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. matt

    Darwin Award!!

    June 2, 2012 at 6:55 pm |
  2. Writerscramp

    I wish ALL pastors, priests and rabbis were required to handle lethal poisonous snakes on a daily basis.

    June 2, 2012 at 6:55 pm |
  3. jeff Lebowski

    inbred ignorance, and blind faith is why it continues.

    June 2, 2012 at 6:55 pm |
  4. martin2176

    He deserves admiration, because he practiced what he believed this is is not commonplace these days.

    June 2, 2012 at 6:53 pm |
    • Robairdo

      he deserves the darwin award.

      June 2, 2012 at 6:55 pm |
    • matt

      Well i suppose in your theory we should admire the Muslims because they did what they believed in too when they flew the planes into two buildings...clap clap

      June 2, 2012 at 6:57 pm |
  5. SteveM

    Another candidate for the Darwin Awards. They are eliminating the entire family from the gene pool.

    June 2, 2012 at 6:53 pm |
  6. near_miss527

    I am totally flummoxed by this tradition. I think it is more of a sporting event than a religious ritual. People just cannot handle religion. Religion has become so contorted by various groups that the true gospel is hard to find. I don't feel too sorry for either the younger or elder Wolford. They were completely aware of the possibility of being bitten. Do they withhold medical treatment from those who are bitten? Except for a few snakes, most people have some time in which they can get treated for snake bite and survive.

    June 2, 2012 at 6:53 pm |
  7. Sean

    Don't knock it till you've tried it, that's one way to make a sermon interesting!

    June 2, 2012 at 6:52 pm |
  8. Steven

    This is the dumbest description of a Pentecostal. They do NOT handle snakes, etc. There is a very small sect of radical Pentecostals that does this. The Pentecostal Movement is the largest in the world (other than the RCC). And, they are the most grounded group out there. Ugh I can't stand how articles like this make good Pentecostals look like idiots.

    June 2, 2012 at 6:51 pm |
    • OpenUREyes

      Really, so many good Pentecostal's out there? Try again, the bulk of the Pentecostal movement is lead by false prophets who are downright evil. They worship a vengeful God, and preach bigotry and intolerance to those they disagree with. They manipulate their parishioners with teaching based on misinterpretations of the Bible. The bulk of their movement have become the American Christian Taliban, who want to take away the rights and freedoms of all Americans.

      June 2, 2012 at 7:06 pm |
  9. Non-Serpent Handler

    "Trust in Me,..Just in Me"...........Python from Jungle Book.

    June 2, 2012 at 6:51 pm |
  10. Jug

    Kooks. All of them.

    June 2, 2012 at 6:51 pm |
  11. koga001

    the tradition exists because PENTECOSTALS ARE IDIOTS. and cruel to animals. PETA should get involved to stop the brutal use of snakes.

    June 2, 2012 at 6:51 pm |
  12. David

    Another hillbilly bites the dust

    June 2, 2012 at 6:50 pm |
  13. abbydelabbey

    you can't fix stupid - stupid is forever....

    June 2, 2012 at 6:50 pm |
  14. Kindness

    For you.
    A thought to consider without a typical ego response

    Accept Jesus christ as your lord and saviour. You never know how soon is too late. Transcend the worldly illusion of enslavement.
    The world denounces truth....

    Accepting Jesus Christ (for me) resulted in something like seeng a new colour. You will see it .....but will not be able to clearly explain it to anyone else..... Its meant to be that way to transend any selfism within you.

    Also... much the world arranges "surrounding dark matter into something to be debated" in such a way that protects/inflates the ego.

    The key is be present and transcend our own desire to physically see evidence. We don't know anyways by defending our own perception of dark matter.

    Currently.... most of us are constructing our own path that suits our sin lifestyle. Were all sinners. Knowing that we are is often an issue. But both christians and non are sinners.

    We don't like to Let go and let god. We want control to some degree. This is what Jesus asks us to do. "Let go and let god".
    It's the hardest thing to do... but is done by letting the truth of scripture lead you (redemptive revelation)... as I said .

    Try reading corinthians and see if it makes sense to you. Try it without a pre conceived notion of it being a fairy tale.
    See the truth...
    do we do what it says in todays society... is it relevant... so many have not recently read and only hinge their philosophy on what they have heard from som other person...which may have been full of arogance pride or vanity..

    Look closely at the economy ponzi, look at how society idolizes Lust , greed , envy, sloth, pride of life, desire for knowledge, desire for power, desire for revencge,gluttony with food etc .

    Trancsend the temporal world.

