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. anna capella

    nevermind. i retrack the statement. g'day.

    June 2, 2012 at 5:32 pm |
  2. citizen9

    Doesn't the bible say something against suicide by snake?

    June 2, 2012 at 5:31 pm |
  3. JMason

    It's called cleaning out the gene pool.

    June 2, 2012 at 5:31 pm |
  4. Jim

    So why does the tradition continue? Darwinism.

    June 2, 2012 at 5:30 pm |
  5. holly

    So sad. Appalachia is a weird place. If you read the book "Christy" – it's historical fiction about the author's mom teaching in Appalachia- it helps you to understand these people and the fact that it's in their traditions to "get all worked up" one way or another. Christians would do well to pray for them to recieve wisdom and peace. God is good, and loves them, and we ought to remember that we do stupid things too. Granted, most of us do stay away from poisonouse snakes. It's a throwback from some native american groups who worshipped snakes. Could possibly have been someone trying to show that God had power over these snakes, then turned into a twisted tradition, who knows?

    June 2, 2012 at 5:30 pm |
  6. Hun


    June 2, 2012 at 5:30 pm |
  7. Mr No It All

    For reference' Treading upon serpents: means taking charge of the city council and planning commission, not actual snakes.

    June 2, 2012 at 5:29 pm |
  8. David Dee

    Why? Because they are stupid.

    June 2, 2012 at 5:29 pm |
  9. semus

    Typical American redneck crap. This is ONE facet of the backwards bible belt in the us.

    June 2, 2012 at 5:29 pm |
  10. fsmgroupie

    After eight hours he lost his faith in God and called the parametics. My Sweet Loving Jesus Lord and Savior will surely burn his a$$ in hell for all eternity!!!

    June 2, 2012 at 5:29 pm |
  11. chupacabra

    He must have been a hypocrite who lacked faith since Jesus didn't love him enough to save him from the poisonous snake.

    June 2, 2012 at 5:28 pm |
  12. Amazing...

    Isn't there a suggestion that one not tempt God? If this isn't tempting God, I don't know what is...

    June 2, 2012 at 5:28 pm |
  13. Craig

    (Question from CNN's home page) Why does this tradition continue?

    Uh, because they're stupid enough to think that an invisible sky wizard is going to save them from a poisonous snake bite?

    (Let's give it up for Occam's Razor!)

    June 2, 2012 at 5:28 pm |
    • Gedwards

      You don't understand those whom you mock.

      The goal of Christianity is not to maximize one's mortal life, but to achieve eternal life. So dying prematurely, is not necessarily a negative to believers.

      June 2, 2012 at 5:30 pm |
    • Ancient Curse

      No doubt. It's a high price to pay to figure out you've been wrong about your own beliefs. Famous last words: "Oops!"

      June 2, 2012 at 5:31 pm |
    • Craig

      You talk to invisible people. Let's debate reality, not fantasy.

      June 2, 2012 at 5:32 pm |
    • Gedwards

      @Craig//"You talk to invisible people. Let's debate reality, not fantasy."

      Explain consciousness, free will and life, in the context of the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics and Entropy. You do "believe" that those are reality, don't you?

      June 2, 2012 at 5:34 pm |
    • Gedwards

      I guess you don't want to debate reality. Not surprising.

      June 2, 2012 at 5:47 pm |
    • jungleboo

      @ Gedwards: "The goal of Christianity is not to maximize one's mortal life, but to achieve eternal life. So dying prematurely, is not necessarily a negative to believers."

      Could you possibly perceive that this goal you have stated is the actual rational for history's Land Lords, who had it in their power to convince the ignorant peasants that they must bear their unbearable lives and continue producing for him?

      If you can not see this for the scam that it is, you fully deserve your lot in life. But you should not teach it to others. it will harm them.

      June 2, 2012 at 5:51 pm |
    • Craig

      You don't need the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics to know that talking to something that isn't there is idiotic. If a million people do a stupid thing, it's still a stupid thing.

      The "My belief is stupid but here's why I think yours is stupider" isn't a defense. I'm still fascinated as to why you talk to invisible people. Don't try to shift the argument.

      June 2, 2012 at 5:54 pm |
  14. Nate Daniels

    Uhhh....Am I the only one who wonders if they are forcing their children to practice these beliefs? I am fine with letting Darwin take the adults, but child endangerment is a crime and Christianity shouldn't be a cheap excuse to ignore it.

    June 2, 2012 at 5:27 pm |
    • jungleboo

      Religious schools are a prime example of child abuse. The pretty pictures and halos all just cover up the iniquity inherent in denying the student the right to question and to receive rational answers.

      June 2, 2012 at 5:30 pm |
    • holly

      In the article he mentions how it's mostly the men who do it. As to religious education being child abuse- I thought my secular education was pretty cruel. Not that I'd want my kids to go to a religious private school. They might teach something about a religion that is incorrect or cruel. Home Education- where secular and religious families can come together and agree!!!

      June 2, 2012 at 5:36 pm |
    • Gedwards

      @jungleboo//"inherent in denying the student the right to question and to receive rational answers."
      So your answer to solve that problem is to deny the right to be exposed to beliefs that you disagree with??? Welcome to thought indoctrination 102 - the follow-on course to what you criticize.

      June 2, 2012 at 5:46 pm |
  15. tokencode

    Evolution at work folks... I think this guy deserves a Darwin award....

    June 2, 2012 at 5:27 pm |
  16. The Dude

    What is more pathetic? This guy or millions of blacks praying to a white Jesus?

    June 2, 2012 at 5:27 pm |
    • David Dee

      Praying for a white person who is Jewish.

      June 2, 2012 at 5:30 pm |
    • Dann

      Someone who lived in the middle east 2000 years ago was white?

      June 2, 2012 at 5:34 pm |
    • the franchise

      Guess it be just great if White people were praying to a black jesus?

      June 2, 2012 at 5:37 pm |
  17. that guy

    oh let em do it if they want... just like you should let a person smoke or drink regardless of your view! as long as its not harming others or wildlife let people do what they want if you like true freedom!

    June 2, 2012 at 5:26 pm |
  18. ObamaUnitl2016

    is it too soon to mention that Fox News just lost another "loyal viewer"?

    June 2, 2012 at 5:26 pm |
  19. ObamaUnitl2016

    IS it too soon to mention that FoxNews just lost another viewer?

    June 2, 2012 at 5:25 pm |
  20. Gedwards

    "Some surrounding states, including Tennessee and North Carolina, have outlawed it."
    So what happened to the "separation of church" and state crowd?

    If they want to worship that way, let them.

    June 2, 2012 at 5:24 pm |
    • anna capella

      the fact that it needed to be outlawed speaks volumes

      June 2, 2012 at 5:25 pm |
    • Gedwards

      @anna capella, why do you say it "needed" to be outlawed. Again, how is this of any concern to the state, given it does not substantially affect those outside of their religion?

      June 2, 2012 at 5:28 pm |
    • Ancient Curse

      Because we can't have religions that practice human sacrifice. Should be obvious.

      June 2, 2012 at 5:28 pm |
    • Gedwards

      That's a stretch, @Ancient Curse. This observance was not characterized as a sacrifice. Do you have insider information?

      June 2, 2012 at 5:32 pm |
    • jungleboo

      Thank you Ancient.
      Ummmm, Gewards, are you sincere when you post a question like that, or are you just going for the laughs?

      June 2, 2012 at 5:33 pm |
    • anna capella

      nevermind. i retract the statement. g'day.

      June 2, 2012 at 5:33 pm |
    • Gedwards

      @junglleboo, I'm serious. SOC&S is used for all sorts of issues when there only a hint of religion crossing into state matters. It's things like this where the state seems to freely trend into church territory, and there's no outrage by those same SOC&S zealots.


      June 2, 2012 at 5:37 pm |
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