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. One one

    I wonder if their snakes talk, and if so, do they speak in tongues ?

    June 3, 2012 at 10:11 am |
  2. sam-e

    West Virginia...mountain mama...

    June 3, 2012 at 9:50 am |
  3. LT

    What that church is doing is NOT scriptural...period!!! The Bible does not teach us to go out and look for snakes to play with. In the book of Acts, a snake came out of some fire wood and bit Paul. Paul simply shook the snake off and no harm came to him. He didn't even swell. But Paul, who probably wrote most of the New Testament, did NOT go out and look for snakes to play with. When Jesus said "You shall take up deadly serpents...", this Word was for the kind of protection that Paul experienced. Plain and simple.

    June 3, 2012 at 9:35 am |
    • One one

      It says those who believe will take up snakes. What does that mean? They think they interpret the bible correctly. You don't. Who is correct?

      If the bible is the actual word of god telling us what wants and expects from us shouldn't it be absolutely clear, especially since god is supposed to be perfect?

      This just shows the bible is only the word of man and the whole thing is a myth.

      June 3, 2012 at 9:54 am |
    • a blast

      I don't care what's in the bible. None of it is true and none of it effects me in any way.

      June 3, 2012 at 10:00 am |
    • Chut Pata

      Why single out this church? All other do the same. Take what suits them, interpret their way, and make some money. Read what Jesus had to say about rich people, and then see all the evangelist as to how filthy rich they are. See Republicans support the super rich against the poor.

      June 3, 2012 at 10:04 am |
  4. MSL58

    I had no idea snakes ate junk food.

    June 3, 2012 at 9:29 am |
  5. jamest297

    Either the bible is the inspired word of god as given directly to the prophets or it is not. One has to take the thing literally and in its entirety because there is no room for god to make an error. For, if god were to make an error, then god wouldn't be god, now would be? Therefore, the bible requires no interpretation – it says what it means in quite plain terms and it means what it says in quote plainer terms. It is so clear, plain and complete that even those living in cabins in Appalachia can understand it. So, start watching the papers for accounts of citizens being stoned to death for eating shellfish. There will also be accounts of stonings for planting more than one crop on the same farm. Also, don't forget the requirement to beat your wives and slaves (this one is a twofer) according to scripture.

    June 3, 2012 at 9:17 am |
    • sybaris

      You left out the zombies

      June 3, 2012 at 9:25 am |
    • Robert Brown

      If you do as you wrote “take it…in its entirety…” you will find that many of those things are no longer in effect, at least for Christians.

      June 3, 2012 at 9:44 am |
    • One one

      @robert. Why aren't they in effect? Did god change his mind? Does he have different rules for different folks? OT, NT, it's still the same god isn't it ? Did the perfect god make a mistake on the first go round and have to change his plan?

      June 3, 2012 at 9:59 am |
    • One one

      Jesus also said people are supposed to stone to death disobedient kids. That will make them think twice about skipping school.

      June 3, 2012 at 10:03 am |
    • sybaris

      Right One for One

      Surely an omniscient god would know what would work the first time around.

      Just imagine the old dude sitting on his cloud, "Uh, actually what I meant to say............"

      June 3, 2012 at 10:06 am |
  6. slobro

    Why do pentecostals think that speaking in tongues means speaking gibberish. When the apostles spoke in tongues all could understand them. You are just making silly noises.

    June 3, 2012 at 9:12 am |
    • sybaris

      and they didn't start doing that until around 1909

      June 3, 2012 at 9:26 am |
  7. N&W 1000

    Serpent handling is not a scriptural practice.

    June 3, 2012 at 8:59 am |
    • jamest297

      Who told you that?

      June 3, 2012 at 9:11 am |
  8. Shepherd

    The sad part is that there are those who truly believe his death was "god calling his soldier home". I see it as one more lunatic leader of sheeple dead...and the world is a little better for it.

    June 3, 2012 at 8:47 am |
  9. ElmerGantry

    Stupid is as stupid does. NUFF SAID.

    June 3, 2012 at 8:42 am |
    • Atheism is not healthy for children and other living things

      Atheism is not healthy for children and other living things
      Proven .

      June 3, 2012 at 8:50 am |
    • ElmerGantry

      Whoever is praying for tornados in the buckle of the bible belt, please stop!

      They must be praying for tornados since prayer changes things. If they were praying to stop tornadoes in the buckle of the bible belt (aka tornado alley), then their prayers would not be working and that can't be right. Right? LOL.

      June 3, 2012 at 8:54 am |
    • Hitchens

      Spoken like someone without a clue as to what prayer is.

