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. NealR2000

    Following any religion is a form of mild mental illness. This is just one of the extreme examples of it.,

    June 2, 2012 at 5:47 pm |
  2. Rand McNally

    You must admit, this is excellent PR for snakes!

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

      I'll say.

      June 2, 2012 at 5:52 pm |
  3. onlyonetruth

    I think mentally ill is the best description. They should be locked up as soon as they cross the line and encourage others to join them in their mental illness. As long as they are alone in their disease and die of their own accord, then who cares. But if they have the ability to persuade others of their powers, then it is the same as any other cult leader who leads his flock to suicide. Lock them up!

    June 2, 2012 at 5:45 pm |
    • tokencode

      If you are dumb enough to be persuaded by this guy.... well... I'm not sure the gene pool will miss you...

      June 2, 2012 at 5:47 pm |
  4. Dave

    the great and only God Zoroaster will not forgive you for your heathen jesus worship. This is what happens to those that do not bow down to Zoroaster!

    June 2, 2012 at 5:45 pm |
    • anna capella

      i'm bowing, i'm bowing! i'm bowing already! (got any snake juice?)

      June 2, 2012 at 5:51 pm |
    • Avestan

      Part of me wants to agree with you but part of me doesn't.

      June 2, 2012 at 5:53 pm |
  5. In His Noodly Name

    In the Church of Gun Handling, they give everyone a revolver and a bullet and parishioners "Spin Our Way to the Lord". But it's taking too long. How about a Church of Grenade Handling? or Church of C4 Handling? Now THAT would be a test of faith.

    June 2, 2012 at 5:45 pm |
  6. darkman

    Why does it continue?...same reason there are still "birthers" out there....stupidity. Though one does have to admire the courage of these folk, they are already religious so by definition morons, has to take some serious stones to play with snakes

    June 2, 2012 at 5:45 pm |
  7. davidhiggster

    I wrote a song about this a few years ago. It tries to capture the mindset and passion of biblical religious fervor and literalism. I'll share a free link here..http://m.myspace.com/home.wap?bfd=webnext&isredirected=true#friends.list/profile/515075390

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

      Hi David, your link didn't work, I'd love to hear the song.

      June 2, 2012 at 6:06 pm |
  8. Jotalv

    This is a cult, not real christianity. This people took a Bible verse out of its context y make it a pretext to do this kind of wrongful practice in the middle of a worship service. Note that the article resports that "Mainstream Christians – Pentecostals included – do not believe Mark 16:17-18 means that Christians should seek out poisonous snakes or ingest poisonous substances."

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

      90% of churches in America are Cults. Very few are true Christian.

      June 2, 2012 at 5:46 pm |
    • anna capella

      cult shmult. everyone knows theirs is the one, the only, the true religion. just ask 'em.

      June 2, 2012 at 5:47 pm |
    • Me again

      True Christians are those who sing in church and give a small amount of their income to the building that keeps them warm, or fresh, on Sundays. That's exactly what Jesus stood for. Too bad only 10% of the christian population gets it.

      June 2, 2012 at 5:53 pm |
    • Robairdo

      Not really Me again

      • Here is what Christ actually said about eternal life: Mathew 19:17-22 (translated from the original Aramaic directly to English):
      And one came near and said to him, “Good teacher, what good thing shall I do that I may have eternal life?” But he said to him, “Why do you call me good? There is none good except God alone. But if you want to enter life, keep the commandments.” He said to him, “Which ones?” But Yeshua(Jesus) said to him, “You shall not murder, You shall not commit adultery, You shall not steal, You shall not testify falsely.” “Honor your father and your mother”, and “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” That young man said to him, “I have kept all these from my childhood; what am I lacking?” Yeshua (Jesus) said to him, “If you want to be perfect, go sell your possessions and give to the poor and you will have treasure in Heaven, and come after me.” But that young man heard this saying and he went away, as it was grievous to him, for he had many possessions.

      June 2, 2012 at 5:58 pm |
  9. Me again

    Meh, these folks aren't even Christian enough to swallow a lethal dose of strychnine. C'mon, drink a pint of it and prove those devil scientist wrong. God will save you, cuz the good ole book says so.

    June 2, 2012 at 5:44 pm |
  10. zombie

    Its like i said on yahoo, how is it that handling a deadly animal is okay, but pot is illegal. This country is so @ss backwards.

    June 2, 2012 at 5:43 pm |
    • RdWhtNBlu

      I want to get high too! I do not think anyone thinks this is okay, though. Everyone reading this article knows this entire religion is just bs. This is an extreme example of such bs, but all religions are made up bs. This one just makes it obvious like the Westboro Baptists, what a joke that one is. Put the ancient backwards books down and do something good for our civilization people!

      June 2, 2012 at 5:57 pm |
  11. J Roby

    And these bible bigots preach about the dangers of being gay. This is a perfect example of the deadly dangers of being stupid.

    June 2, 2012 at 5:43 pm |
  12. Jessica

    Why do people so this? They are stupid that is why. Isn't this snake preaching illegal because so many have perished? Stupid people and stupid religion.

    June 2, 2012 at 5:42 pm |
  13. Rattila

    And DO NOT go into OR drink the water!

    June 2, 2012 at 5:42 pm |
  14. Jeff

    Der Da Der. 2012 Darwin Award goes to Mack Wolford cause deadly snakes are called deadly for a reason. Keep the faith alive so the human race can thrive.

    June 2, 2012 at 5:41 pm |
    • Jessica

      Jeff, you read my mind.

      June 2, 2012 at 5:43 pm |
    • Terry

      Haha totally agree. Such idiots.

      June 2, 2012 at 5:54 pm |
  15. pragmatist

    As there is no god to begin with, this guy sacrificed himself on the altar of religious fabrication with no eternal reward to look forward to in a non-existent after life. The Darwin principle certainly proves its thesis in this sort of situation doesn't it?.

    June 2, 2012 at 5:41 pm |
    • Victoria

      You hit the nail on the head!

      June 2, 2012 at 5:48 pm |
  16. Scot

    Gods way of clearing out the fools and idiots ! Pretty soon that whole gene pool will be gone. Now for the republicans !

    June 2, 2012 at 5:40 pm |
  17. vjpgh

    Natural selection at work!

    June 2, 2012 at 5:39 pm |
  18. Jericho1

    NICE! One less idiot in the world to contend with.

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

      You got it !!!

      June 2, 2012 at 6:41 pm |
  19. trent1280

    When God removes one of these self-righteous lunatics from our midst, it is one of His miracles.

    When God removes one of these illiterate boobs from society, it is one of His gifts.

    When God tells His snake to attack, it is an Eleventh Commandment.

    When God removes one of these religious crackpots from America, it is one less vote for the Birthers.

    Praise God!!!

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

      Praise JESUS!!!

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

      No, Zoroaster you heathen boob

      June 2, 2012 at 5:47 pm |
  20. Ewwwww

    Maybe I'll be back tomorrow, CNN, when you get rid of that picture of that hideous creature on the front page... yeah, and the s-n-a-k-e picture too!

    June 2, 2012 at 5:38 pm |
    • maryla

      Me too!!!!

      June 2, 2012 at 6:40 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.