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.
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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.
would like that snake to beat them all and see....
The compartmentalization of Christians on this board and at CNN as a whole is even more stupid than the snake handler pictured. I laugh at all of you robotic atheists. You claim naturalism yet you choose to live in a theistic world. Hypocrites.
Can you explain, you're not making sense?
Stupid religious people, what else is new...?
Don't follow those bunch of idiots,taking the word of God in different way,already lost 100 lives from being beaten,and still,idiots followers still follow...
Jebus loves Christians even though most of them are morons.
When I worked in an emergency room at the local hospital "Too stupid to live" was a valid diagnosis
Christ was a socialist and performed the first gay marriage.
What an idiot. The gene pool is happy.
The problem with snake-handlers is that they don't understand that Mark 16:9-20 is not original to the text. Most, if not all, textual critics of the New Testament (liberal and conservative alike) agree that Mark 16:9-20 was added later by a scribe or monk who didn't like the original ending to Mark. This passage does not show up in any of the earlier manuscripts that we have of Mark. It takes several hundred years after the gospel was written for it to start showing up. It's a shame that people base their entire faith on one or two handpicked verses and not the entire rest of Scripture. It is an even greater shame that sometimes this basis of their faith costs them their lives needlessly.
Very well said.
Well I hope now all these Pentecostal nutjobs realize he must have deserved to die. Too bad the Bible doesn't tell all of those Pentecostals to kill themselves and just get their miserable uneducated lives over with. It's ridiculous all that speaking in tongues nonsense. Shameful, embarrassing and ignorant to real Christians. Bunch of hillbillies.
Please tell me that you don't plan to procreate. You're worse than the people you just slammed. To judge someone else and then claim to be a Christian is equally moronic. Toolshed!
Laws of natural selection are just like law of gravity – deny them all you want, but you cannot defy them.
How come all those christians so crazy?
This is so so crazy! His problem wasn't the snake that bit him, his problem was in his head. It is called mental sickness. Everyone knows snakes bite. This is the kind of stuff that hypocrites believe in. There is no God and the Bible is a fake. Come on people, wake up and smell the coffee!
I like coffee smell.
But where did the coffee come from... a seed, where did the seed come from...? You have some explaining to do. Your argument is like your belief, it's come out of nothing...
Two gays can't marry but this guy can go around playing with venomous snakes. Priorities people priorities.
Christ was a socialist and performed the first gay marriage.
He also said don't tempt God.
So exactly who are the "REAL" Christians? A. The gay liberal guys getting married
Snake handling is expressly illegal in North Carolina and Tennessee..... D@MN the state for coming between a man and his snake!!!
All christians should do the snake test and the world would be better off.
More hatred from the Tolerance Crowd.
Looks like Jebus failed to save yet another Christian from his own stupidity.
This guy is no Chrisitan.
I would say this guy is very Christian. Even more than most. He put his money where his mouth was. He truly put his faith in Jesus. See how well that worked?
Not exactly 13Monkeys Christ advised against just what this guy did. Also most so called Christians do not follow the Gospel of Jesus Christ mostly because non of their hate messages can be found in the Gospel but mostly just in the old testament which is binding only on the Jew.
It mentions her in the bible lots of times. How come people can't smoke that? It sure won't kill them like snakes. Bunch of wakos I tell you!
Each person has a right to believe in what he/she wants to believe. The only thing wrong here is these people actually vote to impose their version of reality and morality on the rest us through legislative means. That is called coercion and that is dangerous.
I guess you're claiming you're part of a superior group? It sounds like discrimination, bigotry and exclusiveness to me. All the characteristics the far right is accused of. Hmm, can you say hypocrisy?
Is it me, or does the preacher guy look evil? I mean look at those eyes! Pure evil...
It's just you. You're projecting and judging.