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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. J W

    Ummm... Does this really happen??? I'm Apostolic/Pentecostal and I have never in my life heard the term "snake handler".

    June 3, 2012 at 3:09 am |
  2. Dick46

    Natural selection at work.

    June 3, 2012 at 2:58 am |
  3. WCCT

    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.

    This is the best part of the story. He abandoned his faith right before he died. What a chump.

    June 3, 2012 at 2:58 am |
    • I.said

      No... he knew deep down his heart he never had the faith. There is no such faith in anyone. Otherwise, he would have used a more lethal snake and drunk cyanide. I am sure if the Bible said Paul got eaten by a lion and came out alive, CNN would not get such news.

      June 3, 2012 at 3:23 am |
  4. Mario

    If the snake determins the Christian, then let's get ALL Conservative Christians (Political ones as well) to give it a try. Maybe we'll make our country a better place.

    June 3, 2012 at 2:56 am |
    • MSL58

      Not a better place – a MUCH better place.

      June 3, 2012 at 3:11 am |
  5. Willie

    Oh that poor snake. A mouth full of that garbage must be really horrible.

    June 3, 2012 at 2:56 am |
  6. the_neighbor

    @robairdo so have you, yourself, come into contact with these said evolutionary aliens? and if so, why havent we all been introduced to them? please inform me of their whereabouts & why you have been hiding them from the other 7 BILLION people on Earth. i am intrigued by your scientific method though. i would love to pick your brain for a day or so, it would make for a great novel...

    June 3, 2012 at 2:55 am |
  7. Name*Chedar

    Wolford to God: I thought you told me those damn snake won't bite.

    June 3, 2012 at 2:53 am |
  8. Robin Foster

    maybe he wasn't happy.

    June 3, 2012 at 2:46 am |
  9. sdvsdvsdv

    hahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahaha

    June 3, 2012 at 2:43 am |
  10. Zoe Jean

    ...oh please, faith has nothing to do with a snakes' defense system...I live in the country and I know, you irritate the snake, you get bit...some Christians need to grow up, there are many metaphors in the bible and they need to learn to recognize them...

    June 3, 2012 at 2:43 am |
    • Name*Chedar

      In other words, learn how to read between lines otherwise you will be dead on arrival. Right?

      June 3, 2012 at 2:48 am |
  11. Mike R

    All animals can sense fear; when you are afraid, they attack, simple as that. You can't put God's power to the test, even if it's trying to get people closer to Jesus (Preacher is no Jesus; that's what the Bible is for). Please don't dumb down the true importance of faith and devotion to teach what is morally correct in today's society.

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

    Only messengers of God are capable of doing miracles,not their followers.Playing God to impress people has its consequences.Snake's nature is to bite so it will bite,its their instinct behaviour.Not all the snakes are poisonous.People die of terror(not terrorists) of fear.There are two types of snakes poisonous and non poisonous,Poisonous are those who have very small scales under their neck.the non poisonous have larger scales in square shape. This illfated man should have fooled people with the later ones.I'm not a snake charmer.

    June 3, 2012 at 2:35 am |
  13. Name*Chedar

    Survival's the fittest according to Darwin. Wolford dead snake alive and continue to propagate snake.

    June 3, 2012 at 2:29 am |
  14. Robyn

    Snakes: 1 Idiots: 0

    A demonstration of evolution in action if ever I saw one.

    June 3, 2012 at 2:21 am |
    • drugless

      Indeed...what an idiot ! At least children were unharmed...maybe seeing this will open their eyes !

      Incredible that "Dark Age" thinking still continues to thrive...one down ! Adios Moron

      June 3, 2012 at 2:34 am |
    • voxx

      The Bible also says not to put God to a foolish test..

      June 3, 2012 at 2:38 am |
    • WCCT

      Snakes 2. Don't forget his daddy.

      June 3, 2012 at 3:03 am |
  15. Adam C

    I'd never wish death on anyone, but if even 1 of his followers' have their eyes opened by this and leaves the religion, it won't have been in vain.

    Crazy Christians, please put down your bibles, pick up a biology book, and join the modern world.

    Thank you.

    June 3, 2012 at 2:21 am |
  16. Marcus

    Darwin at work again.

    June 3, 2012 at 2:20 am |
  17. 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, Strangely enough just last year an earth like planet was discovered in that star system.

    June 3, 2012 at 2:11 am |
    • Gray

      Thank you for that. I laughed so hard I almost fell off my chair. As for the poisonous snake handler, it's just like juggling razor blades...eventually you're going to get cut.

      June 3, 2012 at 2:20 am |
    • I.said

      .. yea... you can now tweater them these days.

      June 3, 2012 at 2:21 am |
    • Robairdo

      Well it wasn't meant to be exclusively funny. Yes it is a rather funny slap to consider that Jesus was a Gray Alien. But also it actually has mathematical probably, is well founded scientifically, and a lot of physical evidence has been uncovered to support it.

      June 3, 2012 at 2:22 am |
    • Ken Kesey

      While an LSD high does go on for quite a few hours, you will start coming down soon, so just ride with it until reality locks in again. The aliens will vanish soon enough.

      June 3, 2012 at 2:23 am |
    • I.said

      sure.

      June 3, 2012 at 2:24 am |
    • fuzzynormal

      Good one Robby. Glad you figured it out for us. Aliens, huh? That's the answer?

      Ah, humanity.

      June 3, 2012 at 2:26 am |
    • Robairdo

      @Ken my theory far more plausible then pie in sky Easter Bunny, Tooth Fairy, or Santa Clause that dimwits like this pastor believe in.

      June 3, 2012 at 2:27 am |
    • I.said

      Yup! The Chinese are secretly mining H3 on the moon for these Aliens, since they do not have enough "man"-power to mine this fuel for their spacecraft. NASA even spotted this craft behind Mercury. It is beyond mathematically certainty.
      Oh, God. Let's play along!

      June 3, 2012 at 2:30 am |
    • Robairdo

      @I.Said there are tens of billions of Stars out there it is incredibly arrogant to belief we are the most advanced. The Earth is 4 billion years old while the Universe as a whole is 14 billion years old that means there is mathematical probability that many intelligent worlds evolved at least one billion years before ours. This isn't pie in the sky it is mathematical probability, ask any mathematician. Additionally a lot of physical evidence has been found on earth to support it.

      June 3, 2012 at 2:34 am |
    • the_neighbor

      your therapist must love your business.

      June 3, 2012 at 2:39 am |
    • I.said

      I know... this is what separates us humans from animals. animals are incapable of comprehending all these crap.

      June 3, 2012 at 2:41 am |
    • Robairdo

      I don't have a therapist. Not sure which of the debate you are on between creationism and evolution. If you are creationist you are the last one that should laugh as Alien theory is far more plausible creationism. If you are Evolution you should really be ashamed of your self. Alien theory is just as scientific as Evolution in fact the two complement each other as these Aliens would have to have evolved as well and it is also a plausible explanation for the "Missing Link"

      June 3, 2012 at 2:42 am |
    • Robairdo

      @I.Said if you are talking about creationism I agree, but Alien theory is NOT crap.

      June 3, 2012 at 2:43 am |
    • Providing insight

      Okay, just to help you religious people understand atheists a bit better, your reaction to what Robairdo is saying is exactly the same as our reaction to what you are saying – it's weird, it's totally beyond belief, and it is shocking that someone can believe something like that when a simple look around shows it clearly isn't so.

      June 3, 2012 at 2:45 am |
    • the_neighbor

      i will agree with you, kinda, @Robairdo. yes, we live in a galaxy that, as we know, is pretty infinite. and yes, the probability of other systems like ours could be possibly likely. but your theories & so called evidence that it is here, gray aliens and whatnot, is entirely preposterous. sir or madam, you should seek some help.

      June 3, 2012 at 2:46 am |
    • Robairdo

      Why is it so unbelievable? There are TENS of BILLIONS of Stars out there mathematical probability alone demands it must be true.

      June 3, 2012 at 2:46 am |
    • Robairdo

      So those knocking me please state if you believe in creationism or evolution, because I would like to know how to knock you back.

