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. Goerge W. Bumble

    There's an old saying in Tennessee—I know it's in Texas, probably in Tennessee—that says, 'Fool me once, shame on, shame on you. Fool me - uh, uh- you can't get fooled again.

    June 2, 2012 at 3:22 pm |
  2. Realdirect

    Devil worshipers....

    June 2, 2012 at 3:21 pm |
    • Bohemer

      Yep, fundamentalist Christians..

      June 2, 2012 at 3:28 pm |
  3. Harry

    Ok fine they want to handle snakes... but does the Bible supposedly mandate they have the be poisonous? Dude should have had a python as those are harmless.

    June 2, 2012 at 3:21 pm |
    • Marky Merlot

      Unless it's a VERY BIG python, in which case, it will just strangle you. Either way, it's one less religious nitwit.

      June 2, 2012 at 3:23 pm |
  4. Marky Merlot

    I continue to wonder in amazement; are these morons born with a low I.Q., or does religion make them stupid?

    June 2, 2012 at 3:21 pm |
  5. captvideo

    Its called "natural selection", natures way of weeding out the dumb. Just ignore them and eventually the snakes will take its toll. Of course the White House blamed it all on Woodrow Wilson!................

    June 2, 2012 at 3:20 pm |
  6. mel

    I thought all of these religious cretins had left appalachia and were working in Texas for our Too Stupid To Breathe Governor and the Texas State Board of Education. These guys need to be more careful – there are lots of Republican Cretin positions to be filled in Texas and nationwide.

    June 2, 2012 at 3:20 pm |
  7. Sandon Mibut

    Random natural selection.

    The solution here isn't less snakes, it's more snakes.

    June 2, 2012 at 3:20 pm |
    • Marcus


      June 3, 2012 at 2:22 am |
  8. Trent

    Stupid people do stupid things. "Oh, hey, I'll just play with these poisonous snakes here. They won't hurt me because my imaginary deity and the voices in my head will protect me!"
    Ok. You do that.

    June 2, 2012 at 3:20 pm |
  9. Parker

    We should focus on the important side of the story. Clearly this man was not right with the Lord. Had his faith been pure he would have been saved from the snake's venomous bite. Instead of indicting religion and snake handling in general, we should be praying for his soul.

    June 2, 2012 at 3:20 pm |
    • Rod

      Been a christian for 28 years and have never heard of this.....just crazy

      June 2, 2012 at 3:21 pm |
    • mocomment

      Bible says don't pray for the dead, their fate is sealed, or don't you read the stupid book just thumb through the missalette?

      June 2, 2012 at 7:56 pm |
  10. hippypoet

    none of the churches prophets saw this coming?

    oh right, thats because god was on there side!

    we are all enti tiled to be stupid but these folks are abusing the privilege.

    June 2, 2012 at 3:19 pm |
  11. Robairdo

    What is the difference between a good evangelical and a bad evangelical?

    A. One Snake and about 8 hours.

    June 2, 2012 at 3:19 pm |
  12. r battiston

    Theres stupid, then there is really stupid......

    June 2, 2012 at 3:19 pm |
  13. george

    Just F'in crazy!

    June 2, 2012 at 3:19 pm |
  14. rr

    Vote Raymond V Davis III for WV House of Delegates district 5. http://davisforwvhouse.webs.com

    June 2, 2012 at 3:18 pm |
  15. coalesce99

    Well, look at it this way. That idiot may have died, but I do believe he may qualify for a Darwin award.

    June 2, 2012 at 3:18 pm |
  16. denroy

    Jerk who deserved to die – hopefully his death will stop other people being so stupid but I doubt it

    June 2, 2012 at 3:18 pm |
  17. ATLmatt

    Help control the zealot population, please have your devout spade or neutered... or give them a poisonous snake to hold.

    June 2, 2012 at 3:18 pm |
    • tim

      There is no zealot population......CNN seems to find every christian nut on the planet.....the people they find do not represent the church at large......they are a minority – who make everyone look bad. Maybe they are just in the United States

      June 2, 2012 at 3:26 pm |
  18. salt

    The CNN agenda will come into the light and be exposed. This is not journalism anymore. You find the craziest, crackpot christians you can make them headline news!!! Really! You think anyone cares at all about this story...??? I am going to write, 60 minutes, Newsweek, Time, New York Times, and anyone else possible to expose who is behind this agenda......There are millions of christians most of them ON YOUR HERO SHOW YOU DO EVERY YEAR.....who are sacrificing their lives for others – BUT because we have a gay situation right now – you will trash our faith...time to boycott CNN in every way

    June 2, 2012 at 3:18 pm |
    • Enoch

      Let me guess, you think you're one of the "good" christians.

      June 2, 2012 at 3:19 pm |
    • Robairdo

      Good Christians don't judge anyone, gay or otherwise.

      June 2, 2012 at 3:20 pm |
    • Rod

      Its been so interesting to watch....would love to know who is behind this....Anderson must be part of it

      June 2, 2012 at 3:22 pm |
    • Polyatheist

      Yo Jesus eater..... Go and pray, we are trying to have fun here.

      June 2, 2012 at 3:22 pm |
    • lolwut

      You're a typical braindead teatard. It's not CNN's fault that there are so many nutty Christians out there. Get a life.

      June 2, 2012 at 3:24 pm |
    • Jesus Christ

      Personally, I wish you would spend your time helping some poor folks more than writing letters because you think I've been slighted. Take my Word for it – I can handle it. The poor need your help more than I do.

      June 2, 2012 at 3:27 pm |
    • john

      now you know what being a muslim feels like 🙂

      June 2, 2012 at 3:32 pm |
  19. rod1148

    This is a sad story of people who misinterpret scripture taking such sayings literally. Sadder still, are the comments suggesting "...One snake is not enough. We need more deaths of stupid people!" and "...I wish there were more people like this getting bitten. Religion is more toxic than any snakebite."

    June 2, 2012 at 3:17 pm |
    • Rod

      So you actually want people to die....why would anyone listen to you -seriously. This guy is a nut....and he paid for it....but now we want others to die.....wow

      June 2, 2012 at 3:20 pm |
    • rod1148

      You misread my comment. I sad it's SAD that commentators would suggest that more people die. Certainly not MY wish that more people die.

      June 2, 2012 at 3:22 pm |
  20. Siggie

    Now, if they could handle Miami zombies or Canadian murderer-eating Bears, that would be something!

    June 2, 2012 at 3:17 pm |
    • Jesus Christ, Son of God

      I have started a new way for humans to prove their undying love for me. No more snake handling, no more speaking in tongues, no more faith healing. The new way is here!

      Hand grenade juggling. Three per Christian, pull the pins and juggle in Greater Glory of My Delightsome Jesusy Superness! Rapture guaranteed!

      Order now. Operators are standing by.

      June 2, 2012 at 3:22 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.