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. WachetAuf

    Narcissism resides within all of us. That makes it very difficult to know oneself. It is much easier to judge the character and personality traits of others. It is Jesus' principle message. Turn the other cheek, etc., etc. Once these narcissists have constructed their narrow little worlds, they lose touch with reality because the only feedback which they receive is from the enablers who live in their small little world. Theer is no hope for them unless and until their little world collapses. And even then, it is unlikley that the narcissist will ever see the reality of his creation because the longer it lasts the more likley it has become a deeply embedded pathology.

    June 2, 2012 at 10:57 pm |
  2. Dandy

    Looks like God is still utilizing the natural selection process to get rid of the idiotsl ! 😉

    June 2, 2012 at 10:56 pm |
    • Theatleasteighty-fourpercentoftheearth'spopulace

      Maybe it was meant for bootyfunk.

      June 2, 2012 at 11:02 pm |
  3. Josh

    The great irony is that the passage that these snake handlers/poison drinkers put so much stock in, Mark 16: 18, isn't found in the earliest known versions of the gospel. I like to think that it was put in there by a disgruntled Jewish scribe, who was thinking, "let's see how you whackadoos handle playing with snakes and drinking rat poison".

    June 2, 2012 at 10:54 pm |
    • Dandy

      Well, at least someone had a sense of humor back then!

      June 2, 2012 at 10:58 pm |
  4. Cindor74

    I don't get it. Was he bit by a yellow timber rattlesnake (3rd paragraph) or copperheads (2nd to last paragraph)?

    Anyway, blind faith is incomprehensible.

    June 2, 2012 at 10:53 pm |
    • Dandy

      Does it matter. Preaching while handling snakes and yelling into a microphone .... lunacy! These guys make pedophile priests look responsible! :-/

      June 2, 2012 at 11:00 pm |
    • mocomment

      Good call, don;t have time to chack now. Rather take my chances with a rattler than a copperhead (if my earlier posts ever made it during a D.O.S attack. Still not stupid enough to pick up a venomous snake. Grew up where large (6' or better) copperheads lived, see one, pee in pants, and run the other way. The snake usually does too (except they don't have pants), they don't like being picked up.

      June 2, 2012 at 11:13 pm |
  5. martin

    this is animal abuse..where is PETA?

    June 2, 2012 at 10:52 pm |
  6. Josh

    Why does the tradition continue? Two words: natural selection.

    June 2, 2012 at 10:51 pm |
  7. dan

    "I was born a snake handler, and I'll die a snake handler..."


    June 2, 2012 at 10:49 pm |
  8. dan

    Where's your Messiah NOW?

    June 2, 2012 at 10:47 pm |
  9. Laura LaVertu

    Darwinism at work.

    June 2, 2012 at 10:46 pm |
  10. Cedar rapids

    "So why does the tradition continue? "

    because you cant fix stupid.

    June 2, 2012 at 10:40 pm |
    • celeyonn

      I see many of the posts have correctly identified the problem as – "stupid", and thus un-fixable. But don't despair –
      stupid is fixable. First – don't "inbreed – ie marry your cousin" and have children. Second – if you are already stupid
      then don't "like breed" or "near breed" – ie. don't marry somebody else that is stupid, and then have children. Third – if
      you are already stupid and mortally ill or wounded – then don't seek medical treatment – ie. don't go to the E/R for treatment. A few years of doing this, and a large portion of the "stupid" problem will have been fixed, it does not
      even require raising taxes, and definitely should wind up lowering taxes in the long term. Even with poor odds,
      Darwin can win !!

      June 2, 2012 at 11:06 pm |
  11. Rattlesnake Venom > Holy Ghost Power

    true story!

    June 2, 2012 at 10:39 pm |
  12. sofia

    One of the hallmarks of religious fanaticism is ignorance

    June 2, 2012 at 10:36 pm |
  13. George Muller

    Religion give god a bad name!

    June 2, 2012 at 10:36 pm |
  14. Wholly Mary

    BITE ME!

    June 2, 2012 at 10:33 pm |
  15. Arab atheist

    Only two things are infinite, the universe and human stupidity, and I'm not sure about the former – Albert Einstein

    June 2, 2012 at 10:32 pm |
    • mocomment

      I think EInstein said (paraphrasing) The only difference between genious and stupidity is that genious has is limits. Couldn't agree more.

      June 2, 2012 at 11:02 pm |
    • mocomment

      I meant "it's limits", tired.

      June 2, 2012 at 11:05 pm |
  16. joe

    I love that he lost his faith and told his family to call paramedics. The message there...religion can't save your life (in fact in this case it killed a man) but science can.

    June 2, 2012 at 10:31 pm |
  17. KC

    What an idiotic tradition. Also the snakes would rather be outside, just being snakes!

    June 2, 2012 at 10:27 pm |
    • Denise

      "What an idiotic tradition." -religion in a nutshell.

      June 2, 2012 at 10:29 pm |
  18. SteveInMN

    Q: What do you call 100 far right wing nut hillbilly preachers killed by arrogantly handling deadly snakes?

    A: A start!

    June 2, 2012 at 10:27 pm |
    • Denise


      June 2, 2012 at 10:30 pm |
  19. Roger

    Why do practices like this continue? Because these people are stupid. It's as simple as that. Faith is an excuse for not having the brains to figure out that God does not exist.

    June 2, 2012 at 10:27 pm |
    • fintastic

      Right on Roger!!!

      Well put...

      June 4, 2012 at 4:20 pm |
  20. Cruzader

    We need only one word: stupidity.

    June 2, 2012 at 10:27 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.