      June 3, 2012 at 2:48 am |
    • I.said

      Man... Those Aliens are probably thinking about the same question: wo da mi cos hg qzst? Meaning: am I a creationist or evolutionist? They probably have the snake-handling pastors as well!

      June 3, 2012 at 2:49 am |
    • Robairdo

      @I.Said if they are a billion years more advanced then us I would hope not. Though they probably are laughing at us.

      June 3, 2012 at 2:50 am |
    • Robairdo

      So how say you all.

      1. God Alone
      2. Evolution Alone
      3. Evolution with help from God.
      4. Evolution with help from Aliens. Personally this is my vote.

      June 3, 2012 at 2:53 am |
    • I.said

      Interesting.. Go ahead and live for a billion years and see how we humans turn out to be!
      the_neighbor is right... please go get some help.

      June 3, 2012 at 2:55 am |
    • Robairdo

      @I.Said I don't need help, you should be more open minded.

      June 3, 2012 at 2:57 am |
    • I.said

      Well.... I am pouring it all in; that's why I am on CNN forum tonight.
      I even believe the probability of finding an alien lady in my bed when I wake up tomorrow morning. Although I still plan to have my scrambled egg for breakfast.

      June 3, 2012 at 3:04 am |
    • the_neighbor

      Occam's razor... sweet Jesus, it must be true. @Robairdo has unlocked the history of everything & what we know can't be possible. i should renounce everything that i know of science, math & history. anything that you hear from now on is a complete fabrication & has no basis in reality. I BELIEVE!!!! lol.

      June 3, 2012 at 3:05 am |
    • jkflipflop

      This is why they don't say hello. Humans are still little more than dim-witted monkeys that are so sure of their place in an infinite cosmos that is beyond the understanding of any sentient lifeform. True brilliance is almost assuredly mocked by the trogolyditic masses.

      June 3, 2012 at 3:10 am |
    • Cyantist

      I'm with Rob on this. The possibility of this event is there.

      There are 100 Billion Stars in a Galaxy and 100 Billion Galaxies. Also, the gold in our mountains was formed by the collision or the explosion of stars that lived and died LONG before our solar system was even formed. We are NEW. Just 120 Years ago Humans only dreamed of powered flight, but now, you sit here and think that you have the answers and we are the smartest life in the universe. I am open minded and know for certain that I do not know the answers.

      June 3, 2012 at 3:15 am |
    • the_neighbor

      so where does Xenu play into this? what Thetan level are you? lets go ahead and throw rational thought out window... i want to know more.vid like to hear more. your particular brand of psychosis intrigues me. ive been looking for a subject to write about.

      June 3, 2012 at 3:17 am |
    • the_neighbor

      you morons should totally form a club... i totally understand that there is the possibility of other life out there, but you guys have watched too many X-Files episodes or Battlefield Earth too many times.

      June 3, 2012 at 3:38 am |
    • I.said

      sure.. that why Gulliver's Travels described two worlds, and there are new theories about the origin of the universe. In the scientific world "theories" are hypotheses that help to guide the scientists to look for facts or to gather data. They are not facts, nor they are beliefs.

      June 3, 2012 at 3:40 am |
    • I.said

      And the word "probability" has a different meaning from "possibility". When you describe something probable it is far more convincing than possible. You guys might just have a simple language problem.

      June 3, 2012 at 3:51 am |
  18. Why

    Why do they do it? That's simple. THEY'RE NUTS.

    June 3, 2012 at 2:07 am |
  19. ctbyrne34

    That is what happens when you are a part of false religion. Common senses might also play a role. If you play with lethal snakes you could die.

    June 3, 2012 at 2:04 am |
    • Cyantist

      "False" religion? Would that be ALL of them?

      I agree that I can't know things beyond my human mind's limits (like your 'gods') but I can say this for certain: ALL religions have untruths, esp as they are used by humans.

      the USA's religions preaching against gay marriage is equal to the Taliban's war against women's rights. 'Believers' need to get out of our lives.

      June 3, 2012 at 3:20 am |
  20. Jessica

    Looks like he needs an appointment with a faith healer now

    June 3, 2012 at 2:01 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.