisher

    It is written " Thou shalt not tempt the Lord thy God"

    June 2, 2012 at 10:02 pm |
  12. Julie S. Anaheim, CA

    Darwin Awards, for sure.

    As for strychnine poisoning, you can do something about it: Treatment of strychnine poisoning involves an oral application of an activated charcoal infusion which serves to absorb any poison within the digestive tract that has not yet been absorbed into the blood. Anticonvulsants such as phenobarbital or diazepam are administered to control convulsions, along with muscle relaxants such as dantrolene to combat muscle rigidity.[2] If the patient survives past 24 hours, recovery is probable.

    But of course, these people are against anti-venom, and against all treatments – until it's too late.

    June 2, 2012 at 9:56 pm |
  13. pickles

    It's called "Natural Selection".

    June 2, 2012 at 9:54 pm |
    • snake girl

      Natural selection ~ Too true !! hopefully he did not reproduce,,

      June 2, 2012 at 10:01 pm |
  14. Bestoink Dooley

    Hey,none of these religious idiots will EVER pick up a king cobra or black mamba.

    June 2, 2012 at 9:54 pm |
    • Julie S. Anaheim, CA

      Now THAT would be making a statement...

      June 2, 2012 at 9:58 pm |
    • maryla

      got it!!

      June 2, 2012 at 10:23 pm |
  15. Andrew

    Protestants have lost their f@#%ing minds and messiah's message.

    June 2, 2012 at 9:54 pm |
    • Luke

      Really? Just Protestants?

      June 2, 2012 at 10:28 pm |
  16. will

    Dumb Stunt...predictable result.

    June 2, 2012 at 9:53 pm |
  17. Morons Unite

    Good riddance.

    June 2, 2012 at 9:51 pm |
  18. Earthling

    How is it even possible to be that stupid.

    June 2, 2012 at 9:49 pm |
    • shon

      hahahaha to true.

      June 2, 2012 at 10:07 pm |
    • maryla

      By reading a Bible, all day long!!!

      June 2, 2012 at 10:26 pm |
  19. Zon

    This year'a recipient of the Darwin Award.

    June 2, 2012 at 9:47 pm |
  20. knt9nr7q

    Are you gay? Are you a nιggεr? Are you a gaynιggεr? If you answered "yes" to all of these questions, then GNAA might be exactly what you're looking for! Join the GNAA today! http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/GNAA
    81473

    June 2, 2012 at 9:46 pm |
    • CNN

      Every one of those clicks and posts are money for us, so thanks for the thousamds of them. Keep it up. Good for us!

      June 2, 2012 at 9:58 pm |
    • Harold Chrispt the p is silent

      seriously you snake handling yocal. Look at me My name is yocal and I have no teeth.

      June 3, 2012 at 7:03 am |
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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.