04 21 2015
  6:10 am  
     •     
40 Years of Service

(CNN) -- When Mack Wolford, one of the most famous Pentecostal serpent handlers in Appalachia, is laid to rest Saturday at his West Virginia church, a week after succumbing to a snake bite, his friends may very well show up with boxes of copperheads, rattlesnakes and cottonmouths.

That's the Holiness Pentecostal way in tiny mountain towns like Matoaka, home to Wolford's House of the Lord Jesus church. When one believer dies from a venomous bite, others often insist that it's still God's will that Christians obey a phrase in Scripture they say mandates the handling of serpents.

Wolford's own dad was a serpent handler who died from a snake bite in 1983.

Mack Wolford, who was 44, made headlines this week after he 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.

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."

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.

Pacific NW Carpenters Union

Commenting Guidelines

  • Keep it clean: Please avoid obscene, vulgar, lewd, racist or sexually oriented language
  • No personal attacks: We reserve the right to remove offensive comments
  • Be truthful: Don't knowingly lie about anyone or anything
  • Be nice: No racism, sexism or any sort of -ism that is degrading to another person
  • Help us: If you see an abusive post, let us know at info@theskanner.com
  • Keep to topic: We will remove irrelevant posts and spam
  • Share with us: We'd love to hear eyewitness accounts; the history behind an article

Recently Published by The Skanner News

  • Default
  • Title
  • Date
  • Random
  • When should we use military to enforce US goals? NASHUA, N.H. (AP) — Rand Paul lashed out Saturday at military hawks in the Republican Party in a clash over foreign policy dividing the packed GOP presidential field. Paul, a first-term senator from Kentucky who favors a smaller U.S. footprint in the world, said that some of his Republican colleagues would do more harm in international affairs than would leading Democrat Hillary Rodham Clinton. "The other Republicans will criticize the president and Hillary Clinton for their foreign policy, but they would just have done the same thing — just 10 times over," Paul said on the closing day of a New Hampshire GOP conference that brought about 20 presidential prospects to the first-in-the-nation primary state. "There's a group of folks in our party who would have troops in six countries right now, maybe more," Paul said. Foreign policy looms large in the presidential race as the U.S. struggles to resolve diplomatic and military conflicts across the globe. The GOP presidential class regularly rails against President Barack Obama's leadership on the world stage, yet some would-be contenders have yet to articulate their own positions, while others offered sharply different visions. Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, whose brother, President George W. Bush, authorized the 2003 invasion of Iraq, declined to say whether he would have done anything different then. Yet Jeb Bush acknowledged a shift in his party against new military action abroad. "Our enemies need to fear us, a little bit, just enough for them to deter the actions that create insecurity," Bush said earlier in the conference. He said restoring alliances "that will create less likelihood of America's boots on the ground has to be the priority, the first priority of the next president." The GOP's hawks were well represented at the event, led by Florida Sen. Marco Rubio and Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, who has limited foreign policy experience but articulated a muscular vision during his Saturday keynote address. Walker said the threats posed by radical Islamic terrorism won't be handled simply with "a couple bombings." "We're not going to wait till they bring the fight to us," Walker said. "We're going to bring the fight to them and fight on their soil." South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham addressed the question of putting U.S. troops directly in the battle against the Islamic State group militants by saying there is only one way to defeat the militants: "You go over there and you fight them so they don't come here." Texas Sen. Ted Cruz suggested an aggressive approach as well. "The way to defeat ISIS is a simple and clear military objective," he said. "We will destroy them." Businesswoman Carly Fiorina offered a similar outlook. "The world is a more dangerous and more tragic place when America is not leading. And America has not led for quite some time," she said. Under Obama, a U.S.-led coalition of Western and Arab countries is conducting regular airstrikes against Islamic State targets in Iraq and Syria. The U.S. also has hundreds of military advisers in Iraq helping Iraqi security forces plan operations against the Islamic State, which occupies large chunks of northern and western Iraq. Paul didn't totally reject the use of military force, noting that he recently introduced a declaration of war against the Islamic State group. But in an interview with The Associated Press, he emphasized the importance of diplomacy. He singled out Russia and China, which have complicated relationships with the U.S., as countries that could contribute to U.S. foreign policy interests. "I think the Russians and the Chinese have great potential to help make the world a better place," he said. "I don't say that naively that they're going to, but they have the potential to." Paul suggested the Russians could help by getting Syrian President Bashar Assad to leave power. "Maybe he goes to Russia," Paul said. Despite tensions with the U.S., Russia and China negotiated alongside Washington in nuclear talks with Iran. Paul has said he is keeping an open mind about the nuclear negotiations. "The people who already are very skeptical, very doubtful, may not like the president for partisan reasons," he said, and "just may want war instead of negotiations."
    Read More
  • Some lawmakers, sensing a tipping point, are backing the parents and teachers who complain about 'high stakes' tests   
    Read More
  • Watch Rachel Maddow interview VA Secretary Robert McDonald  
    Read More
  • Some two thousand people pack halls to hear Trayvon Martin's mom speak   
    Read More
load morehold SHIFT key to load allload all
Carpentry Professionals

PHOTO GALLERY

Calendar

About Us

Breaking News

The Skanner TV

Turn the pages

Portland Opera Showboat 2
The Skanner Photo Archives