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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. Peteyroo

    I hope they buried him in a clown suit.

    June 2, 2012 at 6:09 pm |
    • moses supposes

      just another knuckle headed american taliban radical religious nut

      June 2, 2012 at 6:25 pm |
  2. anna capella

    i don't know, i think you all are being too hard on snakes. go pick on some unicorns.

    June 2, 2012 at 6:08 pm |
    • Peteyroo

      Jesus is in the backyard playing with the unicorns.

      June 2, 2012 at 6:11 pm |
  3. C. Darwin

    It's called thinning the heard. This way only the smartest of the species survives. I wrote about that a few years ago.

    June 2, 2012 at 6:07 pm |
    • Peteyroo

      Can't you thin them faster?

      June 2, 2012 at 6:12 pm |
  4. SarahTonin

    From the depths of stupidity and ignorance!

    June 2, 2012 at 6:07 pm |
    • moses supposes

      yee hah – once a redneck always a redneck. no wonder the rest of the world looks at us shaking their heads/ with leaders like these we have NO future. we need morality and intelligence to govern – and we are absent good leadership at every level !! that includes you BamBam and RomRom

      June 2, 2012 at 6:17 pm |
  5. Jennie

    First- Reading this article closely does not convince me of the non-existence of my God. The article simply reveals the ignorance (and I don't mean that in an unkind way) of some Christians who take verses out of context. Playing with fire gets you nowhere.

    The only thing I'd like to add for all of you mockers is this- stop mocking what you don't fully understand. You sound so sure of yourselves, yet you have NO solid foundation upon which to stand. All the evolution "evidence" in the world cannot prove that God does not exist and that His Word is a lie. Because Scientists cannot study that which they cannot see...they don't have all the facts, do they? They are unable to consider and seek out alternate explanations for some of their findings, etc.

    Think about that for a while. Either way- it won't be long before the Lord Himself is revealed. And keep in mind that to Him- one thousand years is as a day.

    June 2, 2012 at 6:07 pm |
    • Robairdo

      The problem is that the bible itself is at best a book of half truths:

      • The bible used by most Christians was created by the Council of Nicea about 300 years after the death of Christ. The council was convened by the Roman Emperor Constantine after he converted to Christianity. This Council became very political both in terms of Roman politics and in the politics of the various Christian churches that had arose by this time.
      • The bottom line is half of Christ’s gospels were excluded from the bible and many books were included that cannot be verified to be written by one of Christ’s disciples. Some of those books were written as much as 200 years after the death of Christ, including the book of Revelation.
      • The bible may be the word of Constantine and a bunch of politically savvy priests, but it is at best a book of half-truths [lies] about the word of God.

      June 2, 2012 at 6:08 pm |
    • flyonthewall

      actually the burden is on you to prove your sky fairy exists, not us who know he does not. You actually look foolish for even saying anything.

      June 2, 2012 at 6:11 pm |
    • Peteyroo

      Do I understand you correctly that anything I cannot disprove must be true? If I can't prove that unicorns don't exist then they must exist? How about leprechuans? I cannot prove that leprechuans and unicorns do not exist; therefore, they must exist!

      June 2, 2012 at 6:15 pm |
    • Dog years God years Pig ears oh my

      sad, silly, stupid kiss a copperhead and no non existent god can help you

      June 2, 2012 at 6:16 pm |
    • jungleboo

      Jennie Dear, First of all, it is not logical to try to prove a negative statement, so we are not able to "prove there is no god". It is your burden to "prove that there is". And that is not working, is it? When you are unable to support your ideas about the Universe with nothing more than a scribbled fantasy from the past, it says a great deal about your approach to life. And maybe that is all you are capable of. Lucky for you that you were born into the Xtian home you were, and not into a cult of snake handlers. Just lucky!

      And we are not cuddling up to the Belief Blog just to tickle our secret fetish for being "saved". We come here to participate in free discourse, in hopes that some young men and women who have been brainwashed by their elders will come to their senses. We would like them to understand that superst.ition that has been painted across their minds. SUPERST.ITION. Does that word look familiar to you?

