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.
HE WAS A WITCH, NO MAN OF GOD WILL BE A SNAKE HANDLER. HE WENT DIRECTLY TO HELL
HE TURNED ME INTO A NEWT!!!
I got better.
Did he Pass "Go", collect his $200,00? 21st century and still have farts for brains thinking of witches.
Bet my friend $5 that the article would call snakes "poisonous" instead of "venomous".
There is a difference. Learn it.
Thanks for the easy $5 CNN, but is it really that difficult to avoid writing like uneducated fools?
hard to believe this is dying out. another grand old American tradition bites the dust.
The only difference between snake handling and believing in Creationism or Noah's Ark is it can be fatal.
A totally preventable death. People who are that dumb shouldnt reproduce. He took on after his daddy and look what happened.
One more stupid gone. We won't misshim
Darwinism in action.
Religion and redneck area... Who is really surprised? If they're dumb enough to believe in a space ghost, they're dumb enough to believe they can handle a venomous animal.
Come on, folks! If he had wanted to live, he might have avoided rattlesnakes. I feel sorry for his kids because they may have inherited the stupid gene.
Refreshing to see a follower bitten by a snake instead of a priest nibbling a little boy. Oh wait God must have wanted both of these scenarios to take place in HIS universe.
glad to see no one is bum rapping the snakes. they got their's in the garden of eden when the snake physically shtupped eve
A poorly written article with no information about what happened to him....until the last paragraph...
So you didn't read the title or the first sentence, huh?
This is further proof of the utter absurdity of religion. It's also a prime example of the survival of the fittest. If you are a fool and do foolish things, like this, you are likely to perish young. If you are logical and intelligent, you will probably live a good, long life.
Even your Religion isn't safe from Natural Selection.
You can't fix Stupid. Inherited Stupid is even worse.
Any one else see the irony of a sure-fire Darwin Award winner who didn't believe in evolution?
The phrases "Darwin Award" and "Can't fix stupid" are on each of the 49 pages so far. Pretty much a cliche reaction.
That people still hold religion with such high regard is very strage to me. Always has been. We don't live in a Christendom anymore!
I am really sad for this man's family and for all those who are misguided in their attempt to seek God. It is really unfortunate when the name of God is dishonored by the actions of people.The fact is that Christ died for all. That includes this man as well as all those spewing hatred all over this website.
god is what people make of it
Hate? The Religious Reich started it!
I like to stroke my serpent everyday, and I've never been bitten.It squirts some mean white poison too.
John 3:16 wants you to stroke your serpent daily, trust me it's in there. Play with your serpents head.
why is religion bashing on the front page of CNN almost everyday? It's like the Richard Dawkins network, not really about any important news.
Because religion is killing people every day.
Simply because, religion is STUPID and should be laughed at.
Yeah I don't get it. We just had the worst jobs report since I don't know when, and there is talk of more JP Morgan bailouts and crash, yet CNN puts this snake freak on the front page.
Americans love the dumbed-down pudding the mainstream media serves.
Because religion is stupid and that should be pointed out at every available opportunity
So when Romney gets in, there will be a depression. You haven't seen anything yet. You all had it too good, you let the politician get rid of the laws that protected our economy from what is happening. Hope you enjoy soup kitchens. Americans deserve what is happening to them, they let it happen.
Because in the last week alone the Religious Reich has called for concentration camps and executions for gay people.
Hatred kills people everyday. Some use religion as an excuse – others use hatred of religion as an excuse. Others hate and kill based on no thoughts on religion at all. Hatred itself is the sickness. People choose who to hate and why based on their own prejudices, then act accordingly. The CNN comments section is proof of this.
I agree with Scott. But I want to know how you see this as 'religion bashing.' There is nothing biased in this article, and if you think you see it, then you are the one who is biased, and afraid.
They never mention that these passages regarding serpents were added later than the earliest manuscripts we have? Seems like a rather large omission.
So God allowed his book to become corrupted and didn't do anything about it? He lets his message remain distorted?
I'm sad he died. He wanted to show his faith and be faithful to God's world and yet I think he was misguided. We are given wisdom and common sense and while I believe God can certainly perform miracles and, for example, make the snake's poison have no effect on the one bitten but I also believe it is not up to us to decide when God should perform such a miracle and to purposely bring about the challenge. It would be the same as deliberately jumping off a cliff and then to recite Psalm 91 "... He will command His angels concerning you, and they will lift you up in their hands...". The devil tried to tempt Jesus this way in the desert and Jesus rebuked him for it instead of jumping off the highest point of the temple as the devil wanted him to....
Owwwwww, can you tell us another fairy tale. I have a bridge to see you.
Get over yourself.