In West Virginia, snake handling is still considered a sign of faith

When Randy “Mack” Wolford arrives in his pickupat a small West Virginia church, evening shadows are falling across the steep green hills that define the state’s southernmost tip. These slopes, overlooked by the 2,200-foot-high Panther Ridge, are perilous in their beauty, their sandstone cliffs falling hundreds of feet to the valley floor.

Slithering about the curious-looking wooden box on the seat of Wolford’s truck is a perilous beauty of another sort: a sandy-colored timber rattlesnake.

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.

* * *

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.

“The church would be so full, people would stand outside and look in the windows,” she says.

Publicity turned sour when Columbia Chafin Hagerman, one of Barbara’s daughters, died of a snakebite in 1961 at age 23, one of about 80 to 100 deaths attributed to snake handling since its origins. Despite the uproar, the state legislature refused to outlaw the practice.

The 1950s to 1970s were prosperous times for McDowell County, where Jolo is located. Demand for coal was high, jobs were plentiful and about 100,000 people lived in the area. The 1980s brought wildcat strikes, competition from nonunionized mines and a drop in U.S. production of steel (which depends on coal), leading to massive job loss. Over the years, four-fifths of the county’s population dribbled away. Left behind were the retired, the unemployed, the drugged-out and the sick. There are no playgrounds among Jolo’s run-down homes and boarded-up storefronts. And for the snake handlers, there are few sons or daughters around to continue the practice.

Snake handling “used to be passed down through large families, but families are smaller these days. Plus, many have left the area,” Leonard says. “Those who grow up in it — such as the sons and daughters of the preachers — often leave it behind.”

Indeed, none of the first arrivals for the Jolo homecoming appear to be younger than 40. “There ain’t too many young people as goes here,” says 50-year-old Lyndon Salyers, a local carpenter and gravedigger.

The sanctuary has olive green pews, cheap wood paneling and a single decoration: a flowing purple tulle draped upon the cross on the front wall. The Bible verses on the wall admonish: “For whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap. [...] And be sure your sin will find you out.”

Near the front is a photo gallery of past homecomings. In one picture, a man holds a fistful of snakes. Another photo shows a woman holding a glass soda bottle that has been filled with oil and equipped with a burning wick. She’s holding the flame to her hand.

“She won’t do that unless she’s in the Spirit,” Salyers says. The thought is that if God “anoints” a believer to touch live flames, he or she will not be burned.

Should anyone feel called by the Spirit this weekend to make such an expression of faith, there is a kerosene-filled Coke bottle on a ledge in front of the pulpit, and a Mason jar of strychnine and water hidden behind the pulpit. (Wolford, who has drunk strychnine on several occasions, says it made his muscles stiffen and lungs seize up but didn’t appear to have any long-term effects.) A hand-lettered statement taped near the pulpit 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. And the same goes with drinking the poison.”

The pastor who has issued the warning is 40-year-old Harvey Payne, who took over after Bob Elkins died in 2007. A thick-built man with a slight mustache and blond hair, Payne works as a timber cutter clearing roads for CNX Gas, a major producer of the plentiful natural gas in the region.

Payne, who stays in the background during the three days of the homecoming, seems dispirited about the future of the congregation, which he says has 10 members. “Most of the people are so bad on drugs,” he says. “It is so unreal, you would not believe it. There ain’t no jobs or a whole lot of money, but there is drugs.”

He hazards no guesses as to how long his church will stage its annual homecoming.

“The Bible says that, without a vision, the people perish,” he says. “Nowadays, they don’t even care.”

* * *

Mack Wolford cares. When asked, he’ll display four spots on his right hand where copperheads have sunk their fangs. Like other Pentecostal snake handlers, he doesn’t seek antivenin medication when bitten but relies on God to heal him. “There’s a lot of pain,” he says. “For the first couple of weeks, you swell up and break out in hives.”

According to Leonard, the religion professor, nearly every snake handler has been bitten. “It is not uncommon for some of them to have lost digits — their fingers — because the nerves have gone dead,” Leonard says. “The venom attacks the nervous system. It’s vicious and gruesome when it hits.”

