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. Chrisitans hate YOU!

    He is with Jesus now. Amen!

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

      No he is not. He did not follow Christs guidance for eternal life.

      June 2, 2012 at 7:22 pm |
    • youidiots

      Robairdo is on the right track...thank you sir.:)

      June 2, 2012 at 7:25 pm |
    • Robairdo

      Your welcome for those wondering here it is the only thing Christ says you have to do to earn eternal life:

      • Here is what Christ actually said about eternal life: Mathew 19:17-22 (translated from the original Aramaic directly to English):
      And one came near and said to him, “Good teacher, what good thing shall I do that I may have eternal life?” But he said to him, “Why do you call me good? There is none good except God alone. But if you want to enter life, keep the commandments.” He said to him, “Which ones?” But Yeshua(Jesus) said to him, “You shall not murder, You shall not commit adultery, You shall not steal, You shall not testify falsely.” “Honor your father and your mother”, and “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” That young man said to him, “I have kept all these from my childhood; what am I lacking?” Yeshua (Jesus) said to him, “If you want to be perfect, go sell your possessions and give to the poor and you will have treasure in Heaven, and come after me.” But that young man heard this saying and he went away, as it was grievous to him, for he had many possessions.

      June 2, 2012 at 7:49 pm |
  2. Mel

    Fanaticism lives on with the Christian right. Even though this guy doesn't.

    June 2, 2012 at 7:20 pm |
  3. lepke

    Somehow the Jonestown Massacare comes into my mind after reading this story.

    June 2, 2012 at 7:20 pm |
  4. Charles Darwin

    2nd Amendment
    Natural Selection
    We support your right to religion as long as it does NOT inflict harm on others with a different belief.

    June 2, 2012 at 7:20 pm |
    • The Wild Sorority Girls of Planet Playtex

      The Second Amendment?

      June 2, 2012 at 7:23 pm |
    • facepalm

      1st amendment sweetie. 2nd is the right to bear arms.

      June 2, 2012 at 7:24 pm |
  5. Atheism is not healthy for children and other living things

    Prayer changes things .

    June 2, 2012 at 7:20 pm |
    • The Wild Sorority Girls of Planet Playtex

      Didn't work for snake-dude.

      June 2, 2012 at 7:26 pm |
    • sipsen

      I guess he shouldn't have lost faith by calling the paramedics. If only he relied on faith, he would still be alive.

      June 2, 2012 at 7:32 pm |
    • jungleboo

      Troll alert.

      June 4, 2012 at 6:29 pm |
  6. Chrisitans hate YOU!

    Christians are gullible and hateful.

    June 2, 2012 at 7:19 pm |
  7. bigdakine

    You know the old expression..

    "A pentecostalist and their snakes are soon parted."

    June 2, 2012 at 7:19 pm |
  8. Darwin

    Proving natural selection, one idiot at a time.

    June 2, 2012 at 7:19 pm |
  9. Religion because it's religion

    You can't questions religion because religion is religion because baby Jesus says it's true and if you question religion baby Jesus will cry.

    June 2, 2012 at 7:19 pm |
  10. Josef Bleaux

    Good riddance to both the dad and the son, the human race is better off without morons like them.

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

    I'm Pentecostal myself and I never have Witness this in my life not one time We Serve a God of Wisdom and Knowledge people need to use it . This is pure FOOLISHNESS

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

      practice what you prach sheep man

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

      you serve a god of wisdom and knowledge that requires you to forego the use of both in order to believe in him?

      June 2, 2012 at 7:26 pm |
  12. luigim

    This is so ridiculous. Why would any sane person do this? Well, perhaps he felt greater than the almighty. Catholic calling this guy a Schmuck. What about the Serpent thing in the Bible?

    June 2, 2012 at 7:18 pm |
    • Josef Bleaux

      That's just it. A sane person wouldn't do it.

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

      Because the Bible told him to. The Bible tells humans to do a lot of rediculous things.

      June 2, 2012 at 7:29 pm |
  13. Tiffany

    It also says in the Bible that you are not to put the Lord God to the test....Jesus said that. The verse in Mark is meant to mean that if a follower of Jesus encounters something deadly, he will be healed, but not if you consciously pursue the deadly object – that's just stupid.

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

      Lord and God are 2 different beings...keep reading the bible and you'll figure it out.

      June 2, 2012 at 7:23 pm |
  14. maggiemay

    "In recent years, Wolford fared the tradition was in danger of dying for lack of interest " Well i guess he proved that theory. RIP Preacher man. GB

    June 2, 2012 at 7:18 pm |
  15. BasicJustice

    The American South prides itself in stubborn irrationality. It is tragic, melodramatic... but the food is good and the yards are well attended.

    June 2, 2012 at 7:17 pm |
    • The Wild Sorority Girls of Planet Playtex

      The food is good? Maybe compared to Bulgarian cuisine perhaps.

      June 2, 2012 at 7:22 pm |
    • Jamawani

      Honeychile –

      If you haven't had fried chicken and black-eyed peas and fresh collards drippin' with pot likker –
      Cornbread baked in an iron skillet – and topped off with apple/peach crisp –
      Then you haven't lived yet.

      PS – And don't forget the sweet tea.

      June 2, 2012 at 7:27 pm |
    • BasicJustice

      @The Wild Sorority Girls of Planet Playtex LOL you got a point. I mean fresh produce is available to not ruin with bacon fat.

      June 2, 2012 at 7:27 pm |
  16. Skipper

    A rather ironic demonstration of Darwinism....

    June 2, 2012 at 7:17 pm |
    • Livin' Legend

      Yes and no. They've proven even the unfit can survive to reproductive age 😉

      June 2, 2012 at 7:25 pm |
  17. Josef Bleaux

    It's called natural selection in action. Stupid people die and don't pass on their stupid genes, although, I guess it didn't work that well with his dad, he passed on his stupid genes to his son.

    June 2, 2012 at 7:17 pm |
    • Joe J.

      Yeah, it would work but people keep finding ways around this. Gays can now adopt to spread their stupidity...

      June 2, 2012 at 7:21 pm |
  18. mikeyk

    unreal..religious dummies need to wake the f up this is absurd

    June 2, 2012 at 7:16 pm |
  19. Chrisitans hate YOU!


    June 2, 2012 at 7:16 pm |
    • Kevin

      Christians seem to hate everyone. Jesus' message was lost the minute he died. To bad he isn't around to set them straight.

      June 2, 2012 at 7:24 pm |
  20. J. Miller

    what an idiot.

    June 2, 2012 at 7:15 pm |
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About this blog

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.