      June 3, 2012 at 8:55 am |
    • ElmerGantry


      The sarcasm went way over your head, eh?

      June 3, 2012 at 8:59 am |
    • Hitchens

      No. That was not sarcasm that was too stupid to be believed.

      June 3, 2012 at 9:05 am |
    • breathe deep

      I'm wondering what part of this you found so stupid.

      June 3, 2012 at 9:11 am |
    • william

      I think the parents of any children exposed or put in harms way by these delusional prectices should be charged with child abuse.

      June 3, 2012 at 9:32 am |
    • tallulah13


      Nice screen name. Very appropriate on this blog. Also, well said about the tornadoes. Some believers mistake their wishful thinking for fact.

      June 3, 2012 at 9:33 am |
    • ElmerGantry


      Wrong, it was sarcasm. Your brain is too compartmentalized for you to realize it. Just keep believing, just keep believing.

      @breathe deep. 

      Did you read, 100's have been killed since this practice began.

      Yeah, handling live unpredictable venomous snakes and not expecting any consequences ranks right up there with the Einstein's of the world.  Yeaaah Riiiiight.

      This person was definitely one of the dimmer bulbs in the drawer. Hence stupid is as stupid does.


      You are correct. Putting children, who are not yet old enough to give informed consent, in harms way is reprehensible.


      Thanks, good observation about the screen name, you obviously "get it".

      The sarcasm really did go way over "Hitchen's" narrow highly compartmented brain.

      @All, turning in for the night.
      May everyone have a good night and a great day tomorrow!

      June 3, 2012 at 10:25 pm |
  10. Lobo

    Why did we send armies to the Middle East to spread Christianity throughout the world when love and peace was the message from God??????????

    June 3, 2012 at 8:28 am |
    • sybaris

      You clearly skimmed over those parts in your bible where your god told his people to slaughter every man, woman, child and animal in the villages that opposed them.

      June 3, 2012 at 9:29 am |
  11. Mike

    So, in the end he lost his faith totally and had his family call for medical help. Good to know that at the end, he finially saw the light and denouced his beliefs and embraced common sense. To bad it was already to late to save his life.

    June 3, 2012 at 8:02 am |
    • just sayin

      Some like you believe that faith excludes medicine others who know God, know that God gave all science including medicines and knowledge to mankind for our betterment. God bless

      June 3, 2012 at 8:05 am |
    • SonOfSteel

      god didn't give us medicine or technology. We stumbled upon them ourselves. god still thinks disease is caused by demons.
      However, I applaud the notion of X-ians handling of snakes. It would be great if all X-ians were forced to wrestle rattlers. Then we'd know who the 'true believers' were...and who was faking it.

      June 3, 2012 at 8:22 am |
    • jamest297

      :), 🙂

      June 3, 2012 at 8:23 am |
    • you can be wrong if you want to be


      June 3, 2012 at 8:26 am |
    • SonOfSteel

      yup. Back atcha

      June 3, 2012 at 8:29 am |
    • jungleboo

      @ just saying:
      If you preached one Truth, it would probably make sense to everyone. But you and yours are so fundamentally fragmented in your interpretations that you all preach something different. Away with all of you. Blog guess.

      June 3, 2012 at 8:37 am |
    • just sayin

      Jesus is Lord. One Truth as requested. God bless

      June 3, 2012 at 8:51 am |
    • tallulah13

      It seems some christians don't recognize that their own religion is fragmented into about 38,000 denominations, all with different interpretations of exactly what the bible means. So much for the "truth".

      June 3, 2012 at 9:36 am |
    • jungleboo

      @ justsayin:
      Would you like to "interpret" that answer for us? Your answer would cause fragmentation divine among readers. Blog guess.

      June 3, 2012 at 11:48 am |
  12. Do not pet a rattle snake

    Unless its tail is wagging

    June 3, 2012 at 7:28 am |
  13. Carole

    I would like that part of the gospel of Mark explained to me. Could it be that serpents are being compared to sinful people and the drink of poison compared to sinful things evil people may be saying? Many things written in the bible were things spoken as an example and not to be taken literally. When it comes to the bible people need to use common sense.

    June 3, 2012 at 7:26 am |
    • Name*Chedar

      Reading the bible by an un-enlightened human being is prone to disaster. Ever wonder why Christianity and Islam have so many branches? It's the interpretation of the bible and Koran. And again interpretation by the unenlightened humanoid is bound to disasters.

      June 3, 2012 at 7:59 am |
    • Really?

      The NT is a made up thing like much of the Bible. This man died for nothing and not more than lies. Fools following fools.

