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. Keep Reading...

    "Nor let us try the Lord, as some of them did, and were destroyed by the serpents." 1 Corinthians 10:9
    Apparently these folks stopped reading the Bible after Mark 16...unfortunate.

    June 2, 2012 at 7:15 pm |
  2. ozikboy

    Why does CNN run these ridiculous stories?? Really... WHY. CNN used to be ... something worth reading

    June 2, 2012 at 7:15 pm |
    • PRISM 1234

      Because CNN has an agenda with anti- Christian sentiment. That's WHY!
      It's written out all over them....

      June 2, 2012 at 9:20 pm |
    • sam stone

      Awwwww....prism1234: feeling a bit put upon?

      June 2, 2012 at 9:36 pm |
  3. Locker

    Proof of natural selection, even though they still won't accept it.

    June 2, 2012 at 7:15 pm |
  4. Joe

    Because $120,000 snake anti-venom costs too much to keep people alive?

    June 2, 2012 at 7:14 pm |
  5. ThinkAgain

    This whole snake stuff is so egocentric: "Look at me! I'm handling a snake!" Do they really think God wants them wasting their time on this kind of thing when they could actually being doing some GOOD?

    June 2, 2012 at 7:14 pm |
  6. Bill

    Primitive religous practices right here in the U.S. No need to go to the M.E. for bizarre stuff! Hopefully this guy didn't "breed" so maybe we've nipped this one at the bud.....just sayin.

    June 2, 2012 at 7:14 pm |
  7. PRISM 1234

    This poor misguided soul has lost his life because his stupidity, but you who gang up mocking God and His Word, and badmouth His people who speak on His behalf, making sport of it to yourself, you are far worse off then that man!
    Because, even your Day of appointment is comming.... To be bitten by most deadly serpent will be like a child's play, comparing what's awaiting those who use every opportunity to mock God.
    Just remember, people, that you're berating your very breath by God's mercy. It is Him who gave it to you, and He is the One who will take it.
    It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the Living God (Hebrews 10:31).
    That is the fate of all who reject Christ.

    June 2, 2012 at 7:14 pm |
    • Rick James

      More empty threats from Christians, it seems. When will you guys have evidence instead of empty threats?

      June 2, 2012 at 7:15 pm |
    • youidiots

      @ Rick James

      June 2, 2012 at 7:18 pm |
    • Robairdo

      I don't reject Jesus Christ but most so called "Christians" including this pastor do.

      June 2, 2012 at 7:20 pm |
    • Thing55

      Why would I be even the least bit concerned about what some make-believe god has in store for me if I don't believe in Christ? No almighty being would be so spiteful and childish. That whole fire and brimstone nonsense is just pathetic. You realize that this punishment for those who don't believe is just intended to keep the nonthinking sheep in line, don't you?

      June 2, 2012 at 7:24 pm |
    • Rick

      prism1234: we are not mocking god. we are mocking pompous a$$es like you who purport to speak for god. also, your empty proxy threats are laughable, and provide a glimpse behind your faith. you go right to the empty proxy threats. here is a bit of advice.....get back on your knees like a good little slaveboy

      June 2, 2012 at 7:27 pm |
    • PRISM 1234

      No threats, just reality! As for proof or evidence you and your ilk so eagerly seek...
      Jesus Christ came to this world, healed the sick, raised the dead, delivered demoniacs, died on the cross, was raised from the dead. You didn't believe His testimony, how would you believe if He'd came and done it allover again? God gave you conscience by which you were able to recognize right from wrong, truth from a lie! And if you, by love of Self and the sin of pride that's in your heart have silenced the voice of your conscience, it is not God's fault, but your own. You can call threat what I wrote,- to make me look as evil, so you can hide the motives of your own heart, but God knows where you are, and what are your motives. But don't play with God, you are just a man! You don't know when your day of appointment is. Some have boasted themselves to high heavens, and never seen another daybreak. It's that serious! And these are not hateful words, friend!

      June 2, 2012 at 7:29 pm |
    • Rick

      so much blah blah blah, so little proof

      June 2, 2012 at 7:39 pm |
    • Rick

      prism1234: i am not attempting to make you look evil. YOU are making you look stupid, though....

      June 2, 2012 at 7:45 pm |
    • PRISM 1234

      God, to whom you owe your life has already declared the verdict who the fool is! And, He is the One who has the LAST WORD!
      That's sufficient for me to say!

      June 2, 2012 at 9:16 pm |
    • sam stone

      ooooh, more empty threats. you are a punk. your god is a punk.

      June 2, 2012 at 9:37 pm |
    • PRISM 1234

      I shall not contaminate my mouth by speaking what you are.....

      June 3, 2012 at 6:09 pm |
    • sam stone

      yeah, prism, save that purty mouth for the savior

      June 3, 2012 at 7:19 pm |
  8. Karaya

    The dude definitely earn Darwin Awards nomination.

    June 2, 2012 at 7:13 pm |
  9. ThinkAgain

    Wouldn't it be a better display of Christian faith to try to make the world a better place by tangible actions such as feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, and in general, helping those among us who suffer?

    June 2, 2012 at 7:13 pm |
  10. BurnNotice

    Summertime in the South, time for another dose of Chlorine in the gene pool.

    June 2, 2012 at 7:13 pm |
  11. youidiots

    Well I guess the people of that remote place won't have very much faith in whatever he was spewing when he got bit. What a family of morons...God does not punish people...This Is A Test...live or die through it and on the other side God will be judging us for what we have done here....There is no Hell, so get ready, because if God kills you after the final judgment there is no coming back.

    June 2, 2012 at 7:13 pm |
  12. Rick James

    That snake should get a Nobel Peace Prize for helping the world by taking out an idiot.

    June 2, 2012 at 7:12 pm |
  13. jobdespair

    and nothing of value was lost.

    June 2, 2012 at 7:12 pm |
  14. trex

    .Was brought up in Assembly of God, and we were just shy of snake handling. That said, I am now a believer in God and His Son, but, cannot take the Church. I believe God gave each of us a BRAIN, and expects us to USE IT!!!! Those that blindly follow the VERY compromised preachers of the far right better start using that brain God gave you. Is the Earth 5000 years old?.................Those that believe this will never be convinced of their ignorance, and will only challenge these beliefs when THEIR preacher is found to be HUMAN and VERY VERY MISTAKEN. God is NOT a side show, Baptists.

    June 2, 2012 at 7:12 pm |
  15. ThinkAgain

    Free country, granting the freedom to people to be idiots.

    June 2, 2012 at 7:11 pm |
  16. Muffinman

    It continues as these knuckle draggers are managing to reproduce before they're bitten. Evolution isn't prefect, nor quick/timely. Alas....

    June 2, 2012 at 7:11 pm |
  17. Meia

    Maybe God was saying "ok, enough of this nonsense" How many followers will continue this? What is the purpose of this...? A miracle? What? Whatever....

    June 2, 2012 at 7:11 pm |
  18. Rat

    How stupid, and they wonder why young adults in the 20's are getting away from this stupid belief, they want to live and enjoy life. Get out of the hills, theres a big world out there and more ways to give back to your community and the lord.

    June 2, 2012 at 7:11 pm |
  19. MedullaPancreas

    They test their Lord daily yet in their own bible it says do not test your Lord: Luke 4:12

    June 2, 2012 at 7:11 pm |
  20. Leigh

    who cares if this is his "thing".. We can't protect him from himself....

    June 2, 2012 at 7:11 pm |
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