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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. Harvey Wallbanger

    Never understood this. My understanding the last part of Mark that is used to justify snake handling and drinking poison was not part of the original text. It may have been added as late as the 3rd century; no way Jesus has anything to do with this.

    Also, does not the Bible somewhere say something to the effect "Thou shalt not test thy Lord thy God"?

    June 2, 2012 at 3:27 pm |
    • The Bottom Line

      The Bible also says "Judge not, lest thou be judged", but Christians ignore that one too. And "Sell all your goods and give the proceeds to the poor."

      Do unto others? Yeah, vote the rights of others away as you would have others vote your rights away.

      June 2, 2012 at 3:37 pm |
  2. BK

    I'd say let them do it and meet their fate like the idiots that they are, except that I feel sorry for the poor snakes being tormented.

    June 2, 2012 at 3:26 pm |
  3. Ken E

    Totaly one-hundred percent insane ... what rock did this guy crawl under from???

    June 2, 2012 at 3:26 pm |
    • Harvey Wallbanger

      The same rock they are about to bury him under

      June 2, 2012 at 3:29 pm |
  4. tuesday

    Belief is countng on miracle as a means to consolidate the belief but no count here.

    June 2, 2012 at 3:25 pm |
  5. Simple truth

    God hates Pentecostals. Cause he keeps killing the preachers.

    June 2, 2012 at 3:25 pm |
  6. across12

    What an idi0t. The snake have won again.

    June 2, 2012 at 3:25 pm |
  7. Gotta love it

    God is just an imaginary friend for adults. Snakes obviously aren't.

    June 2, 2012 at 3:25 pm |
  8. Rich

    one less vote for the right...typical smarts

    June 2, 2012 at 3:25 pm |
    • Bootyfunk

      lol. so true. you know this guy had to be a conservative.

      go obama! woohoo!!!

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

      So many bible thumps, so few Snakes.

      June 2, 2012 at 3:30 pm |
  9. ELH

    Fine tradition. Better them than me, however. It is astonishing how much damage skewed religious beliefs can wreak upon the uneducated or mentally challenged. Seems as if their beliefs lead to bad outcomes unless dying in agony is a preferred outcome. I wonder if the Tea Party approves?

    June 2, 2012 at 3:24 pm |
  10. cableguy

    Life is tough.... life is tougher if you're stupid. John Wayne.

    June 2, 2012 at 3:24 pm |
  11. killallthewhiteman

    This will make believers and non believers laugh.

    June 2, 2012 at 3:24 pm |
  12. PastorJames

    They should focus on more current dangers like the promotion of the gay lifestyle and gay marriage. I remind my congregation every week that we should never stop fighting h o m o s e x u a l i t y because the day we stop fighting is the day Satan wins.

    June 2, 2012 at 3:23 pm |
    • Bootyfunk

      you're just as ignorant as the snake dancers - or worse. they don't make people dance with snakes, but choose to do it themselves. but you are promoting prejudice and prejudicial treatment of others. you're worse.

      there was a great study on how people that are vicious h.omophobic, like you, are often closted g.ays raging with self-loathing, almost always religious.

      June 2, 2012 at 3:26 pm |
    • annie

      I think you should spend more time on the 10 commandments and that they are superior to everything else–you know, like the one that says to love your neighbor? And, another major demand in the bible is that you shouldn't judge, lest you be judged. How do these square with what you are preaching? And, what about the little bit about god being a mystery and you can't know god? How is it that you feel you can judge for him?

      June 2, 2012 at 3:28 pm |
    • Simple truth

      Pastor James, it's spelled "Sanity", as in "Sanity wins". You were so close...

      June 2, 2012 at 3:29 pm |
    • Jerod

      and you're a fool too, just like this guy. Devote your energy to something which actually matters to world, like helping people. Instead, you are spreading hate and judgement to people who are probably more beneficial to this world than yourself.

      June 2, 2012 at 3:30 pm |
  13. annie

    These types of beliefs make God look like a fool.

    June 2, 2012 at 3:23 pm |
    • Polyatheist

      Yes but which god? There are so many to choose from..... I like Loki, he was nuts.

      June 2, 2012 at 3:25 pm |
    • annie

      Ha ha, I'll narrow it to the christian god and let other religions make their own god look like a fool. Every religion that is intolerant makes their god look silly. I'll have to look up Loki.....

      June 2, 2012 at 3:30 pm |
  14. The 666

    Whats the problem. It seems like the real snake was actually killed. The world is a better place already with one less Ho worshipper.

    June 2, 2012 at 3:22 pm |
  15. drinky

    natural selection at its finest

    June 2, 2012 at 3:22 pm |
  16. raffa

    These kind of idiots dont even deserve CNN space, which is becoming less interesting than The National Enquirer.

    June 2, 2012 at 3:22 pm |
  17. Bootyfunk

    these guys are up there with the christians science zealots.

    June 2, 2012 at 3:22 pm |
  18. Allah

    exactly what chapter & verse is that snake handling gospel??

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

      mark 16:17-18

      June 2, 2012 at 3:23 pm |
    • Bootyfunk

      Mark 16:17-18
      17 "And these q signs will follow those who 1 believe: r In My name they will cast out demons; s they will speak with new tongues; 18 t "they 2 will take up serpents; and if they drink anything deadly, it will by no means hurt them; u they will lay hands on the sick, and they will recover."

      June 2, 2012 at 3:24 pm |
    • fighting back

      Mark 16:17 – 18
      "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 hands on the sick, and they will recover."

      Someone was really high when he wrote this one 😉

      June 2, 2012 at 3:29 pm |
  19. fighting back

    Republican candidate for presidency should be required to handle snakes to prove their faith in Jesus. What good a snake is if it can't handle other snakes 🙂

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

      Good one! The candidates did really push their faiths....

      June 2, 2012 at 3:26 pm |
  20. oberon123456

    I'm glad that this jerk was punished for abusing this poor animal. He got what he deserved.

    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.