    Just think if you can find any truth you can take with you ....in any of these things. When you die your riches go to someone who will spend away your life..... You will be forgotten.... history will repeat iteslf.... the greatest minds knowledge fade or are eventually plagerzed..... your good deeds will be forgotten and only give you a fleeting temporary reward . your learned teachings are forgotten or mutated..... your gold is transfered back to the rullers that rule you through deception. Your grave will grow over . This is truth .

    Trancsend your egoism and free yourself from this dominion of satan. Understand you are a sinner and part of the collective problem of this worldly matrix... Repent.... Repent means knowing

    Evidence follows faith. Faith does not follow evidence..... Faith above reason in Jesus Christ.

    Faith comes by Reading or Hearing the word of god from the bible . Ask Jesus in faith for dicernment and start reading the new testament... You will be shocked when you lay down your preconceived notions and ....see and hear truth ... see how christ sets an example ... feel the truth....

    Read Ecclesiastes. Read corinthians.

    You cant trancend your own egoism by adapting a world philosophy to suit your needs. Seek the truth in Christ.

    Sell all your cleverness and purchase true bewilderment. You don't get what you want ....you get what you are in christ.

    I promise this has been the truth for me. In Jesus christ .

    Think of what you really have to lose. ...your ego?

    Break the Matrix of illusion that holds your senses captive.

    once you do . you too will have the wisdom of God that comes only through the Holy Spirit. Saved By grace through Faith. Just like seeing a new colour.... can't explain it to a transient caught in the matrix of worldly deception.
    You will also see how the world suppresses this information and distorts it

    You're all smart people . I tell the truth. Its hard to think out of the box when earthly thinking is the box.
    I'ts a personal free experience you can do it free anytime . Don't wait till you are about to die.. START PUTTING YOUR TREASURES WHERE THEY REALLY MATTER >
    Its awsome .

    June 2, 2012 at 6:49 pm |
    • koga001

      No amount of faith will make an untrue thing become true.

      June 2, 2012 at 6:51 pm |
    • David

      So what you're saying is the Celtics are going all the way this year?

      June 2, 2012 at 6:51 pm |
    • Jug

      Stop deluding yourself. There is no god. The Bible is a work of fiction.

      June 2, 2012 at 6:52 pm |
    • GK

      You have a lot of time in your hands.Don't waste it anymore.

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

      So basically what you're saying is the Minnesota Vikings are going to win the Super Bowl this year?

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

      God bless! people forget Noah (and the archiological evidence behind it)......keep making fun people, one day you'll realize that maybe this God thing was not a Hoax after all! I hope you accpet Jesus into your heart before that moment comes!

      June 2, 2012 at 6:59 pm |
    • Robairdo

      Why do you so called "Christians" always tell people too read everything but the Gospel of Jesus Christ. The Gospels of Jesus Christ are all that you need to read to be a Christian. I Read the old testament and found it to be a sick joke. I read the Gospel of Jesus Christ and became a believer, Corinthians, Acts, Romans, etc. are ok but sometimes contradict Christ in those cases I always say Christ Trumps all.

      June 2, 2012 at 7:00 pm |
  15. Greg

    God works in mysterious ways. HAHAHAHAHA

    June 2, 2012 at 6:49 pm |
  16. duckforcover

    Natural selection. Enough said.

    June 2, 2012 at 6:49 pm |
  17. alfranken

    I think all Christians should be required to do this. For now on all TV evangelists must be within striking distance of a cobra while preaching hail and brimstone. During their hate messages a coral snake on top of the cobra while teasing it. (flick it in the nose)

    June 2, 2012 at 6:49 pm |
  18. john

    It's all this fundamentalist BS. Anyone who tries to handle a rattlesnake is just like someone in Iraq trying to handle an IED. Dude, you are nuts.

    June 2, 2012 at 6:49 pm |
  19. Hear Ye

    Supid is what stupid does ...... at least 100 of these misfits are out of the gene pool.

    June 2, 2012 at 6:48 pm |
  20. Brad

    Doesn't it also say in the bible to not test God? Isn't that what you're doing by handling a snake, testing whether or not God will protect you if and when you get bit? Besides, the passage doesn't even allude to God wanting people to take up snakes! It just says that there will be some who do this.

    June 2, 2012 at 6:47 pm |
    • Lols

      Yeah, Jesus said not to test God.
      I guess because deep down, he realized he was completely full of sh!t, and that if he jumped off the temple, he'd definitely be crippled or die.

      June 2, 2012 at 6:52 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.