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. Jim

    To funny, guy said he liked handling his snake!! What a tard!

    June 4, 2012 at 6:17 am |
  2. david martin

    good riddance heard he was a child molester anyways ,he got what he deserved and hopefully the rest of his cult will follow. william branham followers do this too in west virginia-they are another sick cult that should be disbanded

    June 4, 2012 at 4:46 am |
    • All sin

      Baring false witness is an affront to God and man.

      June 4, 2012 at 4:54 am |
    • sam stone

      So is poor spelling

      June 4, 2012 at 6:54 am |
    • Mirosal

      eye haz grate speling skilz cuz eye gots me a kath-lick skool edji–ma-ka-shun.. dem teechers dun lernd mee reel gud!! 🙂 (I really do have a Catholic education, courtesy of the Order of the Sisters of Mary and the Jesuits)

      June 4, 2012 at 7:03 am |
  3. Atheism is not healthy for children and other living things

    Prayer changes things .

    June 4, 2012 at 4:33 am |
    • James

      To pray to God is to flatter oneself that with words one can alter nature.

      June 4, 2012 at 5:53 am |
    • Mirosal

      Prayer changes thing??? Yeah, tell that to the Holocaust victims, who I'm sure were praying with an intensity and veracity you couldn't imagine, and were loud enough for the deaf to hear. Guess they just weren't pious enough? People have prayed for you to stop posting, but you still do. Guess it doesn't work ..... proven

      June 4, 2012 at 6:03 am |
    • Jesus

      ~Prayer doesn’t not; you are such a LIAR. You have NO proof it changes anything! A great example of prayer proven not to work is the Christians in jail because prayer didn't work and their children died. For example: Susan Grady, who relied on prayer to heal her son. Nine-year-old Aaron Grady died and Susan Grady was arrested.

      An article in the Journal of Pediatrics examined the deaths of 172 children from families who relied upon faith healing from 1975 to 1995. They concluded that four out of five ill children, who died under the care of faith healers or being left to prayer only, would most likely have survived if they had received medical care.

      The statistical studies from the nineteenth century and the three CCU studies on prayer are quite consistent with the fact that humanity is wasting a huge amount of time on a procedure that simply doesn’t work. Nonetheless, faith in prayer is so pervasive and deeply rooted, you can be sure believers will continue to devise future studies in a desperate effort to confirm their beliefs!

      June 4, 2012 at 10:38 am |
    • Jared

      I saw a friend healed in an instant once while we prayed for him.

      June 4, 2012 at 11:22 am |
    • jungleboo

      @ Atheism is not healthy for children and other living things:
      Relax kids, this one is a troll. His fetish is reading the insults he gets.

      June 4, 2012 at 5:24 pm |
  4. Pastapharian

    Just more proof that religious people are stupid.cnothing we here. Move along.

    June 4, 2012 at 1:54 am |
  5. Meg Jensen

    I believe these fools have just proved Darwin's theory of the fittest – those so dumb that they believe they can't die from a poisonous snake bite are thinning out the weakest link in the human herd.

    June 4, 2012 at 1:42 am |
  6. Meg Jensen

    I believe these fools have just proved Darwin's theory of the fittest – those so dumb that they believe they can't die from a poisonous snake bite are thinning out the human herd.

    June 4, 2012 at 1:42 am |
  7. dada

    oh my GOD. when something like this happens in other part of world ( pakistan or china ) we called them living in dark age,
    but right here in US, it is biblical and religious. what a super bigotry .

    June 4, 2012 at 1:25 am |
    • ElmerGantry

      There are none so blind to reality as those who are willingly blind.

      June 4, 2012 at 2:26 am |
    • stefan

      no, we call them living in the dark ages here, too.

      June 4, 2012 at 4:24 am |
  8. spangler

    Had the Romans heard rumors of Jesus still being alive, they would have assumed he somehow survived the cross and would have searched for him. There is no record of this taking place.

    June 4, 2012 at 1:01 am |
    • saggyroy

      Awesome. Hadn't thought of that. Thanks.

      June 4, 2012 at 6:34 am |
  9. Bootyfunk

    how is that poor snake going to get that taste out of its mouth?

    June 4, 2012 at 12:47 am |
  10. tut tut tut

    Darwin award, maybe? He's got my vote.

    . “However, I am sure others will emerge, as well.” Others, as in more young snake handlers to take his position...
    The more the better. For the glory of dog, let's have more serpents bite more preacher men... They want to handle snakes , god wants it, even I like it... so let's get on with it,
    Handle as many snakes as you can. We'd love to watch....

    June 4, 2012 at 12:17 am |
  11. hellonews

    this is not biblical Christianity...I wish CNN would stop publishing this fringe garbage...this guy was completely nuts...his (and many other pentecostals) downfall is that they don't realize that description does not equal prescription in the Bible. Jesus Christ used miracles to demonstrate His deity...these guys use snakes to deceive men (and themselves)...this is not the gospel...this is deception that should be called what it is.

    June 4, 2012 at 12:04 am |
    • Lou

      Jesus don't perform any miracles you fruit loop. There is no god!

      June 4, 2012 at 1:52 am |
    • Mark

      You referred to Jesus as a deity. That begs the question, do you see anything wrong with the idea that a deity impregnated a young married woman, who then had a son, who is his own daddy? This is what many Christians will claim to believe. When I have a conversation with a Christian, and use logic and evidence to show how their beliefs are seriously flawed, their reply is what I would expect from an insane person, who is unable to separate bad fiction from reality.

      June 4, 2012 at 3:41 am |
    • joeschlag

      Just another example of people being able to find or interpret anything they want out of the Bible.

      June 4, 2012 at 4:14 am |
  12. Abraham, Issac and Jacob

    Most Bible scholars will tell you that the verses referenced in Mark 16 were added later.

    The verses after Mark 16:9 are not found in the original manuscripts and wee added to Mark years later.

    These are the verses that are the basis for dancing with snakes, drinking poison and other crazy behavior.

    Its amazing that in this day in age, in the United States, we have this kind of behavior happening.

    Pentacostals are hilarious

    June 4, 2012 at 12:01 am |
    • O.S. Bird

      Would God allow falsehoods to be added to the Bible? I thought that was impossible.

      June 4, 2012 at 12:34 am |
  13. RichardSRussell

    If yo don't believe the Bible is completely true — and act accordingly — you're not a true Christian. So go ahead, play with those water moccasins, gargle that strychnine. The Bible says you can do so safely because you're cradled in the hands of the Lord. Or is your faith so weak you don't believe the Bible, you hypocrites?

    June 3, 2012 at 11:43 pm |
    • No Way Yahweh

      This EXACTLY.

      June 4, 2012 at 2:38 am |
  14. Me

    Dead is dead!! What a bunch of morons!!

    June 3, 2012 at 11:29 pm |
  15. a


    June 3, 2012 at 10:56 pm |
  16. a


    June 3, 2012 at 10:55 pm |
    • B

      B-a B, B -a B, B I Bicky Bye Bee Oh Boh.

      Do you have anything to add?

      June 3, 2012 at 10:58 pm |
  17. a


    June 3, 2012 at 10:54 pm |
  18. a


    June 3, 2012 at 10:53 pm |
  19. a


    June 3, 2012 at 10:53 pm |
  20. a


    June 3, 2012 at 10:52 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.