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.
DING DING DING ! We have a new DARWIN AWARD nominee, yipppeeeee 😉
The Darwin Awards are a tongue-in-cheek honor, created by Wendy Northcutt to recognize individuals who contribute to human evolution by self-selecting themselves out of the gene pool through putting themselves (unnecessarily) in life-threatening situations. In the spirit of Charles Darwin, the Darwin Awards commemorate individuals who protect our gene pool by making the ultimate sacrifice of their own lives. Darwin Award winners eliminate themselves in an extraordinarily idiotic manner, thereby improving our species' chances of long-term survival.
Yes, there's even a website darwinawards dot com
This is what happens when you live your life by the dictates of a 2,000 year old book that was written by a bunch of goat herders.
He lubs you too bro.
Always nice to read a story with a happy ending!
"Jesus hears all your prayers when you give your hard earned cash to me." -The Preacher
I am not going to take the bait CNN, you are just continuing along your normal course of presenting christians in a negative light,you know that less than 1/10 of 1% of christians even engage in this goofyness, so nice try. PP
Do tell us what stories the should print about Christians?
Percentages ??? Puhleeez. Provide evidence for this claim of yours. A study done with actual research behind it would suffice......................... Yup, didn't think so
Just exposing Christians to the light makes them look bad.
A melodramatic moment that this idiot picked up a poisonous snake and felt that an invisible space wizard was going to provide him a way out of death. He died. He died because he was human. Humans are easily influenced by tradition or history. The history of humans is one of idiocy and detriment. Call it Darwin and put more stickers on the back window of your vehicle. Call it God and put more fish on your back window. It doesn't matter either way. Wake up and take care of your situation you have created for yourself. Be it a cat, dog, kids you can't afford, or that club membership that you got talked into last summer by that other !@#&($& idiot...
God gave them brains with the POTENTIAL to think logically .
They regularly handled poisonous snakes despite knowing that they are deadly.
It actually shows disrespect for the brain and life god gave them.
Darwin's theories once again prove correct.
Natural selection trumps religion. Again.
I think they're loony. But if it makes them happy, it's not my business. And who am I to judge?
I'm a Christian and a Republican, but I do not hate gays nor do I think they should be forbidden to marry. I consider myself open minded, compassionate and I do treat other people the way that I wish to be treated. I believe in Jesus Christ, and personally feel that he is the source of love, grace and forgiveness. Yes, many have done horrible things in His name, but that doesn't mean He sanctions or asks for that.
I don't believe God wants us to handle snakes, but I respect the right and willingness for an adult to do so. It's easy for us to mock and deride this individual (and others), but it really takes more courage to have real faith in something extraordinary (anything)...than it does to judge and crticize others. I attended a Pentacostal church for awhile (NOT snake handlers) and my spirituality was tested, stretched, and exercised in a way I didn't know possible. It was exhilerating and satisfying to feel a real, meaningful and life affirming relationship with God. To believe in something greater than ourselves, in supernatural possibilities does take courage, but it also takes maturity, humility and love. A lot of Christians have done a lot of wrong in the name of God, but that's on them - not Him.
Valere: good post.
Christian and a Republican? I'm praying for you already woman.This is a tough one that will require a true miracle, harder than a snake not biting you.
Valere, if you are a real christian why do you not believe in what the bible has to say?
Wow, dear Valere,
So killing thousands of citizens in foreign counttries is Ok as long as we have God on our side?
Thanks for that post, Valere. Nicely said. (And I'm a liberal cafeteria Catholic from the northeast.)
Faith means believing in something you know ain't true. -Mark Twain
Snakes are not poisonous. They are venomous!!! Something is poisonous if it makes you sick when you ingest or eat it. Venom must be injected to make you sick. In the case of snakes, venom is injected by their teeth. Editors, please do your research before publishing and stop perpetuating the misunderstanding between poison and venom!
Mentally Ill *AND* stupid - not a good combination.
Yes, there is no cure for stupid...except....death. Which he got.
That's a good snake...LOL!!!
Dare I say it and fear lightning for the rest of my life......yeah I'll chance it...WHAT AN ASP!!!!!
So-called "Christians" continue to present Christians as stupid followers of God. If so-called Christians read the Bible right, they would know that if you play with snakes you'll probably get. The proper view of this incident in the Bible where the Apostle Paul got bit by a snake, is if you are doing some Godly work for the Lord and you get bit by a snake it probably wont affect you. But not go on purpose and [lay with them. People play with SATAN, the most poisonious snake of all, they will surely get bit. Wise up you Hippcrate Chirstians
I promise you, regardless of what work you claim to be doing, a venomous snake bite will always effect you.
Yo, Buddy Lee,
Can't you just help the rest of these ignoramus christians read the bible right. If only they knew how to read it right, they wouldn't be so wrong 🙂
@Really. Then you REALLY havent seen or heard of the REAL power of God. Guns misfire, people in terrible accidents and walk away, the sick being healed. This world is really a battleground between good and evil. There are all kinds of stories of how people survived the attacks of 'SNAKES"
By the way, its no wonder why God uses the serprent to represent evil.
I've had many a gun misfire, usually due to dirt or carbon buildup, never because of god. As for healing the sick, and surviving snake bites, that's due to medicine. Believe me, nothing would make me happier than to see a cancer patient get better for no reason at all, or a snake bit victim to just shrug it off, but that's not how it works.
@BuddyLee – "Guns misfire, people in terrible accidents and walk away, the sick being healed."
So, when "sh1t happens", all of that was god? Wow...who'da thought. Does god do the bad "sh1t happens" stuff too?
What I said folks, is that there is a battle going on for your soul and mine. It a battle between Jesus and Satan for your mind, your soul. Whose side are you on? There is no middle ground. "Choose you this day who you shall serve"
...and the battle is almost over. Guess who wins? JESUS.
The happiest I've been and the best things that have happened to me have come after I rejected god and left Christianity behind me. That speaks to me louder than anything. I do wish you the best with whatever you believe, but understand that all of the power is in you, doesn't come from anywhere else. There's no battle for my soul, it's all mine.
"Religious nut" is a tautology.
What kind of example did he think he would present if this happened? What kind of a statement would this make?
There's a passage in the Bible basically to the effect of that "blessed are you when men revile you and persecute you for my name's sake."
I have a feeling there's an escape clause that negates that promise when you do something really stupid in the name of God.
Perfect example why Religion is the most lethal and ignorant philosophy "Man" has ever introduced! Hopefully future generations will have eradicated it for their own sake and survival.
Darwin's principles will see to it.
Hope he has a lot of followers. Let's line them up and hand out the snakes. a hahahahahahahahaha