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. Rob

    I have NO problem with religious extremists playing with poisonous snakes. Can we incept this into radical islam too? CIA??

    June 2, 2012 at 3:29 pm |
  2. Chris

    Various Pentecostals take this from what is a later addition to Mark chapter 16. Instead of focusing on handling snakes, they should focus on taking care of your neighbor and the various Christian gifts which help people.

    June 2, 2012 at 3:29 pm |
  3. Erik

    Wofford said, “Remember, back in the Bible, it was the miracles that drew people to Christ.”

    But there was no miracle here, just a village idiot.

    June 2, 2012 at 3:28 pm |
  4. Goerge W. Bumble

    Strike two. Now his grandson HAS the reins. If He can't prove it, then, then they should go with the mothers. Someone is bound to win. It's all in the odds baby, just a matter of odds.

    June 2, 2012 at 3:28 pm |
  5. Rich

    most pastors should spend mere time in school and less in church then they wouldn't have to use religion to beg money every week through lies...

    June 2, 2012 at 3:28 pm |
    • Chris

      Hey, just keep paying your taxes so the government doesn't have to beg you for money.

      June 2, 2012 at 3:30 pm |
  6. Bayousara

    Maybe it has to do with mental capacity. It might be that this is some kind of population control of people with empty space in their skulls. Hopefully they don't breed and create more empty-headed idiots. All in Jesus' name, of course.

    June 2, 2012 at 3:28 pm |
  7. Paul

    Good. One less moron in the gene pool.

    June 2, 2012 at 3:28 pm |
    • Eric

      You mean one less Republican

      June 2, 2012 at 3:57 pm |
  8. Nicolas

    I can remember going on occasion as a child to the Pentecostal church to watch Christmas programs and other productions my cousins were in. We were not Pentecostal but my mother's family was so it happened from time to time I would end up there. It was absolutely terrifying. What might start out as a sweet children's program about baby Jesus in the manger would undoubtedly evolve into women running crazed down the aisles screaming like wild Indians whilst everyone convulsed to the music and the words of the preacher. It was horrible. I was so scared to see adults completely out of control and on one occasion ran out of the church sobbing from all of the hysteria that was taking place inside. They have cult like behavior which includes controlling women and encouraging the congregation to remain separate from the rest of society in their social circles as outside influences are considered evil. I can only be thankful that the younger generation in my family found their faith through other avenues and rejected the rigid culture that exists in this church.

    June 2, 2012 at 3:28 pm |
    • ax

      Whoooaa.....that sure does NOT describe the Pentecostals where we are from...? Must be a southern thing....

      June 2, 2012 at 3:36 pm |
    • Nicolas

      It is a southern thing...Texas to be exact.

      June 2, 2012 at 3:40 pm |
  9. Eric

    Very cool. I hope all fringe/fanatical religious freaks take up snake handling and poison drinking. Go for it and become one with your god.

    June 2, 2012 at 3:28 pm |
  10. Ronald Raygun


    June 2, 2012 at 3:28 pm |
  11. ben

    They are ignorant. Jesus said to go out and teach the world about Him and baptizing people in His name. Jesus also said to love God with all our hearts and love our brother like ourselves. Nowhere is "play with snakes" in there.

    June 2, 2012 at 3:28 pm |
  12. smarterThanThat

    Stupidity is not technically a tradition.

    June 2, 2012 at 3:28 pm |
  13. Bob

    He must not have been a true follower of Christ. I think the Pope should take up this practice to prove God is on HIS side 🙂

    June 2, 2012 at 3:28 pm |
  14. me

    Bravo Universe.
    This is Natural Selection for certain.
    Its just moving far too slowly.

    June 2, 2012 at 3:27 pm |
  15. kglad

    yes, but did the snake survive?

    June 2, 2012 at 3:27 pm |
  16. joe sarr

    west Virginia,

    June 2, 2012 at 3:27 pm |
  17. C, K, Justice


    The Bible says do not tempt God!!

    June 2, 2012 at 3:27 pm |
  18. Dorothy

    These are the same folks that say ho mo se x uality is sinful. I guess God showed him!

    June 2, 2012 at 3:27 pm |
  19. CommonSense

    Thanks to BeliefNet for printing these stories and letting us comment.

    Here is another example of so-called religious adults and their childish beliefs in nonsense mysticism. The snake handler is a con-man, which should be fairly obvious to anyone past the age of 10.
    If he dies from a Snake bite, it's God's Will. If he is not bitten, it's God's will. No matter what happens, God wins again!
    This is almost beyond childish. Oh, and God is invisible so we can't ever confront him, or it, or whatever.

    The religious deserve never ending ridicule.

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


      June 2, 2012 at 3:29 pm |
  20. Kelly

    Front runner for this years Darwin Award.

    June 2, 2012 at 3:27 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.