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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. jma58

    The world would be so much better off without silly religions and stupid people.

    June 2, 2012 at 6:22 pm |
  2. tokencode

    Snakes: 2 Crazy christians: 0

    June 2, 2012 at 6:22 pm |
  3. Sal Voce

    One big Darwin Award to this dolt

    June 2, 2012 at 6:22 pm |
  4. Mark

    Ironic that it takes acts of rabid Christianity to prove Darwinism alive and well

    June 2, 2012 at 6:22 pm |
  5. tom s

    i am sorry but these people are ignorant.....

    June 2, 2012 at 6:22 pm |
  6. A in Pa

    Because............ Folks don't want a boring Church service, the collection plate if fuller if the entertainment is good.

    June 2, 2012 at 6:21 pm |
    • BRUCE

      DOES BIEBER KNOW ABOUT THIS/

      June 2, 2012 at 6:29 pm |
  7. Jon

    Darwinism is alive and well... Only in the name of religion does the world tolerate such idiocy, in every other walk of life we question, challenge and seek truth and fact – even if it flies in the face of conventional thought. Humans are still not evolved much beyond animals – we believe a book that was, literally, cobbled together from several questionable sources all in the name of bringing as many religions together as possible over 2000 years ago. This makes for great comedy for the rest of us, so please keep at it!

    June 2, 2012 at 6:21 pm |
  8. GenericMan

    People want to believe something so badly.

    June 2, 2012 at 6:20 pm |
  9. sottanisse

    Darwin Award winners in the making...

    June 2, 2012 at 6:19 pm |
  10. Smarterest Human

    The tradition continues because of a wonderful concept called "Natural Selection." It eats stupid people and I am very glad.

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

      It's God's way of cleaning the gene pool.

      June 2, 2012 at 6:21 pm |
    • Smarterest Human

      There is no god, so that is just silly nonsense.

      June 3, 2012 at 1:43 am |
  11. Wayne

    The earliest and most-reliable manuscripts do not have Mark 16: 9-20. It is worth mentioning that Matthew 4:7 and Luke 4:12 refer to Deuteronomy 6:16 – "Do not put the Lord your God to the test."

    June 2, 2012 at 6:18 pm |
  12. Ann

    It is sad when people do not understand the Word of God. Mark 16:17...to me it means the devil was defeated when Jesus died for our sins so we have authority over the devil (not to be afraid of him and to bind him in the name of Jesus). As a new born Christian we no longer speak as we used to our words are godly words, if someone is trying to hurt us we can be sure that the Lord will protect us because we are children of the Most High. (they will pick up snakes with their hands) to me it means if we dwell in the shelter of the Most High no harm will befall us no disarter will come nears us...we will tred upon the lion and the cobra, we will trample the great lion and the serpent. (Psalm 91) It all means all kinds of trouble, God will protect us if we abide in Him and we do He will abide in us

    June 2, 2012 at 6:18 pm |
    • Adam

      Why the H*** would you think YOUR interpretation is right, and his is wrong? Any personal interpretation NECESSARILY comes from OUTSIDE the bible!

      To claim the righteousness of your belief is the pinnacle of narcissism, and one which is only possible by the theist.

      June 2, 2012 at 6:20 pm |
    • Cheeses

      LOL!

      June 2, 2012 at 6:23 pm |
    • jungleboo

      Your entire post is proof positive of the brainwashing effect. I am sorry for you, for I think you are sincere. But there is a world above the surface of this pond you have been forced into. Keep an eye out for enlightenment. Drop the guise of twisted words.

      June 2, 2012 at 6:23 pm |
    • giggity

      nice fairy tale

      June 2, 2012 at 6:49 pm |
  13. busterny

    "He added that he regularly drinks strychnine during worship services, to show God has power over poison." Try cyanide and see how far that gets you. Oops, I forgot, your dead because you were bitten by a rattlesnake so you can't try that. Since you followed your father on his way to die, have your kids try it out. God will protect them I'm sure.

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

    The real God is Darwin. He worked just fine.

    June 2, 2012 at 6:18 pm |
  15. Spot On

    This is wonderful! We need more of these nuts gone. And the best part will be all the mumbo jumbo religious nut spin that explains why he died. Hopefully someone set the poor snake free, it's a real shame that the poor snake was boxed up.

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

      The Snake should receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

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

      Thank you, Robairdo.

      June 2, 2012 at 6:25 pm |
  16. sir_ken_g

    Fundies are none to bright.

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

    what kind of cult is this? he is teaching people to try to kill themselves and see if they actually die... cause and effect
    "If a believer is bitten by a snake and dies, these Pentecostals reason, it is simply their time to go." thats like suiciding and blaming God that He killed them

    June 2, 2012 at 6:17 pm |
  18. Adam

    It is rare that one encounters such blunt refutation of what one believes to be true. And this man has collided, fatally, with reality. Would that he could know his error.

    To any who wish to assert the literal veracity of the Bible (Mark, in this case), if this does not give you reason to reevaluate what you (profess to) believe, then what possibly could?

    In the words of Sam Harris: "It is time that we realize that to presume knowledge where one has only pious hope is a species of evil."

    This man, and all who saw it, and now all who read it, possess real knowledge of how our universe works. To deny real knowledge is to betray oneself as an enemy of this project we call civilization.

    June 2, 2012 at 6:16 pm |
  19. stan

    religion is stupid and stupid people are drawn to religion

    he had it coming

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

      people make religions stupid

      June 2, 2012 at 6:22 pm |
    • Aaron

      Stan,,,RELIGION IS NOT STUPID,,,people who practice stupid beliefs are the stupid ones, not religion

      June 2, 2012 at 6:22 pm |
    • jungleboo

      Aaron, religion is insanity with a halo, child abuse.

      June 2, 2012 at 6:27 pm |
    • Smarterest Human

      You are right on all levels.

      June 3, 2012 at 1:44 am |
  20. Mike

    Look like a problem with his IQ...

    June 2, 2012 at 6:16 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.