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. jgruber


    June 2, 2012 at 6:45 pm |
  2. *frank*

    This may or may not be important information,
    but the good pastor looks like Tom Berenger with Down Syndrome.

    June 2, 2012 at 6:45 pm |
  3. Sifleut

    Aren't we in the 21st century?

    June 2, 2012 at 6:45 pm |
  4. Tom

    CNN just loves to bait the pagans. And successfully, too, it appears.

    June 2, 2012 at 6:45 pm |
    • grumpymedic

      By showing the world religious people really are wacky, dumb and weird? Fine with me.

      June 3, 2012 at 2:18 pm |
  5. maria

    wow, not tooooo bright

    June 2, 2012 at 6:45 pm |
  6. olepi

    So, I guess the Miracle didn't happen for him.

    June 2, 2012 at 6:44 pm |
  7. JFK57

    Sure that isn't Jethro of the Beverly Hillbillies?

    June 2, 2012 at 6:44 pm |
  8. One down, many more to go!

    Hey Mack, what was the lesson of your last sermon? Oh wait, never mind.....

    Ignorant servant, that is not how Jesus would have you evangelize.

    June 2, 2012 at 6:43 pm |
  9. AgrippaMT

    He got precisely what he deserved, just like his daddy. Hillbillies don't last long these days.

    June 2, 2012 at 6:43 pm |
  10. Banshee

    Typical W Virginia Republican

    June 2, 2012 at 6:42 pm |
  11. charles e ousley

    blind leading the blind,

    June 2, 2012 at 6:42 pm |
  12. Evonix

    The headline asks "Why does this tradition continue?"
    Uh, because some people are dumber than a bag of rocks.

    June 2, 2012 at 6:41 pm |
  13. grumpymedic

    The apple doesn't fall far from the idiocy tree.

    June 2, 2012 at 6:41 pm |
  14. Jesus

    Why does it continue?......As long as there are dumb a.s.s.e.s in this world....

    June 2, 2012 at 6:41 pm |
  15. liz48

    The biggest deception often lies among those claiming to lead people in the Name of Jesus. They do not read their Bible (the entire Bible), nor do they seek to hear from God, but follow man's tradition and logic, and pride.

    When Jesus was tested to do things to prove that He was the Son of God or God, He did not oblige! Instead He stated that He would only do what His Father, Who is God, told Him. See Matthew – chapter 4, John 5:19.

    Jesus always acknowledged that He had a free will as all human beings but said that He only did what pleased His Father. This was clearly seen before He was crucified. He asked His captors if they did not believe that He could bring in a legion of angels to save/fight for Him; but He said that He would not because He knew what His mission was – to die as an eternal sacrifice for the sins of mankind....

    This pastor and many others in less dramatic ways shame the Name of Jesus – in that they glorify tradition and do not raise up the life of Jesus and His Words to us – that we are to call no man our teacher or father, except God. See Matthew 23:8-10.

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

      Good reply liz you are totally right. There is no reason to tempt God. If you believe in Him you do not need to test Him. Your day to day living is testimony enough.

      June 2, 2012 at 6:50 pm |
    • Mike

      Does your God know what will happen in the future? I hear people say he is all knowing, so he knows what will happen from here til the end of time?

      June 2, 2012 at 6:54 pm |
    • Dwayne


      A very awsome message,so true about most of todays evangelists,PRIDE is what most have, Jesus never showed Pride.Anyway you did not preach it but you got the message across in away that even a non-believer could read and understand and possibly turn to Christ,you never know how God is going to use you.

      Thank you & God Bless

      June 2, 2012 at 6:54 pm |
    • reply4U

      The lies you tell yourself are just as dangerous as the lies this fool told himself.
      The bible was written by man in an attempt to manipulate man. Apparently it worked.

      June 2, 2012 at 6:56 pm |
    • kebcarerra

      Looks to me like he read his Bible and it said he could pick up serpents and drink poison and he would not be hurt . I think you even get the verse given in the article from "THE WORD OF GOD". Parts of christianity suffer because we get "THE WORD OF GOD" put together by worshipers in the 4th century long time after Jesus death . Fanatics become extreme and want to leave out what they don't agree with , lots of examples in early christian writings from those who say they were there , very different from what some christians want to believe.

      June 2, 2012 at 7:09 pm |
  16. RC

    The few people that are going now are going for the same reason people always have – cheap and stupid entertainment.

    June 2, 2012 at 6:40 pm |
  17. FactChecker

    After his Dad died the same way???!!! Some people just can't learn, even from their own experiences!

    June 2, 2012 at 6:40 pm |
    • liz48

      The pathetic issue is that it is brought to shame the Name of Jesus in Whose Name this man claimed to act. The Bible identifies Wisdom with God. The Bible also identifies success, and prosperity with God's Blessing – See Deuteronomy 28:1-15, 3John 2. -We are told that the wealth added by the Lord brings NO sorrow with it, unlike the worldly wealth (Proverbs 10:22). God's will for His people is peace and joy – Romans 14:17.

      June 2, 2012 at 6:47 pm |
  18. Hank

    first of all these people are tempting God,by not knowing what the scriptures say,paul in the bible was accidently bitten,and he also had faith that God will heal him,you do not go around and pick up wild animals and drink poison just to provoke God,every instant in the bible was not on purpose,read your bibles and do not be so foolish thinking that God will let you get by with it ,that has not one thing to do with salvation of the soul,quit this nonesonse,and read your bibles the right way,your all just bringing a reproach on the true word of God

    June 2, 2012 at 6:40 pm |
    • FactChecker

      Yes. I think that God would treat an accident differently from an intentional action.

      June 2, 2012 at 6:43 pm |
  19. grist

    Sounds like one for the Darwin awards!

    June 2, 2012 at 6:40 pm |
  20. The Wild Sorority Girls of Planet Playtex

    So contrary to all that propaganda about "no atheists in foxholes", when confronted with immanent death, the religious guy abandoned his faith and converted to reason and called in medical science? Unfortunately for him, medical science has not yet found a cure for stupidity.

    I guess there are no theists in snakeholes.

    June 2, 2012 at 6:39 pm |
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