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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. terre08

    I love reading posts from Christians who say the snake handler did not follow the bible. It's like 2 idiots arguing over the earth, they both agree it is flat but they disagree if it is a flat square or a flat circle.

    June 4, 2012 at 12:02 pm |
    • pauleky

      Spot on.

      June 4, 2012 at 12:06 pm |
    • Todd

      That comment was funny!

      June 4, 2012 at 12:09 pm |
    • jungleboo

      You're hired!

      June 4, 2012 at 4:57 pm |
  2. Dennis

    Religious fanatics whether here in the US or places like Afghanistan is a plague on society....evolution doesn't work fast enough!!! what a tard...

    June 4, 2012 at 11:59 am |
  3. Montello

    And the winner of this year's Darwin Award is...

    June 4, 2012 at 11:55 am |
  4. jp

    The pastor knew that the Bible said we can handle snakes in the name of God, but did the snake know that?

    June 4, 2012 at 11:54 am |
  5. robertholt

    Well over ninety nine percent of Christians will tell you that they wouldn't handle a snake in a million years. Salvation comes through accepting Christ as Savior – that's all. You don't need to handle a snake to prove your faith.

    June 4, 2012 at 11:52 am |
    • Dennis

      So which potion of the bible should I believe then? hmmmm... maybe none of it?

      June 4, 2012 at 12:06 pm |
    • Todd

      If you pay attention to the bible closely you will see that the miracles were performed by the Apostles only after Jesus died. In Acts, some of the main dudes did it to help propel the gospel to those that had been lied to by the Romans. It doesn't say we still need those miracles. They died out with the apostles.

      Man this story gives me the willies. I can't believe one that there are people out there and two, there are people out there that follow those folks.

      June 4, 2012 at 12:13 pm |
  6. Hamlet21

    With all the things the Democrats step in and pass a law, this is one that religious practice that should be stopped under common sense. Belivers of Jesus should stop this arcane and unsafe practice. Where the hell is PETA? Where is Obama? Where is the EPA? Where are the animal rights activist? Finally, where the hell is the good Reverands Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson?

    June 4, 2012 at 11:52 am |
    • Dennis

      Yes, definitely..A law to ban religion in general would do great things for the country! Where is this separation of church and state again?

      June 4, 2012 at 12:07 pm |
    • PulTab

      As a staunch democrat, I would rather pass a law that all religious freaks are REQUIRED to dance with snakes every sunday.

      June 4, 2012 at 12:22 pm |
  7. J.W

    OMG there are 303 pages of comments on this?

    June 4, 2012 at 11:48 am |
    • Bet

      Over 250 pages were generated by a spambot, so there's really not as many comments as it seems.

      June 4, 2012 at 12:11 pm |
  8. David L.

    I just think it's too bad that he called the paramedics at the end, even though it was too late anyways. Not only did he die, but now he's going to heII.

    June 4, 2012 at 11:42 am |
    • no

      HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA!!!!

      June 4, 2012 at 12:10 pm |
    • Dennis

      Personally I would have chosen the 74 virgins route myself....seems much more fun in the end, no? I can see why strapping on a bomb to your vest is so tempting.....

      June 4, 2012 at 12:14 pm |
    • tb63

      Got a rocket in my pocket!

      June 4, 2012 at 12:20 pm |
    • jungleboo

      @Dennis, Thank you for your touchdown!

      June 4, 2012 at 5:00 pm |
  9. WASP

    that is just hilarious, idiot meets snake......idiot shows friends snake........idiot tries to kiss snake, snake bites idiot. end of idiot. ROFLMFAO

    June 4, 2012 at 11:37 am |
    • Todd

      This helps clear up the gene pool.

      June 4, 2012 at 12:15 pm |
  10. jbfromptown

    He has chosen to handle a snake and promote a false doctrine. These are truly the Last of LAst of Days.

    June 4, 2012 at 11:27 am |
    • birch please

      The end of days was supposed to be in the same generation as your savior..... keep waiting for nothing. btw im pretty sure the plague would count as a end of days time more than today.

      June 4, 2012 at 11:39 am |
    • Jamest297

      Which doctrine was he promoting that is false?

      June 4, 2012 at 11:40 am |
    • PulTab

      The entire bible Jamest297, the entire bible.

      June 4, 2012 at 12:24 pm |
  11. Henry

    It is amazing to witness how these s-h-i-t eating f-a-g-o-t-s prostrate in worship to the god of b-u-g-g-e-r-y, yet they revile and malign the God of Heaven that created them!

    June 4, 2012 at 11:10 am |
    • At death the religious are pwnd

      Save the planet, kill yourself in the name of god.

      June 4, 2012 at 11:24 am |
    • tb63

      To borrow a line from the late Frank Zappa: the closest I've ever come to eating s-h-i-t was at a restaurant in Georgia.

      June 4, 2012 at 11:28 am |
    • terre08

      Spoken as a true christian.

