Another snake handler goes home to Jesus

May 30, 2012 • 10:04 am

This lunacy is still going on in America! According to yesterday’s Washington Post, yet another snake-handler has bit the dust—or rather gone back to dust via a bite:

Mack Wolford, a flamboyant Pentecostal pastor from West Virginia whose serpent-handling talents were profiled last November in The Washington Post Magazine, hoped the outdoor service he had planned for Sunday at an isolated state park would be a “homecoming like the old days,” full of folks speaking in tongues, handling snakes and having a “great time.” But it was not the sort of homecoming he foresaw.

Instead, Wolford, who turned 44 the previous day, was bitten by a rattlesnake he owned for years. He died late Sunday.

Here’s a photo from the accompanying slideshow of snake handlers and Pentecostal worship:

Pastor Randy “Mack” Wolford handles a rattlesnake during a service at the Church of the Lord Jesus in Jolo, W.Va. Each Labor Day weekend, the church has hosted a well-documented “homecoming” for snake handlers who believe that the Bible mandates that true Christians “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.” Wolford says: “Anybody can do it that believes it.”

This behavior is clearly not genetic, for if it were it would have been selected out of the population by now.

The Post reports:

“I am looking for a great time this Sunday,” he wrote May 22. “It is going to be a homecoming like the old days. Good ’ole raised in the holler or mountain ridge running, Holy Ghost-filled speaking-in-tongues sign believers.”

“Praise the Lord and pass the rattlesnakes, brother” he wrote on May 23. He also invited his extended family, who had largely given up the practice of serpent handling, to come to the park.

. . .“He laid it on the ground,” she said, “and he sat down next to the snake, and it bit him on the thigh.”

The story ends dryly:

“I promised the Lord I’d do everything in my power to keep the faith going,” he said in October. “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 involved.”

His funeral will be held Saturday at his church, House of the Lord Jesus, in Matoaka, just north of Bluefield.

Religion poisons everything.

h/t: Eli

110 thoughts on “Another snake handler goes home to Jesus

    1. Looks like it. I didn’t see the obligatory “he is survived by…” in the story.

      Maybe his brethren will pay attention to those cautionary tails.

    2. And probably not what he intended, proving evolution and disproving snake oil religions in one bite.

  1. Since reproduction by definition occurs before death, couldn’t that still pass on a “suicidal” gene? Or in the case of artificial insemination?

        1. A multi-generational award 😉
          On the other hand, are those who already procreated still eligible?

        2. Strictly, the award is for removing your collection of alleles from everyone else’s gene pool. So successful reproduction should be a bar to receiving a Darwin. But most people don’t even read the definitions, let alone accept them or adhere to them.

    1. Yeah, it could. In fact, I think some of our age-related troubles are caused by genes that aren’t selected against due to the fact that we’ve already reproduced and raised our children, and living (let alone contributing substantially to one’s inclusive fitness) beyond age 60 was probably very rare in our history anyway.

      In fact, I think a suicide gene might even be favored in some cases, if it reduced competition for resources with offspring. (I think the more common solution to that problem has been migration of juveniles, though.)

      ‘course I’m just making stuff up, so… 🙂

      1. Well yeah. We were ‘designed’ with a reliable working life of maybe 30 years – till the kids leave home, say. After that, evolution couldn’t care less what happens to ya. So you’re just running on the safety margins, like a very old airplane.

    1. He probably saw The God Delusion in a bookstore and his faith, weakened by a splinter of injected doubt, was no longer strong enough to overcome the snakebite.

      The lesson is clear. Don’t let anything into your mind that might raise a sliver of doubt.

      1. Don’t let anything into your mind that might raise a sliver of doubt.

        …or the ire of a rattlesnake.

    2. Exactly, I would think that his fellow christians will have special prayer for him , since “our brother had strayed from the true path, so God took his life in sin, haleluyah!”.

      Even morons have justifications.

  2. Here’s a great bit from the slideshow. It says, “The Pentecostal church was founded in 1956 by Bob and Barbara Elkins. One woman remembers the church being so full people would stand outside. But then one of Barbara Elkins’s children died of a snakebite in 1961 at age 23. These days, Pastor Harvey Payne says, the congregation has 10 members.”

    It seems as though snake bites have always happened. What amazes me is there are still “10 members”. Nature is taking her time in culling the herd.

    1. Oh, and there’s this, “About 80 to 100 deaths have been attributed to snake handling since its origins, and nearly every snake handler has been bitten, says the Rev. Bill Leonard, the religion professor from Wake Forest University. There’s a lot of pain when you’re bitten, says Wolford, whose father died at age 39 of a rattlesnake bite. “For the first couple of weeks, you swell up and break out in hives.”

      What more do they need. It’s also banned in most states except, of course, in West Virginia.

      1. “It’s also banned in most states except, of course, in West Virginia.”

        Do such bans offend the delicate religious freedom sensibilities of the RCC hierarchy?

  3. Talking about his fathers death, he said, “I hated to see him go, but he died for what he believed in.”

    Boy, did he miss the irony.

  4. What gets me is that the rank-and-file believers aren’t even reading their Bibles — the relevant passage in Mark only says “they will pick up serpents”, not that the serpents won’t kill them. Anyway, it’s no secret that the snake-handling, speaking-in-tongues bit (one short paragraph) was added centuries after Mark was first written (I have two translations right here, and they both come right out and say it).

    Even a preacher with a mail-order diploma should know that!

    1. Yes but this one is not as easily explained away:

      “Behold, I give unto you power to tread on serpents and scorpions, and over all the power of the enemy: and nothing shall by any means hurt you.” (Luke 10:19)

      1. and nothing shall by any means hurt you.” (Luke 10:19)

        “Thermonuclear coffee-stirrer, Mr Bond, James Bond.Oh, I see you’ve got your Magic Mormon Skegs on, so I’ll make that one thermonuclear device for you and one for your ego. And a bullet between the eyes for good measure.

    2. The problem is the two versions you have apparently aren’t the old King James Version. All of these backwaters Oneness Pentecostal Snake Handler Churches only view the King James Version of the bible as authoritative and the rest are man made. The KJV has no such headings, its funny to read their propaganda where they point to verses which are removed from the KJV in modern version as proof that modern versions are corrupted.

    3. “they will pick up serpents”

      Doesn’t say anything about rattlesnakes: perhaps the milk snake was intended. Maybe their literalism needs some tuning.

        1. “Red touches black, OK Jack.
          Red touches yellow, you’re a dead fellow.”

          Only works in snakehandler country (eastern U.S.). Tropical snakes are better mimics, apparently.

          1. I know it, but I figure that sooner or later, some snake handling Pentecostal is just going to say “they all look the same to me.”

  5. There is a straightforward explanation that, I am afraid, will escape the very numerous impious readers visiting this site. The guy died because of his lack of after bite faith. He was presumptuous in believing in the robustness of his faith in faith healing. This is a dreadful and non pardonable sin. Sadly the result is for all to see.

    1. You might be on to something, but I had another thought.

      In response to the bite, they “posted desperate messages on Facebook, asking for prayer”. You know old fogeys aren’t into the new technologies and who’s an older fogie than Yahweh? God probably just never saw the update or the tweets ‘cuz he’s still using snail mail (perhaps even with literal snails, like in ancient times).

          1. He’s off the twig, kicked the bucket, shuffled off his mortal coil, run down the curtain and joined the bleedin’ choir invisible!

            This is an EX-PASTOR!!!

            1. Never noticed this before:


              50% positional identity! Quite compatible with common ancestry.

          2. Wrong punctuation.

            What? A senseless waste of human life!

            (There’s a silent “Oh how delightful!” at the end, accompanied by a caddish rubbing together of the hands. q.v. almost any movie with Terry Thomas in it.)

  6. “He believed that [..] if they are bitten, they trust in God alone to heal them”

    Didn’t he know that God doesn’t work on a Sunday?

  7. There’s a bit of a species-centric view here. Perhaps the snakes are learning how to farm humans – with some setbacks?

  8. “This behavior is clearly not genetic, for if it were it would have been selected out of the population by now.”

    Not necessarily! He probably has reproduced before he died!

    1. But he won’t be doing it any more, so his contribution to the future gene puddle may well have been reduced.

  9. This demonstrates a level of stupidity that I simply just can’t relate to. Which I guess is a good thing.

    Let’s hope his kids learn the lesson from their dad that he clearly didn’t.

  10. Ironically, in this picture he is handling a boa constrictor. Do you think his followers were astute enough to know that? Maybe that is why he died from the rattle snake, it didn’t get handled as much as everyone thought.

    What ignorance.

    1. It’s a yellow-phase Timber Rattler (Crotalus horridus) which is native to the Appalachians (they also come in black/gray and brown/tan color variations). If you don’t believe me, click on the photo and view the larger version, and you can see the rattle.

  11. Haven’t checked, but have the moderate religious crowd complained yet that atheists are merely singling out the yokels as targets for criticism of religion, and are again ignoring the sensible, sophisticated, TRUE expressions of Christianity?

    Just for when/if they do, I am wondering what exactly are the Christian objections to this snake-handling??? Is it:

    – God is incapable of protecting his believers from venomous serpants.

    – God does not want his loyal servants to mess with snakes.

    – Faith can never be “tested” in such a way. If a believer mistakenly thinks so, perhaps because of biblical verse, and acts on it, God will let you die a painful death.

    What is it? What are they doing wrong from a Christian perspective?

    1. See my comment on #23. I don’t know what everyone teaches about this, but I think most Protestant sects hold that these “gifts” don’t happen any more, using things like 1 Corinthians 13 or some such to justify this opinion.

  12. When I was four years old, I stepped on a big rattlesnake in the grass and was bitten. At that time, the death rate for rattle snake bitten four year olds was four out of five. I came pretty close but survived. I wouldn’t bare hand a rattler or any other poisonous snake, but am OK with a grabber.

    1. You must be a believer then. You have one sign that follows believers as mentioned in Mark 16:17-18.

  13. “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.”

    Another thought – the verse also refers to ingestion of deadly substances. So are there “poison drinkers” among these people? Forget the snake-handling; would they drink a lethal (to non-believers) dose of rat poison?

    Methinks that even the “faithful” don’t really buy into this 100%

    1. While obviously there are groups who think these things still happen, I think it is fairly common for believers to concoct a Biblical rationalization for why signs like these simply don’t happen at all any more, that things like this really happened during the formative years of the church, when the original apostles were running around and all, but no longer.

      The sect of my own youth tried to extract this out of 1 Corinthians 13:

      “Love never fails. But where there are prophecies, they will cease; where there are tongues, they will be stilled; where there is knowledge, it will pass away. 9For we know in part and we prophesy in part, 10but when perfection comes, the imperfect disappears. ”

      The idea we were taught was that during the early church, before the New Testament was written down, they needed these signs, other languages, and special knowledge to fill in the gaps, but once the New Testament was finished (completed ~ perfect), the need for these things went away. So the sect I grew up in firmly believed these things happened, literally, back in the Apostles times, but they equally firmly believed that these things don’t happen now and that anyone claiming that they do is a contemporary false prophet.

      We used to mock people like this, just as people do here, along with faith healers and the lot. Only, we mocked them for interpreting the Bible falsely. Don’t they know these gifts have passed away? How naive!

  14. The facts are: Most people bitten by rattle snakes and copperheads do not die from the bites, even if they are not treated, although it is painful and can be disfiguring. Lethality depends upon the amount of poison injected and the size and health of the person bitten. First aid treatment has been altered from the past. One should immediately put on a tourniquet, but this in itself can cause the loss of a limb unless it is released periodically. Get to a hospital fast but do not run or get overly excited, which will spread the poison faster. Finally, do not mutilate the bite site by cutting little crosses over each fang puncture. A cross originally caused the bite so the bitten one certainly does not need more crosses.

      1. It’s one of the things that makes a difference between a survivor and a non-survivor.
        The same advice applies when you notice that one of your breathing apparatus sets is leaking air from a joint, just after you’ve changed to using it because the other air system has stopped drawing. Oh, and you’ve still got 250m of twisty little flooded passage to negotiate to your nearest air surface.
        Do not get overly excited. Leave the panic at the entrance to the cave system, chill out, do the things you need to do (inhale, turn off leaking air system, fin steadily for the exit (CHECK your direction!), slowly exhaling, turn on leaking air system, inhale ; lather rinse repeat), and when you get out of it, lay on the ground gibbering and wondering how you’re going to wash the excrement out of your drysuit.
        It’s surprisingly easy to think like that when you know that the alternative is that you’re going to die. “Stercus, Stercus moriturius sum!” is a useful motto (“Oh excrement, Oh excrement! This time I’m really going to die!” in Dog-English).

    1. The other thing that impacts the lethality of most rattlesnake and copperhead bites is the bite location. Being bitten on a finger or toe is less commonly lethal than being bitten on the upper arm or torso, because the site of envenomation is further from the vital organs, so they’re less likely to be as seriously damaged. Copperheads in particular have very weak venom and are allegedly more prone to dry bites (bites where the animal doesn’t inject venom) than other pit vipers*.

      *Not that I’d trust that if I was bitten.


    [Sorry, I know it’s got to be wrong to enjoy moments like these when “faith” fails so miserably]

  16. I just disagree with your logic about it not being genetic. As I’ve learned from Dawkins, natural selection is random mutations with nonrandom selection. So the fact that a trait is genetically determined and not successful is by no means a contradiction — it’s part of the process.

  17. The truth is even if you pick up a random poisonous snake, there’s a good chance you won’t be bitten – but only a fool would do it if they weren’t taught how to handle the creatures. Even trained snake handlers get bitten now and then.

    Snake sez: I call bullshit!

    1. There’s a good chance he actually believed he didn’t need to go to a hospital for treatment because he was good and god wouldn’t let him down – the bible sez so. He should ha’ listened to Gershwin instead: “Those things that you’re liable to read in the bible – they ain’t necessarily so!”

  18. Um, being a pedant, should it not be “religion envenoms everything” in this case as snakes, technically, aren’t poisonous..?

    Not in the field, just an avid watcher of QI!

  19. Out of the three things that the bible says that you can do as a good Christian, why wouldn’t they skip the snake handling and the poison drinking for a few moments and try and heal someone first? When that works then I think it’s time to move on to the silliness.
    However the more dead stupid people the better.

  20. I think I have read that devotes of some form of martial arts periodically drink poison, with the thought that surviving both makes them stronger and demonstrates their purity of soul or some such.

    1. Rumors of such behaviors abound with regards to various groups, but actual proof is sketchier.

    2. Plus, of course, the knowledge that the poison they’ve just drunk is inactivated by pH levels less than (say) 5.
      If I needed to present such an event, I’d start by doing my research (of course) than find a snake (spider, scorpion, shellfish) venom which is delivered by direct injection into the bloodstream (/ haemolymph ?), AND which is highly acid-sensitive. I’d probably also glug a mouthful of vinegar before starting the presentation (or even during it) to coat the mouth and oesophagus.
      But that’s cheating – using intelligence and research to perform something pointless and seemingly dangerous without actually putting oneself in harms way.

  21. Embarrassing to be receiving national publicity due to this man’s beliefs. Guess I am doomed to hell because I do not feel I must test my faith and die in God’s name. I only hope the nation realizes that this episode is certainly an exception to our traditonal worship. While indeed, our heritage is deeply rooted in God, this IS NOT the way we worship. I feel bad for this man to die at such a young age of ignorance that was passed to him by his father. SAD SAD SAD story…….

  22. So the Bible says they can handle snakes and drink poison. So, apparently their dumb enough to handle snakes but not dumb enough to drink fatal poison?

  23. I would say I feel sorry for the guy, but when you handle poisonous snakes with your hands and expect God to clear it all up… Well yeah, that’s just dumb.

  24. Acoording to the dusty ols bible, smakes can talk, have a bit of a chat. The dead preacher should have known that by explaining to the snake why it sould not bite him, all would have been OK.
    Maybe snakes can’t talk! Wouldn’t that be a surprise.

  25. “take up serpents and if they drink anything deadly, it will by no means hurt them”

    My suggestion for a suitably deadly drink would be chilled chlorine trifluoride. The results might be quite spectacular.

    1. I was going to add, “Does anyone have a better suggestion for a suitably entertaining poison?”

      (Danged WP with no sandbox and no Edit function….) 🙂

  26. This behavior is clearly not genetic, for if it were it would have been selected out of the population by now.

    I wonder is this guy managed to spawn prior to this? No Darwin award for him!

    Religion poisons everything.

    And occasionally, so do snakes! 😉

    I see I was beaten to the idea.

  27. West Virginia Pentecostal preacher Mark Randall “Mack” Wolford died from a snake bite he received handling snakes in church. Image from Eternal Life Blog.

    The Gospel truth:
    Fatal misunderstanding of the Bible

    ‘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…’
    By Lamar W. Hankins / The Rag Blog / June 10, 2012

    Among the Abrahamic religions — Judaism, Islam, and Christianity — the tiny group of Christians known as Pentecostal serpent handlers are among the most unusual of Christian sub-groups. They have focused their religious belief and practice on a few verses at the end of the book of Mark — verses that do not appear in the two oldest versions of writings that became the Gospel of Mark.

    Few ministers or pastors tell their congregations this truth about Mark and about much of the Bible. What they mainly do is read it and interpret it, and many teach that every word in the Bible was created by a supernatural God and given to some human being to write down.

    Such teachings were my experience growing up. No minister ever told me that over 5,000 (now, nearly 6,000) known manuscripts make up the text of what we call the Bible. Maybe if congregants knew such facts, they would not take so seriously everything found in the Bible. I suspect, though I do not know, that many ministers may not themselves know about these textual variations.

    Even when I took New Testament Greek in college, I was not told that the Greek version of the New Testament that we studied lacked clear authenticity.

    The case in point this week is the death of the West Virginia Pentecostal preacher, Mark Randall “Mack” Wolford, age 44, who died from a snake bite he received handling snakes in church. Wolford was a devout believer in the passage in 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.
    Mack Wolford’s father had died from a snake bite in a similar fashion when Mack was 15. His family’s faith in this passage of Mark prevented them from seeking medical attention. Such believers often attribute deaths from snake bites to two causes: either the victims lacked sufficient faith or it was God’s will that they die.

    None of them consider that they may have been reading and believing in an inauthentic version of the Gospel of Mark. As Bible scholar and textual critic Bart Ehrman explains,

    As we learned at Moody [Bible Institute] in one of the first courses in the curriculum, we don’t actually have the original writings of the New Testament. What we have are copies of these writings, made years later — in most cases, many years later. Moreover, none of these copies is completely accurate, since the scribes who produced them inadvertently and/or intentionally changed them in places.

    The main reason for the changes, or variants, is that these scriptures were written by hand in days before the printing press was invented. Transcription errors, as a particular scripture is copied from an older one, are inevitable. Words are misread, letters are transposed (often changing the meaning of words), spelling and grammar errors abound, words are incorrectly separated or joined together, sentences are left out or repeated, and new material may be added for purposes known only to the transcriber.

    Most of these variants don’t make much difference. But sometimes variants make a great difference.

    Such is the case of Mark, chapter 16. Scholars know about four transcripts of the Gospel of Mark. Generally, they consider the earliest versions of scripture the most authentic. According to Ehrman in his book “Misquoting Jesus,” the last 12 verses of Mark were added to the later manuscripts nearly 300 years after it was first copied and are not found in the two oldest and best manuscripts. Mark is also the earliest of the Gospel texts, so it is not surprising that Luke has a similar passage concerning serpents at Luke 10:19 — Mark was its source.

    Even Ehrman’s critics, such as Daniel B. Wallace of the Dallas Theological Seminary, acknowledge him as “one of North America’s leading textual critics.” Textual critics study the work of the people who tediously copied religious manuscripts, study the process by which certain manuscripts were accepted as a part of what we know as the Bible (its canonization), study these texts of the Greek New Testament, and determine through evidence and reasoning which parts of the text have authentic origins and which parts were added by a different author at some later time, and why, to the extent that can be determined.

    In the case of the last 12 verses of Mark, chapter 16, Ehrman explains that not only are they not found in the two oldest manuscripts attributed to Mark, but the writing style of these 12 verses differs from the rest of the text; the transition between these verses and the earlier text makes little sense in the context of the story (Mary Magdalene is referred to as though she had not been mentioned earlier, but she had been); and many of the words and phrases in the 12 verses are not found elsewhere in Mark.

    Ehrman states that “nearly all textual scholars” believe these verses were added to Mark by a later scribe, possibly to smooth out what would have been an abrupt ending to the writing with no mention to the disciples of Jesus’s resurrection or his appearance to the women who went to the tomb.

    For Ehrman, “the task of the textual critic is to try to recover the oldest forms of these texts.” This task is important because Christianity “is a textually oriented religion whose texts have been changed.” The meaning of the New Testament can’t be grasped if the words that were intended are not known. This is true whether one believes the words are divinely inspired or one believes merely that the New Testament is a significant book.

    For Ehrman, the New Testament “is an enormous cultural artifact, a book that is revered by millions and that lies at the foundation of the largest religion in the world today.”

    I find that many Christians don’t know that it wasn’t until around the year 250 of the Common Era that a generous benefactor of the Roman church, Marcion, put together the first collection of scriptures that he considered the sacred texts of the faith, often referred to as the canon.

    But Marcion chose what scriptures should be included in the canon based on his belief that the God of the Old Testament was not the same God of Jesus and Paul. He believed they were two different Gods — the God of the Jews, who created the world and had very harsh laws that had to be followed, and “the God of Jesus, who sent Christ into the world to save people from the wrathful vengeance of the Jewish creator God,” as Ehrman explains.

    Marcion’s canon included a Gospel (a version of Luke) and 10 epistles, with no Old Testament. Because he also believed that others who disagreed with him had altered some of the texts, Marcion amended the texts to leave out references to the Old Testament God.

    About 30 years later, another Christian writer, Irenaeus (known as the bishop of Lyons in Gaul — what is now modern France) criticized Marcion’s version of the canon and produced one of his own, which included the more familiar four Gospels.

    Debates raged about the canon for several centuries. In the latter part of the fourth century, the bishop of Alexandria, Athanasius, approved 27 books that make up what we know generally as the New Testament today. It took many decades, perhaps centuries, for this version of the New Testament to be widely accepted among Christians, and there are differences among some of the versions in use today.

    Further, the manuscripts from which the New Testament was taken do not have punctuation, verses, and chapters. These were added later to create some order within the texts.

    If only the Pentecostal serpent handlers understood what Ehrman and other scholars of the Bible teach about the origins and development of the text of the New Testament, their lives might be quite different. Perhaps the two verses in Mark on which they base some of their religious practices and beliefs would not have seemed so important, and both Mack Wolford and his father before him would not have died from handling snakes as part of their religious worship.

    [Lamar W. Hankins, a former San Marcos, Texas, city attorney, is also a columnist for the San Marcos Mercury. This article © Freethought San Marcos, Lamar W. Hankins. Read more articles by Lamar W. Hankins on The Rag Blog.]

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    “Hell is empty and all the devils are here.”

    — William Shakespeare, The Tempest.

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