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. Troll




    June 9, 2012 at 6:29 pm |
  2. Troll






    June 9, 2012 at 6:29 pm |
  3. Troll
























































































    June 9, 2012 at 6:28 pm |
  4. Rey Rogelio G. Manalo, Jr.

    • • • Let us cross out the following verses, for they are NOT INCLUDED in the ORIGINAL GREEK BIBLICAL MANUSCRIPT : Mark 16:9-20, John 7:53 – 8:11, 1John 5:7-8. --> These were just ADDED by CROOKED BIBLE TRANSLATORS !!!

    June 8, 2012 at 10:32 pm |
  5. Rey Rogelio G. Manalo, Jr.

    ◘ ◘ ◘ The CROOKED BIBLE TRANSLATORS and PUBLISHERS ought to be jailed for partly causing the deaths of Pastor Jim Jones and his 914 followers and of Pastor Wolford by including Mark 16:9-20 in their Bibles despite knowing full well that the said FAKE Bible Passage had NEVER been a part of the ORIGINAL GREEK BIBLICAL MANUSCRIPT. ((>_<)) ♣ ♣ ♣

    June 8, 2012 at 10:23 pm |
  6. GConner

    So much negativity towards the faith of these poor people! Christians (real ones) do not judge.
    For an unbiased study of this unusual practice, see the following site:

    June 8, 2012 at 4:03 pm |
  7. Dos Ruedas

    Wow! I have nuthin to add. Butt first......

    June 8, 2012 at 3:30 pm |
  8. manyote

    Just like a puppydog will eventually take a little nip at you, so will your pet snake. Except puppydogs don't have poison producing glands.

    June 8, 2012 at 2:05 pm |
  9. DLJ

    A sure winner of the Darwin Award – improving the gene pool by removing idiots.

    June 8, 2012 at 1:03 pm |
  10. The Minge of Oprah

    I wish all believers were snake handlers.

    June 6, 2012 at 2:18 am |
  11. Kenton

    The ending of the Gospel of Mark is a later addition by scribes. It isn't in our oldest and best copies of that manuscript. The writer of Mark never said those things about snake handling. See? This is what happens when you believe stuff with no actual evidence. Just because it is included without explanation in most modern Bibles doesn't make it true, or reasonable. Then again, that applies to anything said in the Bible.

    June 5, 2012 at 10:48 pm |
    • jim

      Everything God has ever said or instructed was written by man. In addition to being intangible he's also illiterate...

      June 6, 2012 at 12:50 pm |
    • No dude

      No dude serpent handling is real.. too bad you don't even understand it or know about it ..I'll explain it to you..

      Jesus said these signs shall follow them that believe....and one of those things is taking up serpents...it is really easy you just have to first understand what he is taking about and then take them up... their bite no matter how poisonous cannot hurt you...why ???? because they are human. 🙂 🙂 🙂
      Here is the first example...Matthew 3 :7 but when he saw the pharisees and Sadducee s come to his baptism he said , " oh generation of vipers who has warned yo of the wrath to come."
      In Matthew 23 : 33 Jesus is speaking and says , " ye serpents and vipers, how can ye escape the damnation of hell "

      In James 3:8 it says, But the tongue can no man tame; it is an unruly evil, full of deadly poison. " he continues on and says it comes from bitter envying and strife in your heart, (14) he says glory not and lie not against the truth (15) it is not from above but is earthly sensual devilish (16) it brings confusion and envy every evil work from envy and strife..
      In Romans 3:13 Apostle Paul says, " their throat is and open grave, with their tongues they have used deceit, the poison of asps is under their lips (14) whose mouth is full of cursing and bitterness. their feet are swift to shed blood they have not known the way of peace .....
      CNN you have the answer here! Bing! bing! bing! 🙂 🙂 🙂

      August 17, 2012 at 12:13 pm |
  12. Kindness

    I know deep in my heart that religion is man made...
    But it will make you feel better.
    Just ignore the facts and place your heart with jesus.

    June 5, 2012 at 10:37 pm |
    • Kindness

      Different kindness above.

      June 6, 2012 at 2:21 pm |
    • No dude

      with Jesus is all the facts... He is risen from the dead and seated very far and high above you... if you would look up to him he would let you know that your redemption draweth nigh ... 🙂 🙂
      Jesus is manifest in the spirit not after the flesh which perishes... now that's a fact! if you continue to live you shall surely see your life passing away with each day ... your flesh will wax old and you will see wrinkles ... stiffness ... all these are signs of eventual death... a fact believer and unbelieving recognize... Jesus is the only way there is to eternal life... now he has hidden these things from the wise and prudent but revealed them unto babes 🙂 🙂 🙂

      August 17, 2012 at 12:19 pm |
  13. Kindness

    Something For you.
    A thought to consider without a typical ego response

    Accept Jesus christ as your lord and saviour. You never know how soon is too late. Transcend the worldly illusion of enslavement.
    The world denounces truth....

    Accepting Jesus Christ (for me) resulted in something like seeng a new colour. You will see it .....but will not be able to clearly explain it to anyone else..... Its meant to be that way to transend any selfism within you.

    Also... much the world arranges "surrounding dark matter into something to be debated" in such a way that protects/inflates the ego.

    The key is be present and transcend our own desire to physically see evidence. We don't know anyways by defending our own perception of dark matter.

    Currently.... most of us are constructing our own path that suits our sin lifestyle. Were all sinners. Knowing that we are is often an issue. But both christians and non are sinners.

    We don't like to Let go and let god. We want control to some degree. This is what Jesus asks us to do. "Let go and let god".
    It's the hardest thing to do... but is done by letting the truth of scripture lead you (redemptive revelation)... as I said .

    Try reading corinthians and see if it makes sense to you. Try it without a pre conceived notion of it being a fairy tale.
    See the truth...
    do we do what it says in todays society... is it relevant... so many have not recently read and only hinge their philosophy on what they have heard from som other person...which may have been full of arogance pride or vanity..

    Look closely at the economy ponzi, look at how society idolizes Lust , greed , envy, sloth, pride of life, desire for knowledge, desire for power, desire for revencge,gluttony with food etc .

    Trancsend the temporal world.

    Just think if you can find any truth you can take with you ....in any of these things. When you die your riches go to someone who will spend away your life..... You will be forgotten.... history will repeat iteslf.... the greatest minds knowledge fade or are eventually plagerzed..... your good deeds will be forgotten and only give you a fleeting temporary reward . your learned teachings are forgotten or mutated..... your gold is transfered back to the rullers that rule you through deception. Your grave will grow over . This is truth .

    Trancsend your egoism and free yourself from this dominion of satan. Understand you are a sinner and part of the collective problem of this worldly matrix... Repent.... Repent means knowing

    Evidence follows faith. Faith does not follow evidence..... Faith above reason in Jesus Christ.

    Faith comes by Reading or Hearing the word of god from the bible . Ask Jesus in faith for dicernment and start reading the new testament... You will be shocked when you lay down your preconceived notions and ....see and hear truth ... see how christ sets an example ... feel the truth....

    Read Ecclesiastes. Read corinthians.

    You cant trancend your own egoism by adapting a world philosophy to suit your needs. Seek the truth in Christ.

    Sell all your cleverness and purchase true bewilderment. You don't get what you want ....you get what you are in christ.

    I promise this has been the truth for me. In Jesus christ .

    Think of what you really have to lose. ...your ego?

    Break the Matrix of illusion that holds your senses captive.

    once you do . you too will have the wisdom of God that comes only through the Holy Spirit. Saved By grace through Faith. Just like seeing a new colour.... can't explain it to a transient caught in the matrix of worldly deception.
    You will also see how the world suppresses this information and distorts it

    You're all smart people . I tell the truth. Its hard to think out of the box when earthly thinking is the box.
    I'ts a personal free experience you can do it free anytime . Don't wait till you are about to die.. START PUTTING YOUR TREASURES WHERE THEY REALLY MATTER >
    Its awsome .

    June 5, 2012 at 6:38 pm |
    • gupsphoo

      You're just as delusional as the guy who died from a snake bite, I'm sorry to say.

      June 5, 2012 at 10:35 pm |
    • jim


      This is usually the point were the collection bowls get passed around...

      June 6, 2012 at 12:52 pm |
    • drillteamer


      June 7, 2012 at 1:47 pm |
    • Tom

      You write a lot of words, but have no evidence or proof that any of it is true. Furthermore, of all the thousands of gods invented by man which one is real? Why not Zeus?

      June 7, 2012 at 5:33 pm |
    • bigmeechy74

      Wow. Please shut up.

      June 10, 2012 at 3:22 am |
  14. just sayin

    I guess he just wasn't right with God that time. lol

    June 5, 2012 at 4:45 pm |
  15. just sayin

    I am sorry but I have to laugh everytime I see the headline. Stupid is as stupid does. lol

    June 5, 2012 at 4:44 pm |
  16. gupsphoo

    These delusion people never learn. His dad died from a snake bite, yet he continued to do the same stupid thing. Religion is such a cancer!

    June 5, 2012 at 4:15 pm |
  17. gupsphoo

    He sinned. That's why Jesus didn't protect him. LOL

    June 5, 2012 at 4:06 pm |
  18. Brian Casey

    This is as stupid as putting Bath Salts in your body ! ! !

    June 5, 2012 at 1:26 pm |
  19. Brian Casey


    June 5, 2012 at 1:21 pm |
  20. Phllyphan

    More idiocy practiced in the name of religion. Let all religious leaders handle snakes and drink poison. The world would be better off without them, just as it is better off without this dumba$$.

    June 5, 2012 at 12:40 pm |
    • Tex Gritter

      Only a handful of "religeous" folks do this anywhere. However, I have a serious proposition for you: take your hate of decent folks back up in those mountains and drink a little strychnine and "take up a few serpeants." If you participate long enough, I am sure this world will be a much better place.

      June 9, 2012 at 11:58 pm |
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About this blog

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.