Wolford, 43, travels the hills to revive the Pentecostal ritual of snake handling. He combs the local woods for just the right rattlers, water moccasins and copperheads to add to his stash of eight snakes, which he stores in a spare bedroom and feeds rats and mice from the pet store.
This evening, he has driven 100 miles from his home near Bluefield, W.Va., to Jolo, one of the state’s most isolated communities. Heading south on Route 83, he reaches a post office and a grimy gas station in the middle of town, then takes a left on Route 635. Two miles up the hollow appears the Church of the Lord Jesus: a plain white rectangle perched on a narrow slip of land close to a ravine.
For years, this tiny church in an unincorporated hamlet of 1,191 souls has been world-famous for its death-defying handlers of serpents. Reporters, researchers, photographers and TV crews have come here to track Pentecostals who brandish poisonous snakes, drink strychnine and play with fire as a testimony of their faith. Each Labor Day weekend, the church has hosted a well-documented “homecoming” for snake handlers, who believe that Mark 16:17-18 mandates that true Christians “take up serpents and if they drink anything deadly, it will by no means hurt them; they will lay hands on the sick and they will recover.”
Wolford’s mission in life is to make sure that this custom, which he learned from his parents, survives for another generation.
“Anybody can do it that believes it,” he says. “Jesus said, ‘These signs shall follow them which believe.’ This is a sign to show people that God has the power.”
Though snake handling is condemned by mainstream Pentecostal denominations, Wolford believes that 21st-century Christianity desperately needs people willing to exhibit such signs. And he’s willing to do so despite having been bitten four times — and despite watching his snake-handling father die an agonizing death.
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Snake handling began in an east Tennessee church in 1909, and at one point boasted several thousand practitioners, mostly, although not exclusively, in the Appalachian states, says the Rev. Bill Leonard, a professor at Wake Forest University’s School of Divinity in Winston-Salem, N.C. As the practice grew, several states banned it, including Kentucky, Virginia, North Carolina and Tennessee.
But not West Virginia, even after a death in Jolo.
The Jolo church was founded in 1956 by Bob and Barbara Elkins; he, a coal miner, and she, the mother of six children from a previous marriage. Linda Mullins, a secretary for Crossview Church of Christ up on Panther Ridge, remembers visiting the place back then.