West Virginia Pentecostal pastor Mack Wolford died Sunday after a rattlesnake he was preparing to use at an outdoor service bit him on the thigh. Wolford was a serpent handler, one of the rare Appalachian believers who demonstrate their faith by holding hazardous creatures in their bare hands. Why do the snakes used in Pentecostal serpent handling have to be poisonous?
So the believers can truly show their faith in God. In serpent handling, it’s the threat of death by poison that makes the test of faith meaningful. Practitioners prefer the term “serpent handling” to “snake handling” because it underscores that the reptiles in question are venomous monsters, not common garden snakes. The crucial text is Mark 16:17-18, which states: “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.” (These verses explain why some Pentecostal mystics also drink strychnine and expose their palms to live flame.)
Serpent handling is illegal in the Appalachian states except for West Virginia. While the few Pentecostal churches that practice it insist that participants be over 18, they place no further formal restrictions on who can touch the snakes. The worshipper must only feel the spirit of God moving upon her. In rare cases, though, pastors may intervene to prevent an inadequately faithful or virtuous soul from taking part—or someone they suspect has fallen under a false state of inspiration.
It’s a common misconception that those moved by the spirit to touch and dance with snakes believe that their faith inoculates them against danger. In fact, participants understand and accept the risks: They just regard a death in obedience to God as both holy and conducive to salvation. Nor do congregants find those who are bitten insufficiently devout. The idea is that the time must have come for the person to die.
The bites cause excruciating pain when the venom assaults the nervous system. Like his father before him—also a serpent handler and also killed by a rattlesnake—Mack Wolford suffered for 10 and a half hours before dying Sunday night. Should you get bitten by a serpent during a service (or a “homecoming,” essentially an outdoor prayer festival), the church will not stop you from seeking medical attention. Still, most snake handlers rely on the Lord for healing—and of the 80 to 100 people who have died coiling snakes around their wrists for love of Jesus, it’s unknown how many received modern hospital treatment. A sign pasted on the pulpit of a fringe Pentecostal church in Jolo, W.Va., reads: “The pastor and congregation are not responsible for anyone that handles the serpents and gets bit. If you get bit, the church will stand by you and pray with you.”
As for trapping the reptiles, church elders pass down the techniques to the young men (they use snake sticks, boxes, and pillow cases), or they’ll sometimes buy serpents from backwoods peddlers, though freshly caught reptiles are favored for their snappishness and unpredictability. Generally, the sects use vipers they hunt down and collect in the Appalachian wilds: copperheads, water moccasins, and, occasionally, rattlesnakes.
Explainer thanks Ralph Hood of the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga.