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. Father Bob

    So the guy wanted to get a head start on his rapture.

    June 3, 2012 at 1:47 am |
  2. UVikingsLost

    Okay now, since Mitt Romney wants to be President of the United States, where does Mormon Mitt Romney fit into all of this?
    Maybe he'd want one of his wives handling the serpents (snakes).

    June 3, 2012 at 1:40 am |

    Has anyone ever heard the term "MORON"? This fits well with this story.

    June 3, 2012 at 1:37 am |
  4. gimmeslack12

    People attempting to get a Darwin award, that is why the tradition continues. Heck, maybe it was suicide.

    June 3, 2012 at 1:33 am |
    • IhaveID

      Darwin award was the 1st thing that came to my mind as well lol

      June 3, 2012 at 1:49 am |
  5. spangler

    "Snake bites man" is not really news. "Snake tries to talk minister into eating an apple," that would be news.

    June 3, 2012 at 1:30 am |
    • Mariam

      Agree 100%

      June 3, 2012 at 1:43 am |
    • I.said

      I am not surprised about this news. In the religious world, similar ideas are in all kinds of shapes of forms. Turn on a religious channel on TV late at night, your reaction would be sheer identical to an infomercial of someone selling his book on making a million dollars in a week. Humans have a strong sense of community, we are drawn to each other by this herd tendency. People's ideas play an important role in this. Young people on Facebook are in no way in danger of being brainwashed by the snake-handlers and alike.

      June 3, 2012 at 2:09 am |
    • free_thinking


      June 3, 2012 at 2:44 am |
  6. freeman7718

    "Do not tempt the Lord your God," better yet don't merely assume God should protect you if your own imagination says to handle snakes. When Paul the apostle was bit by a snake on an island while enroute to Rome and lived it's not because he was handling snakes, it was an accident. No one in the New Testament purposely handled snakes to somehow prove anything or to create an atmosphere of a miracle. This is foolish and how does it change a person's heart and mind (I don't mean by dying either). All of these weird manifestations need to be seriously questioned with one question, "is Christ Jesus being formed in me" and not how much of a weird show can you put on.

    June 3, 2012 at 1:29 am |
    • nonsense12345

      It was Gods will he die, pure and simple and it was Gods will that all those children died in the tornado and it was gods will that that little girl was kidnapped and killed and it was gods will....well you get the picture.

      June 3, 2012 at 1:43 am |
    • I.said

      All forms of religion read way too much into the Bible, including the "correct" ones. The Bible did not say: Paul had an accident, but he was ok because of his faith. That would not make any sense. Clearly this portion of the Bible cannot be taken literally. As a matter of fact, a lot of it cannot be taken literally.

      June 3, 2012 at 1:49 am |
    • fintastic

      NONE of the bible can be taken literally.... I repeat... NONE!

      June 4, 2012 at 5:20 pm |
  7. denim

    Darwin strikes again.

    June 3, 2012 at 1:24 am |
  8. wrabbit99

    This is actually a very efficient approach to religion. If you want to get nearer to God there is no better way than to sit next to a poisonous snake or drinking strychnine.

    Someone should tell these folks that just because someone says something is so doesn't mean it is so. But i think this is more about a sense of community through shared beliefs rather than anything rational. They would probably make perfectly good druids, assassins, inquisitors or conquistadours if born at the right time and place.

    June 3, 2012 at 1:23 am |
  9. Bayousara

    Where I come from we respect snakes. We don't skin them for belts or shoes, we understand their place in the earth's ebb and flow and for millions of years. I think these narcissistic snake people are seeking attention having nothing to do with religion. I don't approve of abusing snakes this way. After 100 deaths siince 1909, you would think they got the message that it ain't working.

    June 3, 2012 at 1:19 am |
  10. SurRy

    Great. Now there is a story on CNN about some idiot who saw jesus in mold. What a bunch of friggin' idiots.

    June 3, 2012 at 1:17 am |
    • Tripster McGillicutty

      I see Jesus in my plants all the time. Because he's my gardener.

      June 3, 2012 at 1:27 am |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      I must be tired. I read this as "I see Jesus in my pants."

      June 3, 2012 at 1:51 am |
    • Tripster McGillicutty

      I see Jesus in my pants too, but he is one-eyed and he is wearing a silly helmet.

      June 3, 2012 at 2:16 am |
  11. Spark

    God has forsaken him.

    June 3, 2012 at 1:17 am |
  12. WachetAuf

    He expressed his "belief" when he stated: "But (seeking medical help) means you’re already starting to lose faith.”

    His family insisted he seek medical help and he thereby lost his faith. He died.

    June 3, 2012 at 1:14 am |
    • I.said

      So.. this is proof that God never fails?

      June 3, 2012 at 1:19 am |
    • Name*Chedar

      Devil finally wins when you loose faith. But what does this guy trying to proof? That there is God? It is total stupidity. I'd rather believe in a talking snake than handling the snake.

