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. Jude

    Most humans are not too smart and easily manipulated...governments around the world depend on organized religion to keep these dim witted and gullible folks in line. this is the reason every president will state "god bless america." It's an inside joke.for most leaders of nations unless you happen to be one of the believers in spirits, ghosts, gods and such like scary perry and some leaders in the middle east for example. snake folks are the extreme of not too smart folks. very gullible...mostly very conservative...easy pickens for the repubs. there will always be humans born like this..dumb....and they will continue to die.

    June 2, 2012 at 6:39 pm |
    • pockets

      And these people actually breed. For those who actually believe in the supernatrual, do you not feel embarrased at all this foolishness, I mean really....LOL The stupidity is rampant for those 'believer's" in this nonsense.

      June 2, 2012 at 6:42 pm |
    • El Lobo

      Religions............Man-Made creations used to enslave and manipulate mankind while maximizing power and profit!

      June 2, 2012 at 6:48 pm |
  2. Adam

    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."

    June 2, 2012 at 6:38 pm |
    • pockets

      RIP Hitch , you were right about all of it. Yes Religion Poisons "Everything". You are missed Hitch, sorely missed. Keep up the excellent work Sam.

      June 2, 2012 at 6:44 pm |
  3. hillcrester

    It's natural selection, but to work REALLY well these idiots need to die sooner, before they get a chance to reproduce.

    June 2, 2012 at 6:38 pm |
  4. Rossbach

    As I have always understood the Christian tradition, faith comes to man through the grace of God. It is not something that must be earned by taking unnecessary risks.

    June 2, 2012 at 6:37 pm |
    • pockets

      And you are mentally ill.

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

    anybody thinking of the snake??? i mean, how is it going to get that taste out of its mouth?

    June 2, 2012 at 6:37 pm |
  6. Topdecker

    If we could only get all preachers to play with rattlesnakes....

    June 2, 2012 at 6:37 pm |
    • Cin Kepler

      I totally agree

      June 2, 2012 at 6:39 pm |
    • SB

      "Thou Shalt Not Tempt The Lord, thy God". He got what he deserved.

      June 2, 2012 at 6:41 pm |
    • pockets

      Pssssssssst..there is no god......so relax and enjoy your lives.

      June 2, 2012 at 6:46 pm |
    • El Lobo

      I agree with Pockets.......Eat Bacon and fornucate! Do what feels right and what feels good.

      June 2, 2012 at 6:50 pm |
  7. barlowc

    I think they should redouble their efforts: handle twice as many, and throw in some Australian Inland Taipans or African Black Mambas too. God will protect, I'm sure....

    June 2, 2012 at 6:37 pm |
  8. Chuck

    The Traditions of man, make void the Word of God

    June 2, 2012 at 6:36 pm |
    • pockets

      Hey was this the same "talking snake" in the garden with a naked Adam and naked Eve? Or was it the "talking bush" that Moses has a chat with?. Or was it the naked Noah on his boat with every animal on the face of the planet with all the virsus as well....nahhhh can't be. LOL What a bunch of fvcking fools we are dealing with here...

      June 2, 2012 at 6:49 pm |
    • El Lobo

      10 bilion species in a boat........LMAO

      June 2, 2012 at 6:50 pm |
  9. 2tired2care

    People are soooo stupid.

    June 2, 2012 at 6:36 pm |
  10. Joe

    That's why I really so want this country to be run by a religious conservative president like Santorum, or for that matter, his follower like Mitt Moron. I think I wont get Santorum but I am hoping for Mr. Moron.

    June 2, 2012 at 6:35 pm |
    • JFK57

      and Joe...... who are you?

      June 2, 2012 at 6:36 pm |
  11. JFK57


    Snakes – 2
    Apalachian Pastors – 0

    June 2, 2012 at 6:35 pm |
    • pockets

      hahahahahahaahahaa love it.

      June 2, 2012 at 6:49 pm |
  12. Really?

    A recipient of the Darwin awards. Nature taking out the trash. These are sick human beings diluted by the religious nonsense of the Bible. So the law of averages finally catches up to the dumb dumbs.

    June 2, 2012 at 6:35 pm |
  13. Anthony

    Most definitely a few fries shy of a happy meal. Will these people ever learn....

    June 2, 2012 at 6:34 pm |
  14. queenie

    While the Bible is the word of God, and the Lord is able to heal any affliction, a person needs to look at the entire word and not pick one isolated scripture, out of context, and go overboard with it. Paul was bitten by a poisonous snake and was not hurt, however, he did not purposely put himself in that position. Matthew 4:7 – Jesus said unto him, It is written again, Thou shalt not tempt the Lord thy God.

    June 2, 2012 at 6:34 pm |
    • jp

      yeah right if gawd can heal any afflcition, how come he never ever heals amputees?


      June 2, 2012 at 6:36 pm |
    • El Lobo

      Studies have repeatidly shown prayer does nothing

      June 2, 2012 at 6:52 pm |
  15. anna capella

    this sounds like cruelty to animals.

    June 2, 2012 at 6:34 pm |
  16. jp

    all relgious beliefs, while not as whacked as snake handling, are just as stupid and ill informed. It's a con game that has been fisted off on the gullible for 2000 years; longer for the jews,

    Maybe a hundred years from now, pople will look on christiamity the way we look on druids or pagans; ignorant and misguided

    June 2, 2012 at 6:33 pm |
    • hillcrester

      I doubt it will take 100 years. Much of northern Europe has already figured it out and, as with universal health care and not having a death penalty, the "exceptional" USA will eventually catch on as well.

      June 2, 2012 at 6:40 pm |
    • Really?

      Christianity may disappear from the USA in the near future due to idi0ts like these and the evangelical nutcases that are a plague on this country. Handling poisonous snakes and hoping not to get bitten, that is the definition of stupid.

      June 2, 2012 at 6:43 pm |
    • Mark Taylor

      Of course Mao, Stalin and Pol Pot were real gems of humanity, you can't blame all the ills of the world on faith and religion. Stupid is stupid regardless of your belief in a creator or not.

      June 2, 2012 at 6:44 pm |
    • Mark Taylor

      pople? isn't that the little stuffed animal with the pouch on its back that it can fold itself into?

      June 2, 2012 at 6:46 pm |
    • El Lobo

      I thought that was a happy napper?

      June 2, 2012 at 6:53 pm |
  17. Johnny Mo

    Really? This is news?
    "Snake handler dies of snakebite."
    Write about something else.

    June 2, 2012 at 6:32 pm |
    • Mark Taylor

      Not only news but the lead story. Just ridiculous.

      June 2, 2012 at 6:45 pm |
  18. jaschrumpf

    Handle snakes, believe in socialism. One kills one person at a time, the other historically ends in the deaths of millions.

    Pick your poison.

    June 2, 2012 at 6:32 pm |
    • jp

      only a moron would equate snake handling and a political belief

      June 2, 2012 at 6:34 pm |
    • lou50

      good call, right on!

      June 2, 2012 at 6:41 pm |
    • mane

      who did socialism kill? Do you even know what socialism is? Please go hold a viper instead of a rattlesnake

      June 2, 2012 at 6:45 pm |
  19. etri

    One dumb bigot less on the face of the earth! yay!

    June 2, 2012 at 6:32 pm |
  20. sloop1

    I just hope they didn't kill the snake.

    June 2, 2012 at 6:31 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.