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. amac

    This is, sadly, what happens when you're surrounded by the religious right..... sooner or later you're bound to be bitten.

    June 2, 2012 at 5:38 pm |
  2. Please don't outlaw these practices. No cleaerr example that -

    Evolution works. There are far too few selection factors to cull the human gene pool for terminal stupidity as it is.

    June 2, 2012 at 5:37 pm |
  3. Ax

    Just like the saying, "Fools and their money are soon parted."

    June 2, 2012 at 5:37 pm |
  4. Bob

    I believe in God, but this guy is a fool.

    June 2, 2012 at 5:37 pm |
    • Kevin

      why? he believed what was written in the bible... are you saying the bible is not the word of the creator of the universe?

      June 2, 2012 at 5:44 pm |
    • jp

      Bob, you are a fool too – simply because you believe.

      June 2, 2012 at 5:47 pm |
    • godlike

      The bible was written by men not God.

      June 2, 2012 at 5:51 pm |
  5. Doug

    Roots of the Tea Party.

    June 2, 2012 at 5:36 pm |
  6. StraightUp

    So after 8h he 'allowed' his family to call the paramedics. In other words, as death neared, he finally the 'true light' – which is no light at all. He was truly saved.

    June 2, 2012 at 5:36 pm |
    • StraightUp

      So after 8h he 'allowed' his family to call the paramedics. In other words, as death neared, he finally saw the 'true light' – which is no light at all. He was truly saved.

      June 2, 2012 at 5:37 pm |
  7. Morris Wilburn

    "Do not put the Lord your God to the test." – Matthew 4:7

    June 2, 2012 at 5:36 pm |
    • Lol

      Jesus was full of sh!t just like most of the bible. Reality 1:1

      June 2, 2012 at 5:38 pm |
  8. Shawn

    "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.”"


    Idiocracy, anyone?

    June 2, 2012 at 5:35 pm |
    • Lol

      I'd like to see all these people of faith demonstrate the truth of God's Word by drinking a quart of sulfuric acid.............

      June 2, 2012 at 5:41 pm |
  9. Iceman777

    If you live by the snake then you'll die by the snake. Definitely deserves a Darwin Award.

    June 2, 2012 at 5:35 pm |
  10. LVD

    The teachings of the Bible do not support the idea that snake handling is an acceptable feature of true worship. The Bible says: “God is love.” (1 John 4:8) You will probably agree that our loving Creator would not require that his true worshippers carry out dangerous rituals in order to please him. His Son, Jesus, offered the invitation: “Come to me, all you who are toiling and loaded down, and I will refresh you.” (Matthew 11:28, 29) Surely, handling snakes and possibly suffering pain, sickness, and even death as a result is not what Jehovah and Jesus desire for their followers!

    June 2, 2012 at 5:35 pm |
  11. jazz1910

    The bible is a collection of fictional stories people. It is not anymore real than Harry Potter. Get a grip idiots.

    June 2, 2012 at 5:34 pm |
  12. eatmybird

    He should 've stayed with the "Walking on water " schtick.

    June 2, 2012 at 5:34 pm |
  13. Boyd Crowder

    This ritual exists..........to rid the earth of ignorant idiots...who have no reason for being !

    June 2, 2012 at 5:34 pm |
  14. Doobie Doobie Doo

    Where's the report on Islam CNN? Why do you always try an mainstream fundamentalist Christianity but not Islam or Judaism?

    June 2, 2012 at 5:34 pm |
    • rnaderpo

      Wow you are an idiot...

      June 2, 2012 at 5:36 pm |
    • Dann

      I agree. THey should have delayed reporting this until an equally atricious piece of news each from all other religions. It must be FAIR AND BALANCED.

      June 2, 2012 at 5:39 pm |
    • jungleboo

      Good, Dann. Good!

      June 2, 2012 at 5:42 pm |
    • anna capella

      if you want to send a bunch pentecostals and their snakes over to the mideast, i will donate.

      June 2, 2012 at 5:42 pm |
  15. Ecclesiastes

    The Bible has a good comment on this story. Ecclesiastes 10:11 "If the serpent bites before it is charmed, there is no advantage to the charmer." (ESV) This preacher was a fool.

    June 2, 2012 at 5:33 pm |
    • Dann

      Wow I love your reasoning on WHY he is a fool!

      June 2, 2012 at 5:40 pm |
  16. catherine

    Uusually these events are sad but frankly this foolish person was only asking for this to happen. I really have no sympathy.

    June 2, 2012 at 5:33 pm |
  17. Doobie Doobie Doo

    CNN is biased and disgusting.

    June 2, 2012 at 5:32 pm |
    • anna capella

      oh for crying out loud. some people have just got to make everything into a partisan issue.

      June 2, 2012 at 5:36 pm |
    • jungleboo

      Why are you here, Doobie? If the company bothers you that much, turn on the tele.

      June 2, 2012 at 5:40 pm |
  18. Ddzialak

    Ahhh Ha Ha Ha Ha Ha Ha!!!

    June 2, 2012 at 5:32 pm |
  19. jazz1910

    Pentecostals and fundamentalist Christians are very dumb, mentally ill, mean, controlling, violent people. I used to live next to a pentacostal church. These people are not only sick but dangerous. They think it is a good thing to beat people and animals. They always say spare the rod and spoil the child and then they proceed to beat their own kids or any kid and they always hit animals. They should all be locked up in prison. Or maybe better they will all get bitten by poisonous snakes and die.

    June 2, 2012 at 5:32 pm |
  20. bp

    Guaranteed nominee for this year's Darwin Awards. I'll vote for him, clearly natural selection had its way here. People who regularly play with lethal snakes = people who die more often than others = fewer people who play with lethal snakes. Thus does the human race grow wiser and more successful over time.

    June 2, 2012 at 5:32 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.