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.