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. billybob snaketail

    I Like Cheese!!!

    June 2, 2012 at 8:11 pm |
  2. Frank

    Just proves you can have 1000 people read the bronze age text called the bi-bull and get 1000 different interpretations. It's worth less than toilet paper.

    June 2, 2012 at 8:11 pm |
    • Brian G

      I agree Frank...It is amazing what you can accomplish from brainwashing a human from the day that they are born.

      June 2, 2012 at 8:16 pm |
  3. Don

    Satan, as the storybook says, is the devil...........Satan-2 nutcases-0

    June 2, 2012 at 8:11 pm |
  4. Monty

    Darwinism at work.

    June 2, 2012 at 8:09 pm |
    • GunnerGA

      That only works if he does not procreate first. Apparently, these idiots spread their form of crazy to their children and the pattern simply replicates over and over. Faith is believing that G-d will prevent your father from getting killed by a poisonous snake. Reality is when G-d does not stop it. Stupidity and insanity is doing it after watching dad dies. Nature/Science is when the same process garners the exact same result and the son dies from the same behavior. If I had not lost faith the first time, I certainly would have now. If I did not, i would certainly believe that G-d does not want man playing with dangerous snakes.

      June 2, 2012 at 8:13 pm |
  5. WhatsHappening

    Good men of God are dying

    Devaints like gays are getting married

    Divorce from your spouse just coz you felt like it that day

    whats happening to this world?

    June 2, 2012 at 8:09 pm |
    • If horses had Gods .. their Gods would be horses

      What's happening to this world? What you described happens in churches every day.

      June 2, 2012 at 8:11 pm |
    • billybob snaketail

      God is urine

      June 2, 2012 at 8:13 pm |
    • Will

      This is the CNN message board. The FOX News message board is over at http://www.foxnews.com....

      June 2, 2012 at 8:15 pm |
    • WhatsHappening

      Devaints like Gays should not force themselves down our throats. Those who dont like them should be allowed to stay away. both legally and socially. Giving them so-called civil rights and marriage and so-called equal rights.

      June 2, 2012 at 8:16 pm |
    • Ben Robertson

      What the bloody pluperfect hell does this have to do with gays? This is about religious nutcases, of which there are far too many these days.

      June 2, 2012 at 8:18 pm |
    • Brian G

      WhatsHappening is an idiot. I am sorry, we must make sure that we don't offend you in your daily life seeing a couple of gay people holding hands. You are one ignorant and arrogant person to think that anyone gives a flying – what you find offensive. Take your tail back to the southern baptist church you belong to and get another dose of brainwashing.

      June 2, 2012 at 8:22 pm |
    • mdmann

      "Devaints like Gays should not force themselves down our throats."

      Only when you try to deep throat them and can't open your mouth wide enough.

      You just need to relax your jaw and open up your throat. Don't worry...you'll perfect the technique sooner or later.

      "Those who dont like them should be allowed to stay away. both legally and socially."

      That would be a Godsend if you people were to go away. May I suggest Siberia?

      "Giving them so-called civil rights and marriage and so-called equal rights."

      So-called? Are you saying the rights they are asking for aren't civil or equal? How so?

      Remove that thing from your throat before you try to answer.

      June 4, 2012 at 2:31 am |
  6. jenarts1

    Has anyone begun to notice that CNN is covering a lot of religious nonsense lately? What's up with that? Is there a segment of CNN's audience that grooves on sick religious practices? How about "magic underwear" and Romney?

    June 2, 2012 at 8:09 pm |
    • Will

      CNN knows its audience. It's not pandering to religious folks. It's entertaining us non-religious folks...

      June 2, 2012 at 8:12 pm |
  7. lindesign

    Momma always said, Stupid is as stupid does

    June 2, 2012 at 8:09 pm |
  8. For real?

    So, about one per year? And? If they want to die that way, who cares? Natural selection, I believe.

    June 2, 2012 at 8:08 pm |
  9. Brian G

    LMFAO....What an idiot! Survival of the fittest in its purest form wiping out two generations of morons!

    June 2, 2012 at 8:08 pm |
    • UncleBenny

      Yes, I nominate this moron for the Darwin Award.

      June 2, 2012 at 8:20 pm |
    • mocomment

      Apparently didn't wipe out the first one soon enough.

      June 2, 2012 at 8:27 pm |
  10. Frank

    "If a believer is bitten by a snake and dies, these Pentecostals reason, it is simply their time to go." Well...it's a win-win for Jeeeezus. The different delusions of Christians are fascinating...and scary.

    June 2, 2012 at 8:08 pm |
  11. disgustedvet

    Do they make YOU handle venomous serpents ? Then why do you care ?

