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. tampabay

    Maybe they should use non-venomous snakes? Handle serpents, but the non-poisonous variety!

    June 2, 2012 at 3:08 pm |
    • Keith

      Good idea, however all the preachers are deadly poisonous how are you going to find a non venomous one of those.

      June 2, 2012 at 3:16 pm |
  2. tallguy70

    What a dummy. I mean really? Definitely not a Democrat lol

    June 2, 2012 at 3:07 pm |
    • Still in denial are we?

      Au contraire.

      June 2, 2012 at 3:10 pm |
  3. JD

    I have to laugh......when I eventually stop I look at that picture above and laugh again! What a knucklehead...got what he deserved

    June 2, 2012 at 3:07 pm |
  4. Robairdo

    Well that solves the Christmas dilemma doesn't it. I mean what do you get your local religious reich bigot? A snake of course. Silly me

    June 2, 2012 at 3:07 pm |
  5. Jeffrey Adams

    As a wise young man once said, Stupid is as Stupid does. If your dumb enough to screw around with venomous snakes long enough you're going to get bitten and more than likely you will die. What does religion half to do with this:)

    June 2, 2012 at 3:07 pm |
    • Alan

      I guess the stupid half.

      June 2, 2012 at 3:08 pm |
    • Good grief!!

      What does religion "half" to do... and YOU'RE talking "stupid is as stupid does"?

      Guess what? You just "DID".

      June 2, 2012 at 3:12 pm |
    • Jack Larson

      Like most religious people, they verge on the edge of being psychotic so it is no surpirse that this would happen.

      June 2, 2012 at 3:15 pm |
  6. mswinston

    Apparently the snake cured stupid.

    June 2, 2012 at 3:06 pm |
  7. Calvin

    So there are.. 4 or 5 churches in the USA that practice this. It makes headlines on CNN because CNN will do anything to discredit Christ.

    June 2, 2012 at 3:06 pm |
    • Robairdo

      Unfortunately it is the Religious Reich that is ruining the good name of Jesus Christ.

      June 2, 2012 at 3:08 pm |
    • Varun

      they don't have to try too hard you know! It's science fiction!

      June 2, 2012 at 3:15 pm |
    • Keith

      Wrong, CNN doesn't have to discredit JC he has millions of so called faithful who discredit him every day of the week.
      In any case this is a legitimate news story, if the preacher got shot by the husband of one of his female parishioners who he was screwing, would CNN be discrediting JC by reporting that?
      If you are insane enough to believe that your god commands you to handle deadly snakes then this needs to be reported so that normal people can stay the hell away from these third world enclaves in our first world country.
      I have said it a million times and I will say it again, the greatest threat to this country is NOT terrorism, financial melt down or drugs, IT IS IGNORANCE.
      That preacher got exactly what he deserved.

      June 2, 2012 at 3:36 pm |
    • Perplexed

      @Keith, if the greatest threat to this country is ignorance, than we're scr3wed. Idiocracy is already here.

      June 2, 2012 at 4:36 pm |
    • Rodboy

      Calvin, you are right – when you live like they do, you need to have someone agree with you to make yourself feel better. Why do think the G A Y community wants acceptance to gain access to partners no, to gain a better view of themselves.

      June 2, 2012 at 5:14 pm |
  8. Alan

    Ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, that's hilarious. Maybe Romney will get his snake strangled in his magic underwear. If it weren't for all the horrors committed in the name of religion, it would be a never ending source of mirth.

    June 2, 2012 at 3:06 pm |
    • Rodboy

      Alan, you are not much of a history buff – or just did not read much, secular world nor chirstiandom ever cornered the market on evil A L L humans carry the trait.

      June 2, 2012 at 5:16 pm |
  9. anonyi

    What a bunch of disgusting freak hill billies. Yeah worshipping snakes as a religion? LOL no wonder America is going down the S-hole. In the Bible it NEVER says to handle and worship snakes you idiots. With that kind of ignorance you guys deserve to go to Hell. I hope all you get bitten by snakes. Keep it up ROFL ^_^

    June 2, 2012 at 3:06 pm |
    • Keith

      Sorry to say but you are not much better than the snake loving freaks. You apparently believe in the Bible and Hell both of which are of course complete FICTION.

      June 2, 2012 at 3:38 pm |
  10. FireBreathingElk

    If you're going to be stupid enough to repeatedly handle poisonous creatures - and not even seek medical help when they BITE YOU - you deserve to die.

    June 2, 2012 at 3:06 pm |
  11. Forrest

    Stupid is as stupid does.

    June 2, 2012 at 3:06 pm |
  12. Dave

    I really hope more snakes take bible thumpers out like this. Darwin at it's finest

    June 2, 2012 at 3:05 pm |
    • Perplexed

      Only if he dies before he reproduces.

      June 2, 2012 at 4:37 pm |
  13. Ruthie

    It's Darwin's Survival of the Fittest.

    June 2, 2012 at 3:03 pm |
    • Keith

      Absolutely correct, the fittest are the snakes

      June 2, 2012 at 3:40 pm |
  14. Alex

    Good Riddance 🙂

    June 2, 2012 at 3:03 pm |
  15. Carol

    There are some pretty nutty Christians. Jesus would NEVER approve of such behavior. They are brainwashed.

    June 2, 2012 at 3:02 pm |
    • Alien Orifice

      You are also brainwashed.

      June 2, 2012 at 3:04 pm |
    • Prophet

      and he would not have "disproved" because --> the full measure of Jesus's lesson to mankind was to "never" "ever" judge "anything" "anytime" "anywhere" "anyway"... try that out. It takes decades of practice, just like it did Jesus.

      June 2, 2012 at 3:15 pm |
    • Keith

      Disagree ALL believers are BRAINWASHED, some just have the decency to top themselves and stop polluting our Earth.

      June 2, 2012 at 3:18 pm |
  16. Shiz

    I wish there were more people like this getting bitten. Religion is more toxic than any snakebite.

    June 2, 2012 at 3:02 pm |
  17. old golfer

    Life is tough. It is much tougher if you are stupid. I think John Wayne said that. I couldn't agree more. But hey, anything in the name of religion.

    June 2, 2012 at 2:32 pm |
  18. Snakes on Crack

    Trust in me, just in me
    Shut your eyes and trust in me
    You can sleep safe and sound
    Knowing I am around

    Slip into silent slumber
    Sail on a silver mist
    Slowly and surely your senses
    Will cease to resist

    Trust in me, just in me
    Shut your eyes and trust in me

    June 2, 2012 at 2:25 pm |
    • Recess is over

      Don't quit your day job. A poet, you're not.

      June 2, 2012 at 3:14 pm |
    • IGotYourReference

      No, no – I have no time for that sort of nonsense.....

      June 2, 2012 at 3:21 pm |
    • Alien Orifice

      I didn't write this O wise critic of poetry. It was written by: Robert B. Sherman & Richard M. Sherman. The Sherman Brothers wrote more motion-picture musical song scores than any other songwriting team in film history. Film scores of the Sherman Brothers include Mary Poppins, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, The Jungle Book, Charlotte's Web and The Aristocats.

      June 2, 2012 at 4:05 pm |
    • Alien Orifice

      It is amazing how many utterly uneducated and/or stupid people blog on this thing.

      June 2, 2012 at 4:07 pm |
    • Non-Serpent Handler

      Again.........Thank You

      June 2, 2012 at 7:20 pm |
    • Non-Serpent Handler

      Silver Mist?

      June 2, 2012 at 7:24 pm |
  19. YooGeniks

    There are not enough eugenic pressures on society. One snake is not enough. We need more deaths of stupid people!

    June 2, 2012 at 2:03 pm |
  20. Bootyfunk

    poor snake had to put his mouth on that guy?

    June 2, 2012 at 1:49 pm |
    • miller

      After years of being handled the snake was probably just curious... "Yep, just as I suspected, it tastes like idiot"

      June 2, 2012 at 5:53 pm |
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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.