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. Navin Johnson

    Both teams pray for a win before the game. Why don't they both win?

    June 3, 2012 at 6:22 am |
    • Mirosal

      Because one prayed to the wrong "god" ... whichever team prayed at the Oracle of Delphi would be the winner/

      June 3, 2012 at 6:28 am |
    • some teams

      Just let God enjoy the game

      June 3, 2012 at 7:21 am |
  2. Homer

    So.........people play with deadly snakes and when bitten refuse medical treatment they die.............. and the "faithful" mourn their passing?

    Perhaps we should celebrate their passing as it reduces the population of idiots,

    June 3, 2012 at 6:11 am |
  3. Jt_flyer

    Didn't you hear? Jesus was found in the mold. of course it's the blond hair, blue eyed Jesus... You know... Our Jesus.

    June 3, 2012 at 6:05 am |
  4. Theodore James Richard Schott

    My Girlfriend grew up in MANCHESTER, KY, in a Church that beat People with sticks, "To Get The Snakes Out Of Their Belly". At, 63, Fahye, still, has Nightmares about being Two-Years Old and being 'beaten'.

    June 3, 2012 at 5:56 am |
  5. Jt_flyer

    I keep reading all theses anti religion posts and I wonder... Who's electing all the religious fanatics to office?

    June 3, 2012 at 5:55 am |
  6. Homer

    Nuff said, just culling the herd

    June 3, 2012 at 5:46 am |
  7. Lucille

    Those things were for the early church. They are not for today. When they were done, it was to be in the power of the Holy Spirit.

    And again, we have been instructed to "...not tempt the Lord thy God." Jesus said that

    June 3, 2012 at 5:45 am |
  8. porto

    I pray more wall street executives will join and practice this religion.

    June 3, 2012 at 5:41 am |
    • I.said

      .... and become executees??

      June 3, 2012 at 5:46 am |
  9. Atheism is not healthy for children and other living things

    Prayer changes things .

    June 3, 2012 at 5:23 am |
    • I.said

      Cool... teach your children not to learn anything, not to educate themselves. just pray. if prayers change things, all else are useless for them.

      June 3, 2012 at 5:33 am |
    • Atheism is not healthy for children and other living things

      Prayer changes things
      An intelligent man prays
      A wise man acts on prayer
      Prayer changes things

      June 3, 2012 at 5:37 am |
    • I.said

      I guess either the pastor's prayer didn't work, or someone else's prayer of wishing him to die worked. And God is always on the winning side. What a wonderful world.

      June 3, 2012 at 5:43 am |
    • jungleboo

      @ prayer changes things:
      Your definition points to your use of the word "prayer" as a euphemism for "thinking". Finally I understand your dodge.

      If this is your approach, then you have identified "Thinking" as a construct owned by religion. By this definition, and coupled with religion's reliance on irrational beliefs, the faithful have been brainwashed into "believing" that they must not rely on their own intelligence, and that they must accept irrational ideas, such as snake juggling and Transubstantiation.

      Those of us who have shaken free of the tyrant called Religion are happy to spend our days in rational thought, and need not consider our thinking a dirty word. Teaching children that Thinking and Questioning (i.e. Philosophy) are evil pursuits, and that their euphemisms "prayer" and "following" (i.e. Religion) are divine, well that's just child abuse with a halo, isn't it?

      June 3, 2012 at 6:39 am |
    • just sayin

      Prayer is the act of talking with God. God bless

      June 3, 2012 at 7:20 am |
  10. fritz

    I often come upon large canebrake rattlesnakes on my land in the Arkansas ozark mountains. I don't mind them until they get too close to my cabin. The dogs are smart about them. They seem to know they are dangerous. I do worry about my cats though. If they get close, I'll coax them to crawl on my rake then carry them some distance into the forest. I usually pause to get a closer look before I release them just to marvel at their incredible physical structure. The last snake I encountered was a large gravid female with 14 segments on the rattle! An old woman! That snake easily weighed 10 pounds. Anyway, I don't like these strange christian types abusing these magnificent animals for the sake of their silly rituals. These animals live among us because they have their place in Nature. They are no threat to us because we don't compete for the same food. In fact, they do us favors by hunting those furry critters that devour our crops. They evolved from monitor reptiles because a survival niche was available to them. I believe humans should leave them alone to do what they do. Crawl around, eat, drink and make baby snakes...just like us.

    June 3, 2012 at 4:44 am |
    • AtheistSteve

      Scientific appreciation = 1
      Religious lunatic = 0

      June 3, 2012 at 4:53 am |
    • captain america

      American = 1
      Butt in canadian that no one wants to hear from = less than 0. There's your sign

      June 3, 2012 at 5:25 am |
    • william wills

      This is nothing less than a feeling-threatened Prince of Darkness ongoing effort to do his best to defame and undermine the faith tradition that counts and which The Word of God clearly indicates shall prevail after all other pretenders have gone home (Ephesians 4:1-16) and which, not surprisingly, is busy today peacefully absorbing the world's disparate religions, be it Africa's Pantheism, Asia's Shamanism or the world's Protestantism (re Harvard Professor Harvey Cox's tome tellingly styled "FIRE FROM HEAVEN: The Rise of Pentecostal Spirituality and the Reshaping of Religion in the Twenty-first Century." (Addison-Wesley).