      June 3, 2012 at 2:02 am |
  13. I.said

    It must be true that God only intents to use the Bible to save some humans who get it. No one knows who got it. So those who talks to God, hears from God, withstands snake bits, cures illness, performs miracles, must have got it. But they fail, and it was God's will.... this is a vicious circle.

    A simpler explanation: The Bible is human idea, written in human language, which is not perfect, and can never be.

    June 3, 2012 at 1:11 am |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      Oh, brother. They're coming out of the woodwork.

      June 3, 2012 at 1:12 am |
  14. Name*Chedar

    Reading the bible by an un-enlighten being written by a bunch of un-enlighten being is bound to disaster. Wisdom is attained only with loving kindness, compassion and meditation.

    June 3, 2012 at 1:10 am |
  15. Fred from Atlanta

    Who cares what they believe in. When you handle venomous snakes and get bitten by one, you may die. How many ways can you call someone stupid. Let me count the ways. First he came from a long line of stupid. His father was stupid, who was married to his stupid mother, who had stupid children, that grew up to do stupid things and die.

    June 3, 2012 at 1:07 am |
    • SurRy

      Stupid is as stupid does.

      June 3, 2012 at 1:18 am |
    • jimmy the freak

      Unfortunately, they die AFTER producing offspring.

      June 3, 2012 at 1:19 am |
  16. watash

    These are the simple minded folks that vote for the Republicans because they believe they are sent by God to deliver them from evil. What a shame. Some of these poor people are just uneducated and are easily led down the path the hypocrite preachers take them in order to get the little bit of money they have. This voodoo and witchcraft activity should be banned in all states and the transgressers should be sent to jail where they cannot influence young folks to follow this deadly practice. They should be charged with fraud and endangering lives in order to get around the freedom of religion clause.

    June 3, 2012 at 1:07 am |
    • gurtie1980

      Wiccans don't practice snake-handling...just so you know...

      June 3, 2012 at 1:24 am |
    • WonderingWhy

      A typical Democratic answer......Just couldn't stand to NOT drag politics into the issue....Bored with your answer....

      June 3, 2012 at 1:31 am |
    • free_thinking

      I wish you had left politics out of your comment; however, your statement, "Some of these poor people are just uneducated and are easily led down the path the hypocrite preachers take them in order to get the little bit of money they have." I believe, is insightful and absolutely correct.

      June 3, 2012 at 2:52 am |
  17. spangler

    This is why everyone picks and chooses verses, for to embrace all the statements in the Bible is too strange for anyone.

    June 3, 2012 at 12:54 am |
    • I.said

      does a human being have the capability to even "comprehend" the whole book, what is the whole idea? Any one sure?

      June 3, 2012 at 12:57 am |
    • Robairdo

      In my opinion this is the most important verse as it is Christ giving a very simple answer as to what you need to do to earn eternal life:

      • Here is what Christ actually said about eternal life: Mathew 19:17-22 (translated from the original Aramaic directly to English):
      And one came near and said to him, “Good teacher, what good thing shall I do that I may have eternal life?” But he said to him, “Why do you call me good? There is none good except God alone. But if you want to enter life, keep the commandments.” He said to him, “Which ones?” But Yeshua(Jesus) said to him, “You shall not murder, You shall not commit adultery, You shall not steal, You shall not testify falsely.” “Honor your father and your mother”, and “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” That young man said to him, “I have kept all these from my childhood; what am I lacking?” Yeshua (Jesus) said to him, “If you want to be perfect, go sell your possessions and give to the poor and you will have treasure in Heaven, and come after me.” But that young man heard this saying and he went away, as it was grievous to him, for he had many possessions.

      June 3, 2012 at 1:01 am |
    • I.said

      snake: (seeing infrared image... and flipping its biological switches) mate... food... danger ... mate ... food ... danger ...
      pastor: (with the ability to imagine): faith.. god... devil ... ... OUCH!... God, please? ... ... ... (silent ... not even a hiss of imagined voice).... Oh. no, no.. 911, please... What? Person in white said too late. Amen.

      June 3, 2012 at 1:01 am |
    • Wrath of Lucifer

      Omg perfect...above is truth...

      June 3, 2012 at 1:06 am |
  18. 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.
    This also explains why many cultures belief in multiple gods.
    Actually the Mayans specifically believed that their Gods came from the Skies and knew 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.

    June 3, 2012 at 12:43 am |
  19. wipj56uqrmmzcphgu18v

    join the GNAA today! http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/GNAA

    June 3, 2012 at 12:42 am |
  20. FedUP!

    This was a very stupid man.
    But you people who come here , using this incident as an opportunity to throw insults on Christians, are in worse shape then this man and his followers..... I'm sure you'll think that's an exaggeration, but hate blinds those who are possessed by it. And it is very obvious that that's your case!

    Chill out, will ya! You don't know how childishly stupid and immature you sound!

    June 3, 2012 at 12:32 am |
    • Robairdo

      90% of so called "Christians" are NOT Christian at all and are themselves the ones full of hate.

      June 3, 2012 at 12:41 am |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son


      June 3, 2012 at 12:43 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.