“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.