|Birth: ||May 26, 1968|
|Death: ||May 28, 2012|
West Virginia, USA
Can you guess why Pastor Wolford left us so early in his life?
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.
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 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 Wolford didn't. He'd take them on snake-hunting expeditions.
Last Sunday started as a festive outdoor 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 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 passed 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."
A state forester, who was not authorized to speak on the record, said park officials were unaware of Wolford's activities. "Had we known he had poisonous animals, we would have never allowed it," he said.
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 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 father die at age 39 of a rattlesnake bite in almost exactly the same circumstances.
"He lived 10 1/2 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 roughly at 1:30 p.m.; he died about 11 that night.
One of the people present was Lauren Pond, 26, a freelance photographer from the District. She had been photographing 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 an interview with The Post 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 up 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 be held Saturday at his church, House of the Lord Jesus, in Matoaka, just north of Bluefield.
- Julia Duin, May 29, 2012
I'm trying to imagine my reaction when my husband comes through the door and asks, "Honey, could I use the spare bedroom for the poisonous snakes?"
That's apparently what Mack Wolford did. And after more than a decade of using snakes as part of religious ceremonies, the 44-year-old West Virginia Pentecostal pastor died from a rattlesnake bite this week after being bitten in the thigh.
"Just eight or so," my husband would say. "Rattlesnakes, copperheads and water moccasins.
"And don't worry. We'll just feed them mice and rats."
"Of course darling. Whatever."
In running a religion Web site one has to be pluralistic. On Faith features people from all faiths and no faith. I hardly count anybody out and I am rare to judge. Life is hard. There are many things that get people through the night, many things that give us meaning. So long as nobody gets hurt, then believe or don't believe what you want. I don't understand bigotry or discrimination. There is no existing religion that doesn't sound crazy to somebody.
However, I draw the line at snake handling.
Snake handling is illegal in most states but it is legal in West Virginia, where Wolford practiced. Believe it or not, snake handling is just a little over a hundred years old, though the reasoning cited for the practice is as old as the New Testament of the Bible.
Mark 16:18: They shall take up serpents; and if they drink any deadly thing, it shall not hurt them; they shall lay hands on the sick, and they shall recover.
Luke 10:19: 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.
According to a 2011 Washington Post Magazine profile of Wolford, he was 15 when he watched his father die at age 39 from a rattlesnake bite. Not only did that image not discourage him from snake handling, it eventually urged him on. "I promised the Lord," he told The Post, "I'd do everything in my power to keep the faith going. 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."
That's got to be a hard sell: "Come join our church and risk dying an excruciatingly painful death (venom attacks the nervous system), or watch your friends and family suffer the same fate." There are understandably not too many converts to snake handling. It is passed down from family to family (though children are not allowed to handle snakes). Yet we watch — in horrified fascination.
I was stunned to read that Wolford passed a yellow timber rattlesnake to a church member and the man's mother (his mother!) during Wolford's last ceremony. Wolford's sister told The Post, "He laid it on the ground and he sat down next to the snake and it bit him on the thigh." He was taken to a medical center where he died about 9.5 hours later.
Certainly, not everyone who handles snakes gets bitten. When they do, most survive. Snake handlers are known to have scars, bitten fingers and even atrophied hands from bites.
But if the Gospel promises, "nothing by any means shall hurt you," were Wolford, his father and others who have died handling snakes being tricked? Were the words not supposed to be taken literally? Is a person who dies evil, or a sinner, and therefore being punished?
I don't think it matters.
Americans who criticize other religions, especially those abroad where followers are oppressed or punished barbarically for errant behavior, should look carefully at religious practices in this country where people are harmed.
Snake handling is a barbaric and dangerous practice, which should be outlawed. You can't stop people from committing suicide but you can stop it from being ritualized, legally sanctioned and where it puts others in harms way. There's not much difference between snake handling and drinking Kool-Aid with Jim Jones. People die.
It's hard to define what religion really is. But I know it when I see it. Snake handling ain't it.
- Sally Quinn, May 30, 2012
Pastor Mack Randall Wolford 44 of Green Valley, Bluefield passed away on Monday, May 28, 2012 and was DOA at Bluefield Regional Medical Center.
Born May 26, 1968 in Pike County, KY, he was a son of the Vicie Hicks Haywood of Bluefield, West Virginia and the late Mack Ray Wolford. Mack had been a resident of Bramwell for the past five years and was a Pastor at Apostolic House of the Lord Jesus in Matoaka, West Virginia.
Left to cherish his memory is:
His wife: Frances Elizabeth Dawson Wolford of the home
Mother: Vicie Hicks Haywood of Bluefield, West Virginia One Daughter: Latisha McClemore of Statesville, North Carolina
Three Step-Children: Eva Krueger of La Plata, Maryland Glenn K. Mitchell, Jr. of Lake, West Virginia Brady Scott Mitchell of Statesville, North Carolina Two Brothers: Kevin Wolford of Bluefield, West Virginia Christopher Wolford of Paynesville, Kentucky
Three Sisters: Lesha G. Mullins of Phelps, Kentucky Robin Vanover of Bluefield, West Virginia Shauna Scott of Abington, Virginia
And nine grandchildren
Funeral services will be held on Saturday, June 02, 2012 at The Apostolic House of the Lord Jesus Church in Matoaka, West Virginia at 11:00 a.m. where Rev. Donald Dover of Rutherford, North Carolina and Rev. Roy Lee Christian will conduct the funeral service. Burial will follow the funeral service at Hicks Family Cemetery in Phelps, Kentucky where friends and family will serve as pallbearers.
Friends and family may call at the Apostolic House of the Lord Jesus Church in Matoaka, West Virginia on Friday, June 01, 2012 after 4:00p.m.
Online condolences can be sent to the Wolford family at www.cravens-shires.com.
Cravens-Shires Funeral Home is serving the Wolford family.
Video: Honoring Pastor Randy "Mack" Wolford
Video: Pastor Wolford handles deadly snakes
Video: Serpent handler dies from rattlesnake bite
Video: Serpent Preachers
Video: In Jesus' Name: Taking Up Serpents
Hicks Family Plot
Created by: graver
Record added: May 30, 2012
Find A Grave Memorial# 91048918