Yet Wolford risks this again and again, despite watching his father die at age 39 of a rattlesnake bite.

“He lived 101 / 2 hours,” remembers Wolford, who was 15 at the time. “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.”

Those who die from snakebites are never criticized for lack of adequate faith; it is believed that it was simply the deceased’s time to die. Still, Wolford says he “went wild” after his father’s death, getting arrested for armed robbery and kidnapping when he was 18 and spending a year and a half in jail. Booze destroyed his first marriage and was destroying his second when he repented at 30, “and God took the taste for alcohol away from me.” He quit his job as a loom technician in a North Carolina cotton factory and became a pastor. But that was not enough to satisfy him. Despite the way his father died, Wolford wanted to travel to the radical edges of Christianity, where life and death gaze at you every time you walk into a church and pick up a snake.

“I know it’s real; it is the power of God,” Wolford says. “If I didn’t do it, if I’d never gotten back involved, it’d be the same as denying the power and saying it was not real.”

Except for his mother, Wolford’s family avoids the practice. None of his children and stepchildren even go to church. His second wife, Fran, the daughter of a snake handler, used to handle serpents. But she took up smoking, “got weak in the Lord,” Wolford says, and stopped.

And so he seeks out anyone, any church that wants to continue the tradition. This Labor Day weekend, he’s in Jolo because of the homecoming; he travels there frequently. In May, he led an impromptu worship service at a Panther Ridge park, where people who rarely darken the door of a church could see snake handling. Soon, he plans a trip to North Carolina. He never stops searching out new areas.

“I promised the Lord I’d do everything in my power to keep the faith going,” Wolford says.

* * *

Although past homecomings have been packed with onlookers, only 15 people are present on the first night of the 2011 homecoming, including five photographers and a few reporters. (The low number, it turns out, may be the result of a funeral down the road; McDowell County has among the highest mortality rates in West Virginia, from homicide, suicide and various diseases, according to state health statistics.)

But there are 35 people in church on Saturday night, eight of them photographers or journalists. The parking lot shows license plates from all the surrounding states, plus Louisiana.

The preacher this evening is Pete Woods, 66, a grandfatherly figure who pastors at the nondenominational Jesus Church in nearby Bartley. About 30 people go to his church on a good day, although, years ago, 130 attended. “They all moved away. No jobs. No work,” he says. Woods’s own children have left. “They were raised in church, but none go.”

Woods now spends many of his days digging graves for the poor. “This is a dying county: cancer, heart attacks, diabetes, a lot of overdoses on drugs,” he says.

One of the handlers at the homecoming is a man in jeans who says he works for the government and will give only his first name as Clifton. “I’m a serpent hound, a sign-believing preacher,” he says, and he maintains that people must handle snakes, drink poison, practice healing and speak in tongues to be saved. Though he acknowledges that people such as himself are “a dying breed,” he thinks that may be a good thing: “Scripture says unless there’s a great falling away, the end won’t come.”

When the service begins, the thin congregation is in the pews. But after a few songs, led by a group of elders and pastors playing electric guitars and drums, half are dancing and bobbing about at the front of the church.

Tonight, there are three boxes of snakes on a ledge in front of the pulpit, and the hiss of rattlers can be heard for several feet. The music from the stage behind the pulpit is ear-splitting, and the congregation sings “I’ve got Jesus on my mind” over and over again. Several women spin in continuous circles, like whirling dervishes. All have long, loose hair that sweeps well past their waists (some believe the Bible commands them not to cut it); they wear no makeup or jewelry, not even a wedding ring.

One of the men leaves the stage, opens a box and grabs a snake — only one is handled at a time — which curves and weaves in patterns, almost as if posing. He then passes the snake down the line. The men on stage gently shift the reptile from one hand to the other during their turn, making no sudden movements to alarm the animal. They are cautious, focused; they keep the snake far from their faces and don’t take their eyes off its head. The rest of the congregation continues to sing, dance, shout and gawk. Four or five photographers get in each other’s way as they try to capture a shot of the snake being passed gingerly from person to person.