      June 3, 2012 at 6:19 am |
    • sam stone

      william: or, this was just some idiot playing with a snake and got bit

      June 3, 2012 at 6:48 am |
    • jungleboo

      Thank you Fritz.

      As to william wills, your Prince of Darkness babble and All Roads Lead To Pentecostalism stance are the sickness itself. That kind of post nudges readers closer to the freedom of Agnosticism and Atheism.

      SUPERST.ITION is dreadful. Give it up.

      June 3, 2012 at 6:49 am |
  11. Hfactor

    ... and another Darwin award winner is laid to rest .

    June 3, 2012 at 4:31 am |
  12. Chuck in Jasper, Ga.

    Calling poisonous snake handling a form of "religion" is about as logical as calling "Russian roulette with a gun" while praying it does not go off a religion.

    June 3, 2012 at 4:29 am |
    • No Way Yahweh

      Russian roulette with a FULLY LOADED gun***

      June 3, 2012 at 5:00 am |
  13. Harris

    Should have prayed for a Honey Badger

    June 3, 2012 at 4:27 am |
  14. grandpoopah

    Evolution in action.

    June 3, 2012 at 4:21 am |
  15. mccgeno

    priceless! you can't make something this stupid/funny up.

    June 3, 2012 at 4:19 am |
    • Syman Pons

      Ask God to put a little of 'the comforter and the counselor' (the Holy Spirit) into your heart and experience a miracle for yourself! This little bit of God's spirit will change you and your understanding. He won't do it, unless you ask and give Him your permission.

      You don't believe it. So, ask. You have nothing to loose. If what I have written is true, you will experience a miracle. If what I write is not true, nothing will happen, and you will be certain I have lied to you.

      June 3, 2012 at 4:29 am |
    • I.said

      Miracle is not something against natural laws. These days we call pleasant surprises miracles. The ancient meaning of miracle does not happen in real life.

      June 3, 2012 at 4:37 am |
    • Know What

      Symon Pons,

      You lied.

      June 3, 2012 at 4:44 am |
    • Syman Pons

      No lie. If you have asked God to live in your heart, within thirty days time, you will come to know that something has changed within you and you will understand that a real miracle has occurred.

      June 3, 2012 at 6:37 am |
    • sam stone

      thirty days time? a bit redundant, no?

      June 3, 2012 at 7:12 am |
    • Know What


      I gave it nearly 50 years. You lie.

      June 3, 2012 at 1:11 pm |
  16. Syman Pons

    Your body was given to each of you people to be a 'Temple' in which resides a 'holy spirit.' That is the design purpose for every human being. No one is exempt.

    Life is each person's opportunity to develop a character that will be acceptable in the presence of God, your creator. Eternity is a long time and God will not be assaulted and insulted by inconsiderate spiritual beings, (the beings God has created). God, your creator, will not allow inconsiderate spiritual beings in the highest heaven.

    You who mock religious people in particular and religion in general are unwittingly separating yourselves from God, your creator, and you are wasting precious time in which you could be perfecting your holiness and preparing yourselves to enter into God's presence for eternity.

    Jesus, the Christ of God, the Creator, tempered his spirit. In so doing, He became the first human being to be accepted into the presence of God, the Creator. He lived his life as an example for the rest of us. He gave His life and allowed His blood to be poured out, without resisting, that the sins of all men might be forgiven. Humble human beings accept His gift freely and with loving appreciation.

    Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, meekness, gentleness, self control and the tempering of one's passions, a desire to lift up, to forgive, to help, and to heal, these character traits are the evidence of an indwelling holy spirit.

    All human beings recognize a person in whom dwells true holiness. They radiate these things, because their human spirit is truly in harmony with God's Holy Spirit.

    Ask God to put a little of 'the comforter and the counselor' (the Holy Spirit) into your heart and experience a miracle for yourself! This little bit of God's spirit will change you and your understanding. He won't do it, unless you ask and give Him your permission.

    Jesus said," I will never leave you nor forsake you." This is a true saying, because the spirit of the resurrected and glorified Jesus, is 'the comforter and the counselor' (the Holy Spirit).

    Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, meekness, gentleness, self control and the tempering of one's passions, a desire to lift up, to forgive, to help, and to heal, these character traits are the evidence of an indwelling holy spirit.

    Your body was given to you to be filled in this way with holy spirit, that you might one day harmonize with the Holy Spirit, the spirit of God, your creator.

    Filling your self and harmonizing with the Holy Spirit will please your Creator.

    June 3, 2012 at 4:16 am |
    • mccgeno

      Hey next time you talk to God, tell him he owes me $20 bucks. He'll know why.

      June 3, 2012 at 4:23 am |
    • grandpoopah

      Syman, go play with poisonous snakes. It's what Jesus wants.

      June 3, 2012 at 4:29 am |
    • I.said

      Syman, people should think for themselves regardless of what you said is true or not. If the snake-handling pastor truly believed what he was doing without a slightest doubt in his mind I would admire him for thinking for himself.

      June 3, 2012 at 4:42 am |
    • Syman Pons

      People who handle snakes as a form of demonstrating their faith in God do not actually understand Christianity or what their true responsibilities to God are as Christians. God does not want them to actually handle "deadly serpents' but rather, God wants them to control themselves properly in response to the people they come into contact with, who behave as "vipers'. God wants Christian people to behave in a holy way regardless of the behavior of others and to do this because of their faith that God will protect them and make all things right at the appropriate time.

      Actually handling live snakes is to put God to the test to prove that he will protect them at all times regardless. Satin took Jesus to a high place and said to Him, "If you are truly the Christ, then cast yourself down from here (and prove it!), for it is written that God will not let the Christ even strike His foot upon a rock," but Jesus rebuked Satan, and said," It is also written, "' You shall not put the Lord your God to the test!."

      The point is, God, watches carefully over, and protects, those who have faith and trust in His protection, but He doesn't want people to endanger themselves pointlessly, when it is not necessary. When they are doing God's work and they are endangered, then God will surely protect them and as they go about their lives fulfilling God's purposes for their life, God is always watching over them as they endeavor to fulfill their responsibilities as a servant of God. Every Christian is suppose to share the 'Good News' about Christ Jesus having been raised from the dead and also explain that His blood was shed, as the propitiation, (payment), for the sins of any person who is humble enough to admit they need forgiveness.

      "The foolishness of God is wiser than the wisdom of man."

      Accepting and believing that Jesus' death and resurrection open's the way to God our creator is ridiculous when considered in any reasonable human light, but it is a foolish requirement presented to all human beings, that demonstrates God's tremendous mercy and justice. A person only has to have the faith to believe that what God has said is true and they will receive the blessing of God and His acceptance. By being humble and admitting our need to be forgiven for our mistakes and then accepting God's conditions for reconciliation with Him, our relation with Him is secured.

      Any person, rich or poor, healthy or sick, male or female, adult or child, weak or strong, can receive an assured place with God through this humbling acceptance. It is a gift given to the humble but denied to the proud and arrogant, who are sure they don't need God or His forgiveness.

      Perfect justice is given to all by their simple belief that God will do what He says. It's as simple as that. Anyone who is humble can receive God's blessings through their faith.

      Handling live snakes as a demonstration of faith is unnecessary and a foolish thing to do. It is a stunt that does not further the spreading of the 'Good News' and does not serve the Lord's purpose that we strive to live a more holy life.

      June 3, 2012 at 11:06 am |
  17. LiliEthio

    yes Mike, the only God is OUR LORD JESUS CHRIST. you guys don't go beyond the edge God will fithgt for HIS GLORY. Why put your self in this situation when you can worship Jesus with out Temptetion???????? why worshiping the enpmey.... the snakes are not even a good friend of people. Yes Musses put a sine of a snake in the desert because, God told him to do so and it was the example of Jesus Chirst daying for you and me. This so called Chirstian and his dad died before they never had faith in God... and they deserve it. The rest of you open your eyes and worship the only TRUE GOD, OUR LORD JESUS CHIRST... that is the salvation.. don't question the power of God just TRUST HIM. Kill all the snaks and those who worship them...before they kill you. That guy is going to hell and play with those snakes whom he loved very much. God Bless you ALL

    June 3, 2012 at 4:16 am |
    • grandpoopah

      Holy crap, you're crazy! And you spell like a retarded valley girl. Even Jesus dislikes you.

      June 3, 2012 at 4:31 am |
    • fritz

      Go away!!!

      June 3, 2012 at 4:59 am |
    • I.said

      Now we got a snake-killer because the Bible said snake is bad!
      So, why the hell did Noah put a male and a female snake on his boat? Wait... the Bible did not say that. But all animals were supposed to be killed by the flood. It was God who told Noah to save the animals, and the snake must have been included.
      mmm.... Are you doing God a favor, Ethio? And you want to kill some human being? Is that what you said?

      I wonder what Syman would say about this. What is Ethio's little comforter doing in his body?

      June 3, 2012 at 5:01 am |
    • sam stone

      free people do not need salvation

      June 3, 2012 at 6:51 am |
  18. pete


    June 3, 2012 at 4:09 am |
  19. Bo

    What I don't understand is: the second a preacher dies from the snake, doesn't that PROVE it's all BS? I mean how dumb do you have to be to not say "wow he's a BS artist" after he dies? It's obviously retarded to begin with but come on people...

    June 3, 2012 at 3:59 am |
    • fritz

      Religious indoctrination is a most insidious form of psychological conditioning. How else to explain why these people behave in such an irrational way?

      June 3, 2012 at 5:06 am |
    • I.said

      oh, yes. Once I was involved with a church, and my pastor said to me: be careful when you discuss belief with people, it is like "soul engineering", it can be addictive.

      June 3, 2012 at 5:21 am |
    • I.said

      Religion had its place in history and society. It definitely still has. But most religious people don't know what they are doing, they are just addicted to it.

      June 3, 2012 at 5:25 am |
  20. MSL58

    I had no ideas snales like junk food

    June 3, 2012 at 3:33 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.