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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. Robert

    God, no god, one thing is for certain, natural selection just made the human population a little bit smarter.

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

    Wasn't godo supposed to be protecting this guy?
    So what does this say about god or those he's supposed to be watching out for?

    June 5, 2012 at 12:26 pm |
  3. denouement1

    Whaaaat? Why is West Virginia even a state? And do people this stupid really exist in the US? Seriously why is West Virginia allowed to be a seperate state if the people who vote in its elections are this stupid. Handle snakes as part of a religion and see if it kills u. Now how confusing is that? "Junior don't pick up snakes off the ground cause they kin bite u and kill you's". "Don't be stupid junior you's only pick them up on Sundays in church." Sorry! Whaaaat?

    June 5, 2012 at 11:43 am |
    • M.F. Luder

      Obviously they do. Half of them think creationism is true.

      June 5, 2012 at 12:14 pm |
  4. BrandonCowz

    The footnotes in my study bible say:

    "The most reliable early manuscripts and other ancient witnesses do not have Mark 16:9-20".

    In other words, the passage about handling snakes and drinking poison were not written by Mark. They were added later.

    June 4, 2012 at 11:06 pm |
    • Darius

      If you're trying to make Christianity look bad, a lot of the books in the bible were not written by the people that they are about. The Gospels of the bible for example, possibly were not written by the people they were named after. Rather the writer used their name in order for it to seem more valid, which it did end up being.

      June 5, 2012 at 7:34 am |
  5. howart Dao

    Once bitten, twice son 🙂

    June 4, 2012 at 11:04 pm |
  6. andrew

    If you want to understand this a whole lot better, scroll down and find Rev Rick's comment. He posted it at 2:35 PM, June 4th. Truer words have never been written. And it goes to show there are people herein who can be brutally honest without being judgmental jerks.

    June 4, 2012 at 8:59 pm |
  7. LiberaLIowan

    Too bad he wasn't a honey badger. Honey badger ain't afraid of no snakes.

    June 4, 2012 at 8:02 pm |
  8. One one

    Snake handler speak with forked tongue.

    June 4, 2012 at 6:05 pm |
  9. Mark Hillyard

    This promise of protection from snake bits and other life threatening situations was only aimed at the Apostles and possibly others, until they had completed their mission. If it is extended to others it is as stated, for a particular purpose, and not to tempt God and 'get' Him to obey you.

    June 4, 2012 at 5:35 pm |
    • jungleboo

      And you have come by this curious information exactly HOW?

      June 4, 2012 at 5:37 pm |
    • Jamest297

      To reiterate what jungleboo asked: How the phuck do you come up with that load of baloney? I have an IQ of 73 and even I know baloney when I hear it, see it or read it. What you said is a load of baloney.

      June 4, 2012 at 7:15 pm |
    • Andy_Anderson

      I accuse you of making s**t up. Care to prove me wrong?

      June 5, 2012 at 1:18 am |
  10. HeavenSent

    If he had been right in Jesus, he would not have died from the bite.

    Amen.

    June 4, 2012 at 5:21 pm |
    • jungleboo

      Mayhem.

      June 4, 2012 at 5:35 pm |
    • Magic

      HeavenSent,

      You claim to be "right with Jesus" - you gonna try it?!

      June 4, 2012 at 5:45 pm |
    • One one

      @heaven, one these days your gonna die from something. When that happens, does it mean you were not right with Jesus ?

      June 4, 2012 at 5:52 pm |
    • JWT

      Thanks I needed the laugh HS.

      June 4, 2012 at 6:24 pm |
  11. serpentbox

    For more information about what a Serpent Handler *really* is see my article on the subject: http://www.serpentbox.com/html/serpenthandler/serpenthandler.php

    June 4, 2012 at 4:38 pm |
    • just sayin

      No thanks

      June 4, 2012 at 4:43 pm |
    • LiberaLIowan

      Not interested enough to copy and paste.

      June 4, 2012 at 7:34 pm |
  12. LOL Religion

    Darwin Wins! Flawless victory.

    Fatality.

    June 4, 2012 at 3:58 pm |
    • Buffie

      I don't know you, LOL Religion, but I like you. ^_^

      June 4, 2012 at 5:28 pm |
  13. Think for yourself

    Ironically, I think he earns the Darwin award.

    June 4, 2012 at 3:46 pm |
    • Beth

      Lol, I see what you did there. 😉

      June 4, 2012 at 5:47 pm |
  14. ORAXX

    My sympathy for this idiot is exactly zero.

    June 4, 2012 at 3:43 pm |
  15. Ecclesiastes 7:17

    My gosh the stupidity that is in Southern West Virginia....Democrats everywhere.
    Oh..yeah, and the snake handerls too.

    June 4, 2012 at 3:33 pm |
    • doug

      If these hillbillies are Democrats, may gawd strike me dead as I type....................still here...........................still here......................................and...............................still here.

      June 4, 2012 at 3:43 pm |
    • Jamest297

      Is there any way we can make West Virginia secede from the union?

      June 4, 2012 at 7:18 pm |
    • Darius

      I've never heard of southern west. Did they just add that direction this month? It's southwestern. And virginia is a southeastern state. And not everyone in Virginia is an idiot? One more thing, in case you didn't know, Virginia is a republican state.

      June 5, 2012 at 7:39 am |
    • Phllyphan

      I seriously doubt the red neck southern hillbillies from West VA ever voted for a black president, even if he was a democrat.

      June 5, 2012 at 12:47 pm |
  16. Church of Suicidal

    "If you squeeze my lizard, I'll put my snake on you."

    June 4, 2012 at 2:39 pm |
  17. Rev. Rick

    Although I have never attended one of the churches that "take up the serpent", I am from the Bible Belt of the Southeastern US. I have seen h_ell-fire and brimstone preachers get so caught up in their own Bible rhetoric that they appear to "get high" on their own adrenaline. The more the congregation buys into this rhetoric and reacts in positive way to the preacher's self-induced insanity, the more the preacher himself goes off the rails. It is adrenaline-induced spiritual insanity. I can see where handling poisonous snakes would only add to the reciprocal hysteria of both the minister and the congregation. While this all is diguised as religion, it originates with the minister's own ego and his desire/need for attention and self-importance. This might all be more fun if the minister would use the right kind of mushrooms, or some "weed". The whole congregation might mellow-out a little.

    June 4, 2012 at 2:35 pm |
    • jungleboo

      Yours is the first comment I've seen that has used the word "ego". thank you for that. I think that these unregulated little churches that populate the failed shopping centers and the back roads are extremely dangerous to the uneducated locals. The poor who fill the churches have no opportunity for travel and are stuck with TV and the church. Little wonder they choose the church to heal their bruised TV'd minds. The idiocy of Christianity splintering and splintering and splintering again results in these ne'er-do-well itinerant pastors earning a living because they have the show business ability to froth at the mouth. What child would not be struck with terror at the sight of God showing Himself with such conviction right there next to the liquor store? It is our nation's policy to stay out of religion, and religion is forbidden to stray into our politics. However, the cancer that is evident in the words of these holier-than-thou serpent biters should alarm those interested in protecting the children.

      June 4, 2012 at 4:46 pm |
    • andrew

      Yes, finally! i just KNEW there were people like you herein; thank you. I believe you have hit this nail as squarely on its head as one could ever hit it, and I agree with your every word 100%. There are ones who would skewer you in a NY minute for articulating as you have. But I salute you!
      Honesty concerning things like this might sound brutal to some, but if even one person who is otherwise teetering on this edge reads your comment and accepts it as the reality it certainly is, it might eventually save their very life.
      I commend you, and I wish I could put my own thoughts on matters like this, into such words as you have.

      June 4, 2012 at 8:49 pm |
    • mikethespike

      sir, this is the most enlightening comment, Preacherman's Ego what a concept. God shakes his head in frustration everytime apreacher forgets about god's will and interjects his own flawed religion, the Rock Star Syndrome. how about handling your congregation's questions and concerns about god without the fricking snakes, they can't,backwood preacher handles snake bites snake declares it tastes like chicken

      June 5, 2012 at 10:12 am |
  18. Slurm

    Finally called the paramedics after he started defecating in tongues

    June 4, 2012 at 2:28 pm |
  19. just sayin

    esteban

    "I admire his faith but i condemn his stupidity."

    .
    The stupid require faith to get past what they do not understand or wish to deal with. If you condemn his stupidity then you condemn his faith.

    June 4, 2012 at 2:28 pm |
  20. just sayin

    Dumb dead Baptists. LOL shame more don't take up the practice.

    June 4, 2012 at 2:23 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.