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. Daniel

    The DEMOCRATS will let you handle SNAKES but they want to keep the BIRTH CONTROL PILL CONCESSIONS all for themselves.

    June 4, 2012 at 2:16 pm |
  2. Church of Suicidal

    Strychnine is for pu ss ies. If they had real faith, they'd use cyanide. And rattlesnakes? Really? I think people would be more impressed to see you handle something exotic. Say, a black mamba.

    June 4, 2012 at 2:14 pm |
  3. Ricky

    Well, one less nut job out there. Please give them some more serpents.

    June 4, 2012 at 1:41 pm |
  4. Mike

    Somebody give these fools something more than a Copperhead. Like say, a few black Mambas or Coral snakes. Then we'll see how much longer they think that "God is protecting [them]"

    June 4, 2012 at 1:37 pm |
  5. Snafu

    Now that's funny right there. I don't care who you are.

    Larry would have a field day with this one.

    June 4, 2012 at 1:32 pm |
  6. Rev. J.T.

    There's a simple explanation and word for this: stupid.

    June 4, 2012 at 1:29 pm |
  7. Todd

    First it says he was bitten by a yellow timber rattler,then it says 4 copperhead bites. The media is horrible.

    June 4, 2012 at 1:27 pm |
    • Stretch

      He was bitten (and killed) by the rattler. The 4 copperhead strikes/bites were previous injuries. That's how I took it, anyway. Regardless, what a fool.

      June 4, 2012 at 2:03 pm |
  8. Oscar Pitchfork

    Maybe that means if, once in your life you have to handle a snake or drink some kind of toxic drink, God will save your life. Doesn;t the Bible also mention "Thou shalt not tempt the Lord, thy God"?

    June 4, 2012 at 1:14 pm |
  9. JerseyGeorge

    Now if we could only send a boat load of these snakes to the vatican.

    June 4, 2012 at 1:05 pm |
  10. Paul

    I'm rooting for the snakes...

    June 4, 2012 at 1:02 pm |
  11. Bob-O

    Thinning the herd.

    June 4, 2012 at 12:52 pm |
  12. Informed

    Well yes, evolution at work. It sometimes takes a few generations to purge the weak, infirm and feeble minded from the ranks. Look's like it has almost caught up.

    June 4, 2012 at 12:51 pm |
  13. InFormed

    Ah yes, evolution at work. It sometimes takes a few generations to purge the weak, infirm and feeble minded from the ranks. Look's like it has almost caught up.

    June 4, 2012 at 12:50 pm |
  14. JAB62

    Like father like son. I wish Mr. Darwin would be more efficient and take these people out before they reproduce.

    June 4, 2012 at 12:44 pm |
    • Church of Suicidal

      The stupid always breed early.

      June 4, 2012 at 1:40 pm |
  15. Moses

    You have to take those passeges out of context to make them say what they are saying; the Bible also tells me that God will watch over me but I am not going to walk down a freeway with a blindfold on to test Him

    June 4, 2012 at 12:24 pm |
    • Me again, again

      Moses, I do watch over you too. Trust me, have faith. Build me a temple. Send me money.

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

      Moses, my problem with that? "Christians" like to pick and choose which scripures are literal as opposed to metaphorical. Extremely self-serving. Opinion, only.

      June 4, 2012 at 2:06 pm |
    • just sayin

      "Extremely self-serving"
      You just described 90% of the Christians

      June 4, 2012 at 2:21 pm |
    • Brother Maynard

      Moses sez:
      " ... the Bible also tells me that God will watch over me but I am not going to walk down a freeway with a blindfold on to test Him"

      so Moses you openly admit that you do NOT have faith in god to watch over you; there ARE limits to faith.
      Knowingly or not ... you have taken the first step to become an Atheist .. ( that really wasn't so hard was it ) Welcome 🙂

      June 4, 2012 at 3:21 pm |
  16. LOL Religion

    Does anybody else see the hilariously delicious irony of Christian whackadoos proving Darwin correct by voluntarily removing themselves from the gene pool with their delusional stupidity?

    June 4, 2012 at 12:21 pm |
    • Henry

      LOL Religion

      See below!

      June 4, 2012 at 12:37 pm |
  17. Henry

    These s-c-h-l-o-n-g s-h-i-t dipped eating s-o-d-o-m-i-t-e-s, and their a-t-h-e-i-s-t counterparts the April fool’s day celebrants, can’t debate one on one due to their prevalent ignorance and cowardice, several hundred of them have nothing constructive to say, except oral d-e-f-e-c-a-t-I-o-n.

    June 4, 2012 at 12:18 pm |
    • Me again, again

      Yeah. So?

      June 4, 2012 at 12:22 pm |
    • Me again, again

      Oral d-e-f-e-c-a-t-I-o-n can be a productive exercise for those of us who can detect dramatic irony in the lives of your like-minded kin, my scatological friend.

      June 4, 2012 at 12:32 pm |
    • jungleboo

      Debating with a man of faith is a losing proposition. His commitment to winning at all odds is stronger than his ability to explore ideas logically, one of the prime attributes of debate. Sorry Henry, screaming hyphenetically is d-d-d-dumb.

      June 4, 2012 at 4:55 pm |
  18. PulTab

    I don't think I will ever be able to quit laughing at this. :^)

    June 4, 2012 at 12:14 pm |
  19. Beezbo

    “Remember, back in the Bible, it was the miracles that drew people to Christ.”

    From South Park:

    Jesus: The miracle I’m most famous for is turning water into wine.
    Stan: Can you do it again?
    Jesus: Very well. I shall perform the miracle. Behold. Here you can see ordinary water, clear, clean. Okay now, turn around. [Stan looks at Jesus quizzically. Jesus is now holding the pitcher] Er, nuh, tur- turn around. [Stan turns away and Jesus quickly switches pitchers] Uh, okay now, turn back. [Stan turns back] It is now wine!
    Stan: That’s it? That’s how you did that trick?
    Jesus: Well, yeah.
    Stan: That trick sucks, Jesus.
    Jesus: Oh well, I guess it worked a little better on people 2000 years ago.

    June 4, 2012 at 12:07 pm |
  20. Me again, again

    So is this guy still dead?

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

      Like almost everybody that dies...yes, they are still dead

      June 4, 2012 at 12:19 pm |
    • Dennis

      wait!!!wait!!! I think i just saw him move. Yes,...Yes...He's Alive..He's alive...Hallelujah!! Blessed be the lord!!!

      June 4, 2012 at 12:19 pm |
    • Dennis

      Chris – To explain clearly...I do believe 'Me Again' was just making satire of the situation and was NOT serious, as was I...(sign...sign...) Comprende?

      June 4, 2012 at 12:22 pm |
    • justme

      chris; what do you mean "almost"

      June 4, 2012 at 12:53 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.