      June 2, 2012 at 6:17 pm |
    • Daniel

      You talk about God like you know him personally. Why can't people just accept that we are not supposed to understand?

      "As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts. Isaiah 55:9

      Science merely does what it is meant to do....investigate and test theories. Just because evolution is real does not mean that God does not exist. It just goes to show how people like to take The Bible and twist it to their own needs.

      Gay human beings are not going to hell, the earth is a product of the big bang, "Speak in tounges" does not refer to speaking in gibberish and pretending it is God. WAKE UP! GOD = LOVE PERIOD

      June 2, 2012 at 6:17 pm |
    • Peteyroo

      Whoops! I misspelled leprechauns. They're going to give me hell at dinner!

      June 2, 2012 at 6:18 pm |
    • moses supposes

      so here's my question: if JayZoo came to save us last time – and he clearly failed – what chance do you give him of getting it right this time? Is the almighty not so mighty?

      June 2, 2012 at 6:24 pm |
    • Natalie

      Science does not concern itself with supernatural phenomena. The supernatural is outside the scope of the scientific method. Please learn more about the scientific method. Then, hopefully, you could stop trying to mix science and religious philosophy together. They really don't have anything to do with each other. And the vast majority of people studying evolutionary processes are not trying to disprove god- they are too busy doing population genetics, DNA extractions and amplifications to debate something that silly.

      June 2, 2012 at 6:29 pm |
    • SarahTonin

      Jennie ... Faith is the belief in something for which there is no proof. Faith is necessary for you to believe in God. It is also what allows scam artists to take peoples life savings from them. If you look deeply into ANY religion you will see that it doesn't make any logical sense, like talking burning bushes and virgin birth and dead people coming back to life in three days and parting seas with the wave of a hand or walking on water or poison won't kill you and neither will a copperhead. Silly isn't it?

      June 2, 2012 at 6:30 pm |
  6. Just a Thought

    Weren't the Israelites lost in the desert for forty years or something?
    These are the people whose books you Christians follow?
    You seriously use the words of people who were so stupid they got lost for FORTY FUCKING YEARS as your source of wisdom and guidance????????
    You base your lives on the teachings of people who got lost for forty years?
    You're serious? Are you serious right now? Seriously???

    June 2, 2012 at 6:06 pm |
    • flyonthewall

      oh yes, they are very serious. That is why we need to stamp them out of existence.

      June 2, 2012 at 6:07 pm |
  7. Natalie

    Logic rather than emotion/religion could have prevented this man's injuries and possibly saved his life once bitten. It is illogical to handle venomous snakes without snake tongs or a snake hook. It is also illogical to postpone or refuse medical attention after being bitten by a venomous snake. I bet his children will miss him and I hope they do not follow in their fathers illogical foot steps.

    June 2, 2012 at 6:06 pm |
    • flyonthewall

      oh they will. I know they will because they are Christians.

      June 2, 2012 at 6:08 pm |
    • SarahTonin

      I hope the snake got him before he had children!

      June 2, 2012 at 6:32 pm |
  8. flyonthewall

    welcome to the rupiblican party.....these are the people they have brainwashed into voting for them. Know one else would.

    June 2, 2012 at 6:06 pm |
    • moses supposes

      and bam bam is any smarter? now who's the assh*le moron. BammyBoy not only followed imbecile Bush but expanded them!

      June 2, 2012 at 6:28 pm |
  9. kathy

    Am not shedding a tear of even feeling sorry for this nut. Just another example of how dangerous and crazy these Pentecostal and Evangelical Christians are. Here's another newstip..These are the people who are trying to influence the election of the president and other offices and who back the GOP and T-baggers. They oughta give every one of their followers a snake to take home and play...er I mean pray with.

    June 2, 2012 at 6:06 pm |
    • flyonthewall

      yup, sadly, so true.