    June 2, 2012 at 8:07 pm |
    • Will

      It's called compassion, and it's supposed to be a universal human quality. If at all possible, I think it would be compassionate to save these people from extremely painful and extremely unnecessary deaths.

      June 2, 2012 at 8:10 pm |
    • sybaris

      If they are adults, fine. Brainwashing children into thinking behavior like this is OK is where the issue is.

      June 2, 2012 at 8:12 pm |
  12. Bromley Jennette

    It seems to me that most of you armchair anthropological anarchists would think that something like antisocial behavior would be the act of voluntarily standing alone at the homecoming dance, which many of you no doubt did. This proves that not all boorish louts are uneducated rural southern whites…or at least you don’t admit to it.

    June 2, 2012 at 8:06 pm |
  13. John Deatherage

    I don't share their beliefs. But I absolutely believe they have a right to their beliefs and a right to handle venomous snakes as demonstration of their faith. As Americans, we should respect their freedom and the free exercise of their religious faith.

    June 2, 2012 at 8:06 pm |
    • Will

      But if we took the painful steps to stamp out this ridiculous practice now, we would saves lives in the future. And saving lives is supposed to be what Christianity is all about. God's greatest gift is supposed to be life. Why permit these people to continue to brainwash younger generations?

      June 2, 2012 at 8:08 pm |
    • UncleBenny

      Yep. And they have every right to die for their idiotic beliefs, which will go a long way towards culling the human race's DNA of sheer idiocy.

      June 2, 2012 at 8:22 pm |
  14. QuiGon Bong

    Dumb a$$ religious people. Hahahahahaha!

    June 2, 2012 at 8:06 pm |
  15. Will

    And THAT is evolution my friends....

    June 2, 2012 at 8:05 pm |
  16. Ronald Hussein Reagan

    If someone wants to handle snakes they sholud be able to – just so long as I'm not forced to.

    June 2, 2012 at 8:05 pm |
    • sybaris

      and do you also think it's OK for them to brainwash their children into handling them?

      June 2, 2012 at 8:13 pm |
  17. Bob

    The only difference between snake handling and believing in Creationism or Noah's Ark is that it can be fatal.

    June 2, 2012 at 8:04 pm |
  18. oysters

    These things happen because this whole country is just full of people, who when these things happen, they just say "these things happen," and that's why they happen!

    June 2, 2012 at 8:03 pm |
    • Tyler Fitzgerald

      I'm going to make an old fashioned the old fashioned way, the way dear old dad used to make it!

      June 2, 2012 at 8:09 pm |
  19. Brandon

    I am Apostolic Pentecostal (UPCI) We DO NOT believe in Serpent handling. I will say this is a hard subject to dissect. They believe what they are doing is right, and I don't think that ANYBODY should have the right to say what can or can't be practiced in any denominational church service. I don't mean this disrespectfully, but suicide is not against the law, so why should this be? He died doing what he believed was right. I also don't like how a belief system of a just a few thousand people makes the non believers generalize us, and call us derogatory names. But if I am labeled with these names, so be it. I will praise God anyhow!

    June 2, 2012 at 8:03 pm |
    • John Deatherage

      suicide is (in most states) against the law. But I like your post.

      June 2, 2012 at 8:07 pm |
    • John Deatherage

      Yikes, I take it back, Its against the law in 6 states. Hold on while I take my foot out of my mouth.

      June 2, 2012 at 8:09 pm |
    • Tyler Fitzgerald

      Suicide requires intent. Death by stupidity is not suicide, just stupid.

      Done much speaking in tongues lately?

      June 2, 2012 at 8:10 pm |
    • irene

      I just don't want my tax dollars subsidizing your religion any more. There should be no more tax breaks for churches. The insane stuff done in the name of religion is lunacy and you guys are an impediment to science, medicine, social equality for women, and rational thinking. If you want to believe it – go ahead, but do it without my tax dollars.

      June 2, 2012 at 8:11 pm |
    • Budda belly

      And when you and your followers bring children into the mix and brainwash them into believing in fairy tales what then? This idiot deserved to die. No great loss. His children, many of them brain washed to believe the nonsense their parents have forced on them, should not have to live a life of fantasy with dire consequences. Religion kills. Religion is a cult. Now go home and brush your tooth.

      June 2, 2012 at 8:14 pm |
    • sybaris

      So Brandon, brainwashing children to handle poisonous snakes is OK?

      June 2, 2012 at 8:15 pm |
    • Brian G

      well said buddabelly

      June 2, 2012 at 8:25 pm |
  20. jmsbois


    June 2, 2012 at 8:02 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.