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Saturday, June 02, 2012
"Serpent-handling pastor's life and death follow father's path
"By Julia Duin — Special to The Washington Post
"Posted: 12:00am on Jun 2, 2012; Modified: 1:42am on Jun 2, 2012
"Mark Randall "Mack" Wolford, a snake-handling pastor from West Virginia, died Sunday after being bitten by a rattlesnake he had owned for years. POND — The Washington Post
"Mack Wolford, a flamboyant Pentecostal pastor from West Virginia, 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 had turned 44 the previous day, was bitten by a rattlesnake he had owned for years. He died late Sunday.
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 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 Wolford didn't. He'd take them on snake-hunting expeditions.
Sunday started as a festive outdoor worship service at Panther Wildlife Management Area, a state park about 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 May 23. He also invited his extended family, who had largely given up the practice of serpent handling.
"At one time or another, we had handled snakes, but we had backslid," his sister Robin Vanover said Monday. "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 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 this time was different, and desperate messages began flying about on Facebook asking for prayer.
Wolford got worse. Paramedics took him to Bluefield Regional Medical Center, where he was pronounced dead. 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 the same circumstances.
"He lived 101/2 hours," Wolford told The Washington Post last fall. "When he got bit, he said he wanted to die in the church. Three hours after he was bitten, his kidneys shut down. After a while, your heart stops. I hated to see him go, but he died for what he believed in."
According to people who witnessed Mack Wolford's death, history repeated itself. He was bitten about 1:30 p.m.; he died about 11 that night.
One of those present was Lauren Pond, 26, a free-lance photographer from Washington, D.C. She had been taking pictures of serpent handlers in the area for more than a year, including for The Post, and stayed at Wolford's home in November.
"He helped me to understand the faith instead of just documenting it," she said Tuesday. "He was one of the most open pastors I've ever met. He was a friend and a teacher."
The family allowed her to stay near Wolford's side Sunday night, and she's still recovering from having witnessed the pastor's agonizing death. "I didn't see the bite," she said. "I saw the aftermath."
In a Post interview for last year's story, Jim Murphy, curator of the Reptile Discovery Center at the National Zoo, described what happens when a rattlesnake bites.
The pain is "excruciating," he said. "The venom attacks the nervous system. It's vicious and gruesome when it hits."
But Wolford refused to fear the creatures. He slung poisonous snakes around his neck, danced with them, even laid down on or near them. He displayed spots on his right hand where copperheads had sunk their fangs. His home in Bluefield had a spare bedroom filled with at least eight venomous snakes: usually rattlers, water moccasins and copperheads that he fed rats and mice. He was passionate about wanting to help churches in nearby states — including North Carolina and Tennessee, where the practice is illegal — start their own serpent-handling services.
"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 Saturday at his church, House of the Lord Jesus, in Matoaka, just north of Bluefield."
I've always admired those people who have enough faith to handle live rattlesnakes without any earthly protection, as well as I've always admired those Far Eastern gurus who have enought faith to walk on red hot coals without any earthly protection.
While in Kentucky, I've gained a little personal knowledge of the snake handler branch of the Christian faith. Several years ago, I was operating a law office in Barbourville, in Eastern Kentucky. A dispute had arisen concerning two factions of a small church there in the mountains. On one hand, the title owner of the land in question wanted the snake handlers banned from holding snake handling services in the church building. On the other hand, the snake handlers wanted to keep on with their dangerous poisonous snakes being handled during the church services by church people. A settlement conference was called. I guess I must have had at least twenty six people in my office building related to that snake-handling controversy. Finally, the people in my office all agreed that the snake handlers would abandon that church building, and the land title owner was free to allow non-snake handlers to hold services in that church building. Since the interested persons became of one accord on the question, the matter was resolved with a written agreement, and no judge, jury, nor court reporter was required.
Many years later in Kentucky, to the best of my memory, I was in a hospital in a medium-sized city--London Kentucky I believe it was. Unrelated to the reason I was there, the other people at the hospital were talking about a recent case they knew about. They explained that a nice church-going lady had been participating in the snake-handling at her recent church services, that she had been bitten by a deadly poisonous snake there, that she had been taken to that hospital, and that she had died of snake-bite at that hospital.
To me scripture applies. The Bible explains that Jesus was with Satan for forty days and forty nights while he was fasting in the wilderness. Satan asked Jesus to prove his great power by jumping off the roof of the Temple in Jerusalem. Satan explained that anyone with as great faith as Jesus would land on the ground unharmed after jumping off the Temple Roof. Jesus did not jump off the Temple Roof, explaining, "Ye shall not put the Lord, your God, to foolish tests!" He added, "Get thee away, Satan!"