      June 2, 2012 at 6:07 pm |
    • Night Fury

      Absolutely! Let Darwin's natural selection take its course!

      June 2, 2012 at 6:09 pm |
    • Robairdo

      In the last week or two alone we have had one pastor call for concentration camps for gays and another call for the government to simply shoot them all. And we should feel sorry for them?

      June 2, 2012 at 6:10 pm |
    • Aaron

      You cant judge all penacostals and evanglelist by one stupid persons beliefs, he who plays with live snake will die by a live snake. You cant fix stupid

      June 2, 2012 at 6:19 pm |
    • SarahTonin

      A M E N !!!

      June 2, 2012 at 6:33 pm |
  10. anne

    I have always been on the fence with religion, things like this just keep pushing me right on over.

    June 2, 2012 at 6:05 pm |
  11. Guy

    Let these morons handle snakes all they want, doubly so before they have children. Then the problem fixes itself.

    June 2, 2012 at 6:05 pm |
    • Ancient Curse

      At 44, there's a good chance this guy already reproduced. I just hope his kids are smarter than he was, and decide against following in their father's footsteps (and ultimately, his early grave).

      June 2, 2012 at 6:07 pm |
  12. Bill

    Amazing spectacle. Reminds me of people who kiss cobras on the head. Do you think Queen Beatrix and the Prime Minister of the Netherlands will have time to visit one of these sermons while they're currently visiting the U.S. to attend a secretive meeting?

    June 2, 2012 at 6:04 pm |
  13. City59

    Is the snake okay?

    June 2, 2012 at 6:04 pm |
    • Robairdo

      God I hope so. I heard they had to pump its stomach.

      June 2, 2012 at 6:05 pm |
  14. Night Fury

    And the Darwin Award goes to...

    June 2, 2012 at 6:03 pm |
    • Michael

      You only get a Darwin Award if you haven't reproduced.

      June 2, 2012 at 6:17 pm |
  15. Rev.Christie Bliss Ley

    I try very hard to have an open mind when it comes to peoples spiritual beliefs and practices, but this one defies understanding.

    June 2, 2012 at 6:02 pm |
    • Brandon Brown

      There's a lot of doubt over whether the verses in Mark that reference snake handling were even in the original gospel, so I don't even read them.

      June 2, 2012 at 6:07 pm |
    • Robairdo

      I have read the original Gospel direct translation from Aramaic to English and I don't remember reading that.

      June 2, 2012 at 6:12 pm |
  16. Jefffbo

    Very stupid..!

    June 2, 2012 at 6:02 pm |
  17. Night Fury

    One less hick.

    June 2, 2012 at 6:02 pm |
  18. k neu

    One word, Stupid

    June 2, 2012 at 6:02 pm |
  19. thegadfly

    I don't much know one snake from another, so I treat them all as poisonous and "icky". Yet I have handled a few, and caught a few, and have traversed many a wilderness in the American Midwest and South (including the Everglades). I have seldom even seen a snake, for they are generally timid creatures. The lesson, I think, is to fear responsibly. That is, watch out for danger, but do what you feel you must do, dangerous or not. Fear no evil, because your life and survival simply are not important. What is important is DOING what you think is important.

    June 2, 2012 at 6:01 pm |
    • SarahTonin

      OMG .. a pastor!

      June 2, 2012 at 6:35 pm |
  20. swebster

    OK – two words here – Genetic Selection! C'mon people get a grip – how dumb can one be?? You go stick a poisonous snake in your face? Damn straight you are gonna die. This is one of those cases where outlandish religious beliefs are allowed to prevail over basic common sense. These people likely have little more to hold on to than their faith; this is a case where the dude at the pulpit really, REALLY needs to set a better example for his parishioners. This is the sort of ridiculous religious custom I'd expect to hear about from some middle eastern extremist faction, NOT from somewhere in the US of A. I shake my head in disbelief and it is SAD that there are people who actually watch BS like this in their church and actually believe ANYTHING the misguided preacher is telling them!

    June 2, 2012 at 5:59 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.