      June 3, 2012 at 8:32 am |
    • jamest297

      This story and the adjacent one about half the people in the US still believing in creationism are hilarious and depressing at the same time. Hopefully, this guy killed hi8mself before he had a chance to reproduce. I'm wondering why the near 50% of those still believing in creationism are not also playing with venemous snakes so as to quickly adjust the ratio of spirit believers to rationalistas among us. How can so many people remain so ignorant for so long?

      June 3, 2012 at 9:09 am |
    • JeepChick


      I've often wondered also and I love your thoughts on this. One of these days I'll remember to ask my Priest.

      June 3, 2012 at 9:48 am |
  14. Atheism is not healthy for children and other living things

    Prayer changes things*

    June 3, 2012 at 7:26 am |
    • Really?

      Its been scientifically proven that prayer actually makes things worse. Look up the studies. It doesn't work.

      June 3, 2012 at 8:34 am |
    • SonOfSteel

      Do you suppose that chipmunks, crickets and other living things are Unitarian ? ...perhaps Buhdist?
      Are we really giving them a healthy choice here ?

      June 3, 2012 at 8:35 am |
    • ElmerGantry

      Whoever is praying for tornados in the buckle of the bible belt, please stop!

      They must be praying for tornados since prayer changes things. If they were praying to stop tornadoes in the buckle of the bible belt (aka tornado alley), then their prayers would not be working and that can't be right. Right? LOL.

      June 3, 2012 at 8:47 am |
    • just sayin

      They were given the most appropriate choice by their creator. God bless

      June 3, 2012 at 8:48 am |
    • just sayin

      Sin causes problems not prayer. Prayer changes things is true. Are you part of the problems of this world or part of the solutions ?God bless

      June 3, 2012 at 8:53 am |
    • nope

      @ really?

      June 3, 2012 at 8:56 am |
    • SonOfSteel

      WoW~! Here I was thinking that 200+ MPH winds destroyed Joplin, MO – and the whole time it was 'sin'. All that destruction – just because someone was coveting his neighbor's ice cream...or possibly a new recruit was rubbing his rattler the wrong way.

      June 3, 2012 at 8:59 am |
    • nope


      June 3, 2012 at 9:06 am |
  15. Name*Chedar

    When you get bitten by the snake, it proves to you that there is no God. But boy it's too late when you know it. But wait! , when you get to heaven and you meet the almighty, he will say how can you be so stupid buddy, that's a real snake you are handling. Hey! Don't blame me for your stupidity.

    June 3, 2012 at 7:15 am |
  16. NotEasilyLed

    I hope the snake is ok. Many of them are becoming endangered. I doubt fools will ever become endangered.

    June 3, 2012 at 7:00 am |
  17. Using God


    June 3, 2012 at 6:36 am |
  18. yeap that's right

    Hard to even feel sorry for the nutbag!

    June 3, 2012 at 6:32 am |
  19. Jesus was a space alien

    If you play with poisonous snakes you get bit and your die. What would Jesus do? He would probably say "You fool what are you doing playing with poisonous snakes. Use common sense." Now if only the GOP would take up snake handling....most of them are serpants anyway.

    June 3, 2012 at 6:26 am |
    • Woody

      "If you play with poisonous snakes you get bit and your die. What would Jesus do?" – space alien

      That's and intriguing question. If Jesus would have played with poisonous snakes, he may have very well been bitten and died. That would have changed the entire Christianity story. Instead of "dying for our sins" by means of crucifixion, he would have "died for our sins" as a result of a snake bite. So now, instead of having a cross on every church steeple, we may very well have a snake as the symbol of Christianity. You know, the Church of the Holy Viper or whatever.

      June 3, 2012 at 9:46 am |
  20. Prayer does nothing....but make you talk yourself

    Something will happen whether you pray or not. If it happens, it called coincidence. Get educated!

    June 3, 2012 at 6:25 am |
    • lilyq

      Jesus loves you. Get saved!

      June 3, 2012 at 6:34 am |
    • Bootyfunk

      it's unlikely jesus ever existed. if he did, he was just a cult leader, like david koresh or any other.

      June 3, 2012 at 6:37 am |
    • lilyq

      Jesus did and does exist. Be blessed today.

      June 3, 2012 at 6:53 am |
    • just the other day

      Bootyfunk was on this thread claiming to be an idiot, and here it is confirming the fact

      June 3, 2012 at 7:27 am |
    • Really?

      The Biblical Jesus is a made up thing of several people and myths. Once people realize the extent of the lies, the so called christianity will suffer its major crisis and either evolve to the truth or die.

      June 3, 2012 at 8:44 am |
    • nope


      June 3, 2012 at 8:46 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.