      June 4, 2012 at 11:59 am |
    • jungleboo

      Henry, you could use a little vacation from your h.omophobia. Should have taken it years ago, but it's never too late to come out. Say goodbye to darkness, in spirit and deed.

      June 4, 2012 at 5:05 pm |
  12. cdgfla

    Evolution. Alive and well and weeding out the dumb for at least 100,000 years.

    June 4, 2012 at 11:07 am |
    • Melissa

      AMEN!!!!

      June 4, 2012 at 11:51 am |
  13. John The Baptist

    As an FYI to the CNN editors and the writer who wrote this article, snakes are venomous, not poisonous.

    June 4, 2012 at 11:05 am |
  14. Steve O

    "Mack Wolford and his father were both serpent handlers who died of snake bites."

    Mack should have stuck to handling ball pythons like in the picture.

    June 4, 2012 at 11:04 am |
    • herpetologistguy

      Snake pictured is a copperhead, venomous and native to West Virginia.

      June 4, 2012 at 11:31 am |
    • WASP

      @steve: please stay away from anything you think is a ball python. that's a copperhead and they aren't friendly.

      copperheads are native to most of the eastern US. had my run ins' with them during my time in NC.

      June 4, 2012 at 11:42 am |
  15. Pedro

    Gene pool cleansing!

    June 4, 2012 at 11:03 am |
  16. Not the God

    The bible says 'he who carries Scorpions in his rectum is a true follower of God'.

    So c'mon boys, I gots me a bucket-o-scorpions and a can of Crisco! Let's Go!

    June 4, 2012 at 10:56 am |
    • Theist&proud

      where does it say that?

      June 4, 2012 at 11:18 am |
    • Dennis

      I believe it is in Appendixticus (1:37)

      June 4, 2012 at 12:24 pm |
  17. lolita

    this is funny

    June 4, 2012 at 10:55 am |
    • OneFineBlonde

      No, it isn't, Iolita.

      It isn't funny to normal people with a normally developed character . . . people with normal emotions.

      It is sad. It is pathetic. These misguided people are to be pitied. They shouldn't be the object of derision.

      They are misguided. You are sick.

      June 4, 2012 at 11:06 am |
    • cdgfla

      Oh no, its truly funny. This is yet another example of Nature destroying religion. I love it. The more dead snake handling preachers the less there are to spread that Pentacostal cult's lies around an already dumb and economically/educationally swooning region of the world. Go nature, go Yellow Timber Rattlesnakes for the win!!!

      June 4, 2012 at 11:10 am |
    • sam stone

      no, this is funny.

      June 4, 2012 at 12:01 pm |
    • no

      Yes, Lolita is correct. It is funny. Very funny.

      June 4, 2012 at 12:12 pm |
    • PulTab

      Wrong, OneFineBlonde. It is very, very funny.

      June 4, 2012 at 12:29 pm |
    • Hyram S

      Definitely funny! I laughed long and loud when I first saw this story. It is definitely funny and very satisfying to read about a religious slimeball dying from sheer stupidity. To hell with his family. They will probably do the same thing and die and I will laugh some more.

      June 4, 2012 at 12:35 pm |
    • jungleboo

      @ onefineblond:
      Sweetheart, we appreciate your trembling heart, but what you fail to "get" is that this man was involved in the worst kind of child abuse imaginable. He demonstrated a spiritual idiocy in the name of his God, from which the children present will never recover. Child abuse can take many forms, not just s3x or violence. Did you know that? Fear of the unknown and the promise of Eternity in hell are the currency of these kinds of preachers. We are ALL thrilled to see him get exactly what HE asked for. You might try thinking the problem through and save your hankie for a more deserving tragedy, say, a traffic accident – where absolutely no one is hooting and hollering with glee.

      June 4, 2012 at 5:14 pm |
  18. ARV

    Seems like all the god fearing people ought to handle them snakes, maybe that would cleanse the human species of the burden of having to humor and deal with these loons

    June 4, 2012 at 10:54 am |
  19. Colin Morgan

    I'm just lol at the 302 pages of comments. You can't make this stuff up.

    June 4, 2012 at 10:52 am |
    • SRO

      303 now. Amazin.g

      June 4, 2012 at 11:25 am |
  20. Idiots

    The entire bible was written by mortal men to try to control the masses.

    God never wrote anything. He did, however, assure us free will. He gave us minds, some people just use them for something other than good.

    June 4, 2012 at 10:48 am |
    • Bob the Janitor

      LOL...

      June 4, 2012 at 10:57 am |
    • Jamest297

      If god never wrote anything, how do we know whether or not the bible is really his word and that he really, really meant it?

      June 4, 2012 at 11:38 am |
    • Wrath of Anubus

      God never wrote anything because a god does not, and hs never existed. God is a man made myth. The bible was written by man.

      June 4, 2012 at 11:52 am |
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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.