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 9:36 PM