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. dina

    And these are the people who want Romney for president. Go figure.

    June 2, 2012 at 6:16 pm |
  2. jrm03063

    Natural selection doesn't INSTANTLY remove badly designed organisms, but with time, it gets the job done.

    June 2, 2012 at 6:16 pm |
  3. Alex Esterhase

    Serves him right for all the delusional religious hocus pocus, mumbo jumbo. May many more brain-washed followers meet the same fate if they are so stupid.

    June 2, 2012 at 6:15 pm |
  4. flyonthewall

    Poor Snake, I hope it wasnt hurt by this idiot!!

    June 2, 2012 at 6:15 pm |
  5. dina

    Some religions are just plain stupid. Most are, but some are more.

    June 2, 2012 at 6:15 pm |
  6. Dean

    Miracles happen when God intervenes for a Christian who is doing the will of God. Serpent handling is nothing more than entertainment for the devil and his angels. If these so called Christians (and I am one) want to put their life on the line for God (and his son Jesus), then go spread the gospel that is in the Bible to people who may or may not kill you.

    June 2, 2012 at 6:15 pm |
    • flyonthewall

      LMAO! ok, pachinga, your obviously just kidding.

      June 2, 2012 at 6:16 pm |
  7. jesseballew

    Freedom of Religion is the basic reason that most Europeans first came to America.

    I believe in Freedom of Religion. Some Leaders who claim to have Religious beliefs start unnessessary wars and cause thousands of lives to be lost. Between them n The Snake handlers..I prefer the snake handlers. Just sayin!

    June 2, 2012 at 6:14 pm |
  8. flyonthewall

    You cant prove that Mitten Rommney is not a Unicorn, therefore Mittens IS a unicorn!!

    June 2, 2012 at 6:14 pm |
  9. longshot

    handling a snake makes as much sense as believing anything else from the bible, sure, why not. and yet some people think this guy is just a little nuts, but the "real" christians are ok – face it, it's all bat-sh|t crazy, based on nonsense, fairy tales and otherwise proven falsehoods. grow up.

    June 2, 2012 at 6:13 pm |
    • AmLowLife

      Religion is sooo funny! We ought to round all these religious fools up and put 'em behind an electric fence...

      June 2, 2012 at 6:18 pm |
  10. slaveworld

    "So why does the tradition continue?"

    natural selection

    June 2, 2012 at 6:13 pm |
  11. zorroprimo

    What a pack of effin MORONS!

    June 2, 2012 at 6:13 pm |
  12. flyonthewall

    You can't prove Mitten Romney is not a unicorn, therefore he is a unicorn!!

    June 2, 2012 at 6:12 pm |
    • anna capella

      your logic is impeccable. or something. got any snake juice?

      June 2, 2012 at 6:27 pm |
  13. Non-Serpent Handler

    Wow. This story was so much more enjoyable than Any Farrelly Brother's movies. But to honest,here in IA, back in the 70's there was snake handling churches in rural cities. I prefer too travel with Snakes on Planes

    June 2, 2012 at 6:12 pm |
  14. RjQS

    So guy gets bitten by a snake, waits 8 hours, then gives his family permission to call paramedics? What an idiot. No offense, because I hate talking about the dead, but seriously your own stupidity cost your family a lot.

    June 2, 2012 at 6:12 pm |
  15. Blogmudgeon

    Mar 16:18 "They shall take up serpents; and if they drink any deadly thing, it shall not hurt them; they shall lay hands on the sick, and they shall recover."

    Blogmudgeon 2:16 "And the idiots shall step forth in their ignorance; and they shall believe that the writings of man are given by God, and they shall be soothed for failure in this life by the promise of yet more man-made fantasy in the afterworld. Verily, the stupid shall fall to their folly."

    Lookey there! I could change my name to Joe, write a whole new book of scripture, and run for president..." Oh wait, none of this works out well for the true believers, does it?

    June 2, 2012 at 6:11 pm |
  16. String Breaker

    Hilarious! Religion is stupid.

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

      Christians are really dumb in this country.. well, all Christians are dumb on some level, but American ones are especially numb brained..

      June 2, 2012 at 6:14 pm |
    • Robairdo

      @Rick they are not Christians. They are as anti-Christ as you can get. Christ preaached love & forgiveness, not judging or casting a stone. He also NEVER said any of those stupids things in the old testament, in fact he too laughed at many of the Mosaic Laws. These so called "Christians" are really more like 2000 year old orthodox Jews, Sorry my Jewish friends for the insult.

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

      It may be many things. Hilarious is not one of them.

      June 2, 2012 at 6:17 pm |
  17. Dave

    Fools born every minute...

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

      ...And they shall be called...Republican....

      June 2, 2012 at 6:14 pm |
  18. davidhiggster


    June 2, 2012 at 6:10 pm |
  19. 1amazed2u

    Come on folks....SNAKES?

    June 2, 2012 at 6:10 pm |
  20. Dan

    Did the snake survive?

    June 2, 2012 at 6:09 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.