The snakes are out only briefly, in part because of disagreements about whose snakes should be used and who should touch them. Wolford is reluctant to allow the congregants to handle snakes brought in by visitors whose spiritual bona fides he is unsure of. He also prefers that a pastor pass the snakes only to people he thinks are living virtuous lives. If handlers have faith and aren’t involved in major sin, Wolford believes, God will protect them, and Wolford doesn’t want to risk a “backslider” getting bitten.

As God or luck would have it, no one is. Jim Murphy, curator of the Reptile Discovery Center at the National Zoo, says that, if handled correctly, snakes often do not bite. The Pentecostal snake handlers he saw years ago in Texas were pretty skilled, Murphy recalls. “I noticed people sliding their hands gently beneath the coil or body, and using the other hand to stabilize so the snake did not feel threatened.”

* * *

It’s hot and sticky outside before the final Sunday afternoon service, and thunderclouds are massing in the distance. Again, 35 people, including eight members of the media, have shown up. One of the visitors is a rarity: a young person. Joseph Hildebran, 23, a nuclear medicine technologist with a crew cut and wire-rim glasses, has driven about 170 miles from Morganton, N.C. Although he didn’t handle a snake that afternoon, “I would if the Spirit moved on me,” he says.

“There’s not a lot of old saints to teach people,” Hildebran adds. “Pentecostalism as we know it is changing. People are making it more modern. ... I miss the old Pentecostalism.”

Hildebran thinks the controversial practices he is interested in are moving underground, to home settings in other areas, away from the prying eyes of the media visiting Jolo. And he thinks there are other young people out there who are intrigued by those edgier traditions. “We need something that’s real, where there’s power,” he says. Snake handling “is a way that people know that Jesus is still living.

“My family thinks I am out of my mind, but they love me,” Hildebran adds. “And when they need prayer, they call me.”

Within a half-hour, Hildebran is stomping and clapping along with other worshipers. Two organs, drums and electric guitars are going at it. People dance for almost an hour. The snakes are brought out — briefly — twice. Then, several people, including a man in a three-piece suit, light the wick atop the Coke bottle and spin around while holding the flame to their hands. The singing is about “the flame in my soul.”

Afterward, the man in the suit displays his hands, which are not burned. He is 34 and from Jonesborough, Tenn., about 120 miles from Jolo. Churches near him don’t do such tests of faith, he says, “so when we’re offered it, we drive up here. You’re in a whole different frame of mind. A few minutes ago, I didn’t know if I was in West Virginia or heaven.”

But he asked that his name not be used. “People in my area, they hate snake-handling churches,” he says. “I’ve had to quit jobs because of this.”

Four hours after the service begins, the crowd adjourns to a tiny room where everyone snacks on fried chicken, coleslaw and brownies.

Wolford, as it turns out, was not there Sunday afternoon. He was tending to his own church, the House of the Lord Jesus, in Matoaka, near Bluefield.

And he’s not too sure how many times he’ll be back at the Jolo church, which, since Labor Day weekend, has shifted to Wednesday night services.

“I don’t expect it to stay open long,” he says. “Here in West Virginia, snake handling’s a thing of the past. They’ve lost interest. I’m getting the faith started in other states.” At a Baptist church in western North Carolina, he says, “there’s been crowds coming.”

Hildebran and the man from Jonesborough also report that churches in the North Carolina mountains, plus some in southeastern Kentucky, are involved in the phenomenon. Young people attend, they say. Religion professor Leonard says he, too, has heard accounts of snake handling in North Carolina, “but that’s all anecdotal.”

Though snake handling is illegal in North Carolina, Wolford believes the police won’t interfere.

“The Baptist pastor down there talked to the sheriff, who told them they know it’s in the Bible,” he says. “They said, ‘As long as people are not getting snakes thrown on them, we’re not going to interfere.’

“I know the Lord had to work that out.”

Julia Duin is a contributing writer for the Magazine. She can be reached at wpmagazine@washpost.com.

 
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