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. Marc

    I believe all people of religion should handle deadly snakes; I mean, why not? You believe that someone walked on water, or acended to heaven from a rock, or gold tablets that only 1 man claimed to see have the new teachings of god on them and followed that guy to SLC and started a new religion... I think this family of snake handling preachers is onto something... Handle deadly snakes and you'll go to heaven faster. So again, please, all of you religious people, go find yourself a deadly snake and play with it. Say hello to god for me when you do.

    June 2, 2012 at 7:10 pm |
    • J Skien

      HAHA! Brilliant dude...love it!

      June 2, 2012 at 7:13 pm |
  2. lovethedifferentcommentsystemsCNN

    no loss there

    June 2, 2012 at 7:10 pm |
  3. Norman

    Well, that's one way to sing: Nearer to three my God...

    June 2, 2012 at 7:10 pm |
  4. Andy

    Dumb and dumber

    June 2, 2012 at 7:10 pm |
  5. OldBill

    After all this is "The Word of God" – maybe more True Christians should investigate the merits of this practice, and consider following in Reverend Wolford's footsteps.

    June 2, 2012 at 7:10 pm |
  6. fgfggg


    June 2, 2012 at 7:10 pm |
  7. RJ Smith

    "Stupid is as stupid does"–Forrest Gump

    June 2, 2012 at 7:09 pm |
  8. sensable christian

    There are still areas of our Country -parts of Appalachia is one of them – that are isolated by poverty, location, and culture. But, most people in Appalachia see this pratice as more of entertainment then a demonstration of faith. These fringy preachers get alot of attention and thrills from this practice. It really seems to detract from the real message of Christianity, doesn't it?

    June 2, 2012 at 7:08 pm |
    • Notso Sheep

      Dear brother, there are different species of reptiles. Some religious, some not religious. Don't expect them to admit to anything, they just are.

      June 2, 2012 at 7:19 pm |
    • shane H

      Hi Guy,

      Just wanted to respond quickly to your post. I grew up in East Tn, Kingsport to be exact and I also grew up as a strict "old time" pentecostal. I've seen every thing they describe in this article and I can assure you they are not doing it for the razzle dazzle affect. The immense faith these people have is mind numbing and they do it for one reason, to prove their absolute devotion to God and his word. These people aren't thrill seekers or headline hunters, their life style is very simple almost to the point of an Amish lifestyle and they tend to be solely focused on church activities.

      I know there will be lots of tongue in cheek posts on this article and a lot of mean things said but that doesn't change the facts of who they are or what they do. I don't think serpent handling will get you thru the pearly gates any quicker than asking forgiveness but these people do. It's too bad about this fellow just as it's too bad when someone dies of drunk driving. Sometimes our activities are our sentences.

      June 2, 2012 at 7:25 pm |
  9. Big Daddy

    The retile has more sense than the people that believe in this horse s::t. And the damn reptile got fed up with this nut so... Had no choice, just couldn't stand it anymore.. Poor snake! Had to be subjected to this idiocy week after week.. Well good to see the one with a brain survived and the combined IQ of out nation was raised today. This moron was dragging down our stats!

    June 2, 2012 at 7:07 pm |
  10. Gerry

    Gets him out of the gene pool !

    June 2, 2012 at 7:07 pm |
  11. bryon41

    Does CNN give out Darwin Awards?

    June 2, 2012 at 7:06 pm |
    • Nancy

      He procreated, he left a daughter behind, so no Darwin for him! Only if he had not added to the gene pool in any way would he have been eligible.

      June 2, 2012 at 10:04 pm |
  12. JakePhil

    Is this American exceptionalism? I don't understand how these damn fools are newsworthy.

    June 2, 2012 at 7:04 pm |
    • dscon

      i prefer to worship the obama regime..........
      still now as with all polls...........obviously snakes.

      June 2, 2012 at 7:09 pm |
  13. aj

    Evolution: weeding out the dumb from the gene pool.

    June 2, 2012 at 7:03 pm |
  14. ladylike56

    Wow....talk about being brainwashed!

    June 2, 2012 at 7:03 pm |
  15. elk

    Wonderfull........why God/Dio/Allah/Bok..would be happy when people die for him...

    June 2, 2012 at 7:03 pm |
  16. Worship Poseidon

    That guy voted republican.

    June 2, 2012 at 7:03 pm |
  17. ladylike56

    Wow.....talk about being brainwashed!

    June 2, 2012 at 7:02 pm |
  18. Notso Sheep

    Stupid, but at that level,nothing can be done. I don't know if life was intended to last forever, but I do know that stupidity was, is and will continue forever.
    What you decide to conveniently believe in your own mind might become real, but can also assist the universe to identify the fool to avoid becoming one of them. -Notso Sheep

    June 2, 2012 at 7:02 pm |
  19. agnus

    Dear Pentecostals, Sorry you're getting picked on; you can come hang out with us if you get lonely.
    Sincerely, A Mormon and a Jew.

    June 2, 2012 at 7:02 pm |
    • albert

      Don't forget the pedophile Catholics!

      June 2, 2012 at 7:17 pm |
  20. Pentecostal Runaway

    Mack lost the Lord's favor and got bitten by the snake. That means he has been made to pay for the sins we all knew and the few only God knew about. That One who cannot be fooled by venomous talking and lies removed His Grace from that wretched man and had him killed, just as God Almighty does with His enemies. That man played his act like he was God himself and made a fool of himself before the eyes of God. Right now he has got all snakes he ever wanted to deal with... in Hell.

    June 2, 2012 at 7:02 pm |
    • Frank

      Open your eyes you sheep

      June 2, 2012 at 7:05 pm |
    • Rick

      pentacostal: you sure serve an angry god

      June 2, 2012 at 7:40 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.