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. drgonzo

    This is awesome. I'm thinking all religions should require their priests to do this. The world would be a better place much quicker!

    June 3, 2012 at 12:28 am |
    • jfb


      June 3, 2012 at 12:36 am |
  2. mttrailboss

    Just plain stupid.. Not a brain in his head and anyone that follows him. A snake in church, he deserves to be bit. Mike in Montana

    June 3, 2012 at 12:25 am |
  3. Robairdo

    Current Ancient Alien theorist hold that at least two groups of Aliens came to Earth during the formation of our religions. One group the rather benign Gray Aliens really were trying to help mankind. Another Alien group came here to mine our Gold, chlorofluorocarbon, protein and other resources and used humans as Slaves. These two Alien Groups were seen as God(s) which explains the many contradictions in the Bible and other religious text.
    Actually the Mayans specifically believed that their Gods came from the Skies and new of a Star around the time of Christ that modern man only discovered less than 100 years ago. They believed all mankind came from that star, Strangley enough just last year an earth like planet was discovered in that star system.
    This also explains why many cultures belief in multiple gods.

    June 3, 2012 at 12:25 am |
    • drgonzo

      You'll get made fun of for this, and while I'm not a beliver in what you're saying here it still makes more sense than a magical sky faerie creating the world with a word.

      June 3, 2012 at 12:30 am |
    • Robairdo

      @drgonzo, I agree I will get made fun of especially by the religious reich which makes absolutely no sense since with billions of stars there is actually mathematical probability on my side and this theory is scientifically possible.

      June 3, 2012 at 12:38 am |
    • Not buying either

      Magic aliens are no better than magic zombie-messiahs. Both share a total lack of evidence, and both are just fantasy upon fantasy upon runaway fantasy.

      June 3, 2012 at 12:52 am |
    • Robairdo

      @Not Buy... A lot of evidence has been found all over the world supporting these findings. Nasca lines in Peru, 2000 y/o radiation in India and Middle East....

      June 3, 2012 at 1:03 am |
  4. Dorothy

    The Christian view of God can be pretty warped sometimes. You've got the idiots in NC preaching about the gays....you've got the Pope cruising around in a popemobile and not tending the part of his "flock" that is actually hurting little kids......you've got Phelps acting like a psychotic maniac. You've got the dude in kentucky that won't let interracial couples into his church....You've got this egomaniac playing with venomous snakes. How much does it take to get people to let their common sense click in and say these kind of behaviors are not consistent with a supreme and loving deity?

    June 3, 2012 at 12:24 am |
  5. spangler

    Virtually every testable statement in the Bible has been proven to be false. The faithful still maintain however they are certain about the things which are invisible and unproveable.

    June 3, 2012 at 12:21 am |
    • watash

      The bible is nothing but a collection of B/S stories that folks a long time ago made up to amuse themselves and someone gathered them up and put them in one large book. Aesop's fables and tales of Uncle Remus should be added to it.

      June 3, 2012 at 1:14 am |
  6. flar

    glad to see the hacker got canned.mwow, that was one hell of a trick.. how do you bust into cnn blogs and pummel them?

    June 3, 2012 at 12:20 am |
  7. Dave Goldberg

    Not only was he stupid, but he lost his faith at the end too because he called paramedics. Maybe the Lord put a rattle on the end of the snake's tail to let you know not to mess with it!

    June 3, 2012 at 12:11 am |
    • Mike Fleissner

      The story, ironically, demonstrates natural selection, not unlike Garrison Keillor's observations about people who insist on going out on thin ice, Thinning the herd

      June 3, 2012 at 12:28 am |
  8. Russ

    Previously, he had been bitten four times by copperheads which are much less poisonous than rattlesnakes. Those bites may have given him false confidence. This time a rattler got him. All poisonous snakes are not equal, as he found out the hard way.

    June 3, 2012 at 12:08 am |
  9. shawn maccormack

    CAN'T FIX STUPID !!!!!!!!!!!

    June 3, 2012 at 12:08 am |
    • James PDX Mostly Straight

      I'd say his stupid is fixed...permanently.

      June 3, 2012 at 12:24 am |
  10. mr white

    Darwinism at work. Most excellent.

    June 3, 2012 at 12:05 am |
    • Oh,Evolve!

      Indeed! Does anyone need any better proof of evolution? Darwin at its best!!

      June 3, 2012 at 12:29 am |
  11. chupacabra

    God only helps those who take non lethal doses of poison, awesome!

    June 3, 2012 at 12:05 am |
  12. Ivan Bial

    can you say redneck.

    June 3, 2012 at 12:04 am |
  13. Russ

    This is just an extreme case of how religion warps people's thinking so that they have no common sense. However, if you believe in God on FAITH, that means you throw common sense out the window. Instead, use your common sense and in science and what is proven.

    This is a fact. Out of about 45,000 snake bites per year, only 12-15 die, mostly from snakes people own. Copperhead bites are hardly ever fatal unless a person is bitten more than once. It is the least poisonous pit viper. Usually left untreated, a person will recover on his own from a copperhead bite, however it could be painful. All the articles say to get treatment as soon as possible for snakebite and do not move the affected part, do not cut, suck, or use suction devices on the bite either.

