The recent death in late May of a West Virginia serpent-handling preacher has once again propelled the faith back into the media's sights. Mack Wolford, who had turned 44 the previous day, was known to be a man of the strongest conviction. Wolford posted feverishly on Facebook leading up to what would be his final service at the Panther Wildlife Management Area. "Praise the Lord and pass the rattlesnakes, brother,” he wrote on May 23.
|Wolford pictured with Sheba, the rattlesnake that fatally bit him|
Wolford's father had also been a Pentecostal preacher, and died as the result of a snakebite during worship in 1983. After coming back to the faith around 10 years ago, Wolford worked hard to keep the practice of handling serpents alive. Historically those who participate in such practices have shunned media attention, but Wolford embraced them, seeing them as a means to further his mission and took them along on snake hunting expeditions. One can't help but subconsciously draw up the image of True Blood's Rev. Steve Newlin.
Why would anyone want to handle snakes during church? Or consume strychnine as Wolford was said to have done during his final sermon as well. Those members of the Church of God or Church of Jesus Christ With Signs Following base their faith on a literal interpretation of 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 their hands on the sick, and they will recover."
When the Holy Ghost so moves them to do so, church members will take up the serpents, dance with them, swing them around, and throw them around their neck. They would also drink a mixture of strychnine and water, and ignite kerosene and hold it to their skin. They believe that by trusting in God, he will take care of them. Not that participants don't expect to get bitten. There have been over 100 deaths among believers since the faiths inception. When someone is inevitably bitten, their faith directs them to not seek medical attention, only to trust in God to heal them.
Wolford had been bitten by poisonous snakes during services at least 3 times previously. They believe there are 2 reasons someone could be bitten. If they have sinned, they could be bitten for doing so. Otherwise bites are believed to mean God used them as a messenger to confirm the faith and word are true. So where did all this serpent and fire handling come from?
While there is some debate, it is commonly accepted that the Reverand John Went Hensley was troubled by the passage from the book of Mark. In the early 1900s he went up onto a mountain to pray. While doing so he felt God move on him, and then saw a rattlesnake. He took it up and later attended a service where he related his experience and pulled out a snake for all to see. Word of this performance traveled quickly, and Hensley soon attracted a large following.
Fatal snakebites seem to be an especially common among such preachers. Hensley himself died after procuring a 5 ft. snake, worshiping with it, and being fatally bitten while returning it to it's container. Such deaths are accepted among believers as God's will, and Him calling them on home.
While outsiders and the media are quick to jump on deaths such as Wolford's, the congregations have to battle the legal system as well. While there are no laws in place in West Virginia pertaining to such activities, laws are in place in Kentucky, Tennessee, and Alabama that ban the practice of handling poisonous snakes during such services. The snake handling Pentecostals have pretty much remained within the confines of the Appalachains, while there are some congregations in Ohio and down into Georgia.
For the past year Wolford had allowed photojournalist Lauren Pond to document the church's activities for a documentary. Pond was present that Sunday at the service, and had her camera with her. While she didn't see the bite, there are photographs making their rounds on the internet of Wolford being taken from the site, at first being helped along, then finally carried to a vehicle. Pond followed as he was taken to Bluefield to a relative's home. Family and church members watched as the preacher lay on the couch, his situation progressively worsening. Around 8 that night he finally relented and allowed paramedics to be called, but was pronounced dead on arrival at the hospital.
About half an hour into the day's services Wolford had taken Sheba, one of eight snakes he kept in a spare bedroom in his home, out and passed it around. He placed it on the ground, sat down next to it, and it bit him on the thigh. He continued to handle the rattlesnake after the bite, while his condition began to deteriorate. His mother remained with him throughout the day, stroking his feet as the venom wreaked havoc on his body and accepted her son's impending death.
|Pond's photo of Wolford's mother with him shortly before his death|
Here's an older short piece showing some actual serpent-handling: