Just like his father, snake-handling Pentecostal minister Mack Wolford of West Virginia died of rattlesnake bites. Some Pentecostals use snake handling as proof that God is keeping them safe, but for two generations of the Wolfords, it hasn’t worked out so far. Maybe they should start snake handling before their reproductive years and the problem will eventually work itself out.
Mark Randall “Mack” Wolford was known all over Appalachia as a daring man of conviction. He believed that the Bible mandates that Christians handle serpents to test their faith in God — and that, if they are bitten, they trust in God alone to heal them.
He and other adherents cited Mark 16:17-18 as the reason for their practice: “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.”
The son of a serpent handler who had himself died in 1983 after being bitten, Wolford was trying to keep the practice alive, both in West Virginia, where it is legal, and in neighboring states where it is not. He was the kind of man reporters love: articulate, friendly and appreciative of media attention. Many serpent-handling Pentecostals retreat from journalists, but Mack didn’t. He’d take them on snake-hunting expeditions.
Last Sunday started as a festive outdoor worship service on a sunny afternoon at Panther Wildlife Management Area, a state park roughly 80 miles west of Bluefield, W.Va. In the preceding days, Wolford had posted several teasers on his Facebook page asking people to attend.
“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.
“At one time or another, we had handled snakes, but we had backslid,” his sister, Robin Vanover, said late Monday evening. “His birthday was Saturday and all he wanted to do is get his brothers and sisters in church together.”
And so they were gathered at this evangelistic hootenanny of Christian praise and worship. About 30 minutes into the service, his sister said, Wolford had been passing a yellow timber rattlesnake to a church member and his mother.
“He laid it on the ground,” she said, “and he sat down next to the snake, and it bit him on the thigh.”
The festivities came to a halt shortly thereafter and Wolford was taken back to a relative’s house in Bluefield to recover, as he always had when suffering from previous snake bites. By late afternoon, it was clear that this time was different, and desperate messages began flying about on Facebook asking for prayer.
Wolford got progressively worse. Paramedics transported him to the Bluefield Regional Medical Center, where he was pronounced dead early Monday morning. It could not be determined when the paramedics were called.
Wolford was 15 when he saw his dad die at age 39 of a rattlesnake bite in almost exactly the same circumstances.
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