    June 2, 2012 at 11:57 pm |
  14. Lisa

    This is not religion, it's just sheer stupidity.

    June 2, 2012 at 11:55 pm |
    • Dorothy

      Fighting over contraception is not religion....it's sheer stupidity. Fighting over gay marriage is not religion.... it's sheer stupidity. There are a lot of people that are pretty confident that they know "the mind of God." Sheer stupidity is a good definition of that mentality.

      June 2, 2012 at 11:59 pm |
    • Robairdo

      Right Dorothy this so called "Christians should read the Gospel where Christ met and approved of a gay couple.

      June 3, 2012 at 12:10 am |
  15. Lynn

    Can't you get your POINT ACROSS with a NON-poisonous snake?

    June 2, 2012 at 11:54 pm |
    • Rod C. Venger

      What would be the point of that? Whether you believe it or not, it's an act of faith, not a whole lot different than parachuting out of an airplane.

      Why would anyone jump out of an airplane, a perfectly good one at that, when the one thing keeping you from dying is the proper deployment of the parachute? Parachutes can and do fail, and people can and do die. One has to have faith that the person that packed the chute did it right and that something will not go wrong with it besides. There's a double danger there.

      How is that different from snake handling? These people believe that their faith in God keeps them from being bitten...and if they are bitten, it's up to God whether they live or die...a measure of their faith perhaps?

      I would bet anything that more people in the US die from parachuting every year than from religious snake handling. Who's really the crazy ones here?

      FWIW, though a Christian and long time snake lover, I do not handle poisonous snakes. I used to catch rattlers for labs, but that's different.

      June 3, 2012 at 12:26 am |
  16. Tommy T

    You can't argue with stupid...

    June 2, 2012 at 11:53 pm |
    • don

      Ha Ha Ha Ha Ha, This is funny stuff.
      God, sitting on his cloud, or jet ski, or what ever he sits on, must not have liked him or his dad.
      Was he a good man and tried to help people, or a swindler? Hmmmmmm, my guess is the latter. Did God have anything to do with is death? Maybe, if you believe in the Easter Bunny also.
      What century do we live in? Funny, funny stupid people.

      June 3, 2012 at 12:01 am |
    • don

      Ha Ha Ha Ha, This is funny stuff.
      God, sitting on his cloud, or jet ski, or what ever he sits on, must not have liked him or his dad.
      Was he a good man and tried to help people, or a swindler? Hmmmmmm, my guess is the latter. Did God have anything to do with is death? Maybe, if you believe in the Easter Bunny also.
      What century do we live in? Funny, funny stupid people.

      June 3, 2012 at 12:02 am |
  17. Boo

    If a tree falls in the wilderness and there is NO-ONE there to hear it.... Does it make a sound? That's the same arrogant way of thinking as these holy rollers of the dice. Also; If some one poisons my food and I don't KNOW it... will I die? DUH! When their lord made poison and serpents their lord made them for everybody. Especially for them.

    June 2, 2012 at 11:51 pm |
    • flar

      bart simpson.. the sound of one hand clapping

      June 3, 2012 at 12:22 am |
  18. Timothy

    Sometimes the Snake needs to win.

    Likewise, if Deer could shoot back at the redneck hunters and whittle down that crowd too.

    June 2, 2012 at 11:51 pm |
    • don

      I feel bad for snakes being manhandled by a fat, oily sweaty dirt bags.,
      Good riddance! Might be fat, can't really tell by the picture.

      June 3, 2012 at 12:05 am |
  19. rob2tall

    as a former park ranger-all I can say is rattlesnakes dont like to be held-or in any area with all that noise-yelling-and energy flowing-it bit the dumb idiot out of self defense-or simply it was irritated-leave snakes alone! They are not messengers from God!
    Any idiot who messes with a poisonous creature be it a snake,spider,frog,etc gets what they deserve for being so stupid!

    June 2, 2012 at 11:50 pm |
  20. Dorothy

    The Bible tells them to handle snakes? The Bible tells them that God does not want gay marriage? The Bible tells them not to use contraceptives? Give me a break. People should be using their own common sense and then the Bible may provide a spiritual context for what your common sense already tells you. Unfortunately people also let their prejudices creep in and try to use the Bible to justify them as well. The litmus test should be that if you are using the bible to "prove" something....or using the bible to show that somebody else (who is not hurting anybody) is doing wrong......then you're probably not using the Bible for what it was intended.

    June 2, 2012 at 11:48 pm |
    • Robairdo

      • Christ NEVER condemned hom ose xua1ity. This is what Jesus said to a gay man he met: Truly I tell you, I have not found anyone in Israel with such great faith.. The only thing Christ ever called an @bomi-nation is “the worship of money”.

      June 3, 2012 at 12:12 am |
    • Lol

      Another litmus test might be to consider people who believed in talking donkeys and gods talking in the form of burning shrubbery as clueless barbarian imbeciles................

      June 3, 2012 at 12:15 am |
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About this blog

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.