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. Joseph

    I'm Pentecostal Myself and I NEVER IN MY LIFE SEEN THIS We serve a God of Wisdom and Knowledge people need to use it . This is Crazy and Foolish

    June 2, 2012 at 7:35 pm |
    • Skippy Flingenflopper

      You people do faith healing, being slain in the spirit, running the aisles, and speaking in tongues, and you think other people are crazy and foolish?

      June 2, 2012 at 7:41 pm |
  2. vinny


    June 2, 2012 at 7:34 pm |
  3. Navin Johnson

    because they are idiots. natural selection is working.

    June 2, 2012 at 7:34 pm |
  4. STEVE

    Live by the snake..die by the snake..so sayeth the lord..I think.

    June 2, 2012 at 7:34 pm |
    • tom

      It's somwhere in the back.

      June 2, 2012 at 7:38 pm |
  5. Atheism is not healthy for children and other living things

    Prayer changes things .

    June 2, 2012 at 7:33 pm |
    • Skippy Flingenflopper

      Not for snake kissers.

      Not for holocaust victims.

      Not for cancer patients.

      Not for molested children.

      Not for people with birth defects.

      Not for anyone.

      June 2, 2012 at 7:36 pm |
  6. Saxxon

    I'm sorry, but I find this freakin' HILARIOUS. This EXACTLY like the old saying, "If you play with fire, you're going to get burnt."

    BTW...here comes Bill Engvall..."Here's your sign!"

    June 2, 2012 at 7:33 pm |
  7. sane person

    It goes without saying that if you fool with a snake you will get the fangs and it doesn't matter what idiotic religion you profess to believe in. Even the Hopi stopped the practice

    June 2, 2012 at 7:33 pm |
  8. Daniel Boone

    Copperheads aren't deadly snakes. They should all move to Australia if they really believe this stuff.

    June 2, 2012 at 7:33 pm |
  9. P


    June 2, 2012 at 7:32 pm |
  10. Puka boy

    Right.There are people in this country every bit as backward as the Taliban.

    June 2, 2012 at 7:32 pm |
  11. P

    Let them handle poisonous wild animals if they want. This guy wins today's Darwin award.

    June 2, 2012 at 7:32 pm |
  12. frootyme

    Fundamentalism will not work in any religion and Christianity is not an exception. The Pastor was simply stupid!
    Why politicians are raising voice against Christian fundamentalists?

    June 2, 2012 at 7:31 pm |
  13. jdmazz

    Religious nut, that explains it all.

    June 2, 2012 at 7:31 pm |
  14. Robert

    When you throw your support behind a fairy tale that includes magical artificial insemination, levitation, and magic tricks with loaves of bread and fish, it doesn't surprise me in the slightest that some would dare to include snake handling as part of these asinine rituals.

    June 2, 2012 at 7:31 pm |
  15. KathyM

    "Pentecostal serpent handler Mack Wolford died last week from a snakebite, just like his dad. So why does the tradition continue?"
    ANSWER: Because these people are stupid.

    June 2, 2012 at 7:30 pm |
  16. Rob

    Gene pool just got a little clearer....thanks my serpent friend. 🙂

    June 2, 2012 at 7:30 pm |
  17. Smarter than him

    There's no cure for dumb...

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


      June 2, 2012 at 7:31 pm |
  18. mocomment

    Wish 'likes' were enabled. First comments I saw said the obvious. I guess the states that haven't outlawed snake handling are hoping to raise the average IQ of the remaining population. Also in the article Wolford chose to promote his stupidity saying "the law be damned". Doesn't his Bible say to obey the leaders, including laws? Hypocrite. Dead self centered vanity fillled hypocrite. I don't believe the 'I'll make it all up to you after you're dead Bible BS, but I try to stay on the right side of the law, and better yet, use the common sense that's not promoted in the bible.

    June 2, 2012 at 7:29 pm |
  19. Commonsense MMI

    Why like father like son? Darwin's Evolution applies to humans, too.

    June 2, 2012 at 7:29 pm |
  20. kls817

    If this guy had read the Bible, he would have learned that you should not test God. When Jesus was tempted by the devil, the devil told Jesus to jump from a cliff and God would save him, to which Jesus replied that "you shall not put God to the test".

    June 2, 2012 at 7:27 pm |
    • Skippy Flingenflopper

      Do you really need the Bible to tell you to not do incredibly stupid things like fondle venomous snakes?

      June 2, 2012 at 7:31 pm |
    • Bdub

      ...and I'm pretty sure the bible has something in there about passing judgement as well. Food for thought.

      June 2, 2012 at 7:38 pm |
    • Leigh2

      Very fatal and very sad the preacher didn't understand that. God also gave us a brain to use. But there are people who will continue that practice of handling poisonous snakes because of scripture of which they don't understand ~ it's not an imperative command to handle snakes.

      June 2, 2012 at 7:48 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.