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. jmissal

    But...this isn't a cult because its chritian-based, right?

    June 4, 2012 at 10:47 am |
    • CS


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

      No, all he needs is a turbine and we'd be all over this with unmanned drones!

      June 4, 2012 at 12:26 pm |
  2. Idiots

    WV and Kentucky - they have combined IQ of 60 (there are about 7 people with high IQs that raise it that high).

    Wtch - they will vote for Romney and a world controlled by Mormons.

    June 4, 2012 at 10:43 am |
  3. Bible just a theory

    Did the snake get to eat him? If not, then that must have one disappointed critter!

    June 4, 2012 at 10:40 am |
  4. Jamest297

    Pure comedy gold –

    June 4, 2012 at 10:37 am |
  5. Peteyroo

    I have said all along that these guys are weenies. If they were true believers, they would be handling Black Mambas and Taipans, not sissy rattlesnakes.

    June 4, 2012 at 10:36 am |
  6. Jim

    Natural selection at it's finest!

    June 4, 2012 at 10:35 am |
  7. aizen

    the scripture says you shall not tempt YHWH your God, so why people like this idiots keep doing it, i dont know. he got what he deserved...good riddance and i think he wont even be in paradise if one existed...this is pure idiocy!

    June 4, 2012 at 10:34 am |
  8. Truefax

    Two or three years ago it was just another snake cult, now... they're everywhere. It is said that they are deceivers... they murder people in the night... I know nothing.

    June 4, 2012 at 10:33 am |
  9. Not All Docs Play Golf

    This is no more weird than a lot of ritualistic stuff done in the mainstream Catholic church that I grew up in and left once I had a functioning adult brain and majored in a science.

    June 4, 2012 at 10:32 am |
    • HotAirAce

      Agreed, 'no more weird' does not make any of it true. The probability of there being any god(s) is virtually zero, so low that to say there are no gods, not even just one, is hardly an exaggeration.

      June 4, 2012 at 10:43 am |
  10. Sumo

    As an Atheist, I highly encourage this type of behavior among the religious!

    June 4, 2012 at 10:31 am |
  11. Doc

    The real miracle here is that more of these guys haven't been killed handling poisonous snakes. God doesn't need to "show off" like that. Any of these clowns doing this is the hope that God will prevent one of his own lesser creatures from acting out its nature just to show He can still do party tricks is a fairly complete idiot.

    June 4, 2012 at 10:26 am |
    • Jamest297

      Well, the guy was only doing what the bible said is required of a believer. Do you disagree with that Doc. And, by the way, the guy was not a "fairly complete idiot" he was a total idiot for believing any of this nonsense from Genesis through to Revelation – it's all crap and taken in its entirety and in complete context provides proof that there can be no god.

      June 4, 2012 at 10:35 am |
  12. Larry

    100 instances of proof since 1909 that there is no god. How much evidence that there is one? None. I repeat – none.

    June 4, 2012 at 10:25 am |
    • Doc

      Larry, a snake biting someone messing with it is hardly proof that God doesn't exist. It's proof that the snake doesn't want to be bothered. You can't prove God doesn't exist any more than the people you annoy can empirically prove that He does. Give that tired stuff a rest.

      June 4, 2012 at 10:29 am |
    • betweenathensandjerusalem

      If this were, of course, a meaningful way to prove God's existence- or to even do Christian theology in the first place. I mean, what did the Church do prior to 1909 to 'prove' God's existence? Of course this is rhetorical, Christian theology has been rooted firmly in a philosophically sophisticated system for over 1000 years.
      In thinking through this, you should ask yourself this Larry, is it still logically possible that God exists, even while the snake handlers die off due to the bites?

      June 4, 2012 at 10:30 am |
    • Religion is not healthy for children and other living things

      Between... – you asked Larry, "Is it still logically possible that God exists, even while the snake handlers die off due to the bites?" I can answer that! The answer has absolutely nothing to do with snake handling! The answer is NO, it is NOT logically possibly that God exists! God is an IMAGINARY concept invented by man. That is why every book of the old and new testament was written by PEOPLE and there was not a single word of ANY of them "written by God"! Man was NOT created in the "image" of God, because it was God who was created in the "image" of MAN! That is why God is portrayed as being jealous, capricious and vindictive! THOSE are character flaws of HUMANS and certainly NOT the virtues if ANY kind of all-knowing nor "enlightened" super being. Think about it...

      June 4, 2012 at 12:48 pm |
      • Jay

        God is a theory that can't be proven.like String theory and the big bang.....

        October 4, 2013 at 2:22 pm |
    • betweenathensandjerusalem

      Religion is not healthy for children and other living things- prove it.

      June 4, 2012 at 8:33 pm |
  13. betweenathensandjerusalem

    Reblogged this on Between Athens and Jerusalem and commented:
    Why careful biblical interpretation is important...it can be needlessly deadly otherwise.

    June 4, 2012 at 10:13 am |
    • UncleM

      Careful interpretation of the bible is not required. Just ignore it all – it's made up nonsense.

      June 4, 2012 at 10:48 am |
    • jungleboo

      @ between...
      I am late to the party, but "making things up" is the nature of humanity. It is what we do. It is called creativity. I post a comment that I made up. You post one back. You make up a God. I make up no god, but I made breakfast and made my bed. The Buy Bull and every other piece of literature, music and artwork in this whole wide world has been made up by men and women. Does this surprise you??

      June 4, 2012 at 6:26 pm |
    • betweenathensandjerusalem

      Jungleboo- I am fully aware of human imagination. I think you miss the underlying argument here...how do you know you made the bed and breakfast this morning?

      June 4, 2012 at 8:36 pm |
  14. Adam

    Maybe those people from the Westboro Baptist Church should start taking this practice up.

    June 4, 2012 at 10:11 am |
    • That guy


      June 4, 2012 at 10:18 am |
    • Thepacific

      Don't tell Fox about this. Next thing you know, our Glenn Beck would tea them up.

      June 4, 2012 at 10:24 am |
  15. CNNuthin

    And nothing of value was lost.

    June 4, 2012 at 10:06 am |
  16. masterdavid

    Lunatic religious nut jobs.

    June 4, 2012 at 9:39 am |
  17. Jamest297

    It is just not possible to make this stuff up. Is there any chance we can make West Virginia secede from the Union?

    June 4, 2012 at 8:39 am |
  18. Jamest297

    Some charmer this guy turned out to be –

    June 4, 2012 at 8:37 am |
  19. Frank

    Father and son both dead. Snakes 2 Lunatics 0.

    June 4, 2012 at 7:26 am |
  20. One one

    Jesus said:

    Luke 6:27-28 27”But I say unto you which hear, Love your enemies, do good to them which hate you,  28Bless them that curse you, and pray for them which despitefully use you.”

    But he also said:

    Deuteronomy 13:6 – “If your brother, your mother’s son or your son or daughter, or the wife you cherish, or your friend who is as your own soul entice you secretly, saying, let us go and serve other gods … you shall surely kill him; your hand shall be first against him to put him to death”

    This looks like either a major inconsistency, or a major flip flop in positions.

    June 4, 2012 at 7:01 am |
    • Mirosal

      Jesus didn't say anything in Deuteronomy. That book was 1000 years old when he was born, IF he ever existed in the first place.

      June 4, 2012 at 7:06 am |
    • Dekard

      Deuteronomy is old testament and was rules for Israel. Luke is in the new testament for the Christians.

      June 4, 2012 at 10:30 am |
    • One one

      If Jesus didn't say it which god did? I thought there was one one god. Does god have different rules for different people at different times?

      June 4, 2012 at 5:47 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.