Well handled snakes, in the Washington Post

Although I lived in the mountains of Tennessee for six years, I am not an expert on the small — but well documented — bands of Christians who choose to handle snakes as part of their worship services. Yes, there was this mainstream Greek newspaper that decided that I was an expert on this subject (one of the most bizarre episodes in my career), but that was the kind of mistake that happens when one writes a singe column that somehow shows up high in a Google search.

The key to writing about this subject is that reporters need to listen to the snake handlers as they explain what they do and why they do it. For, you see, the snake handlers are — when you hit the bottom line — edgy Protestants who truly believe they they are supposed to pick up their Bibles and read them literally, without putting the tough passages into the context of 2,000 years of church history and tradition. Here’s how I tried to explain some of that in a column during my years in Appalachia.

Millions of Americans say the Bible contains no errors of any kind. “Amen,” say the snake handlers. Others complain that too many people view the Bible through the lens of safe, middle-class conformity and miss its radical message. Snake handlers agree.

Millions of Americans say that miracles happen, especially when believers have been “anointed” by God’s Holy Spirit. “Preach on,” say snake handlers. Polls show that millions of spiritual seekers yearn for ecstatic, world-spinning experiences of divine revelation. “Been there, done that,” say snake handlers.

The reason I bring this up is because of an amazing series of events, and the coverage of those events, that unfolded in The Washington Post this past week.

Actually, the story of this story begins last November with a typically gripping feature story by veteran religion-beat specialist Julia Duin, best known for her years of work at The Washington Times, who now is a contributing writer at The Washington Post Sunday Magazine. It only takes a few sentences for Duin to bring together the wild ridges of West Virginia, a preacher named Randy “Mack” Wolford and the “sandy-colored timber rattlesnake” sitting, in a box, on the passenger seat of his pick-up truck.

There is no way to do justice to the whole story, but it is important that Duin deals quickly and clearly with the “why” in this particular story. Thus, readers head straight to Jolo and the Church of the Lord Jesus:

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. …

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.

Can this church surive? Yes, there is a story in there to be covered.

By all means, read it all. This story has snakes, it has snake handlers and it has the historical and academic background information that you need. Most of all, his long piece has voices. The believers get to talk and the readers get to read, with Duin providing the context and focus.

This brings us to the two pieces that ran this past week in the newspaper’s Style section, one by Duin and the other by freelance photographer Lauren Pond, who just happened to be paying a return visit to the region when the other shoe dropped.

Working from a distance, and with the help of social media, Duin laid out the basics:

Mack Wolford, a flamboyant Pentecostal pastor from West Virginia whose serpent-handling talents were profiled last November in The Washington Post Magazine, hoped the outdoor service he had planned for Sunday at an isolated state park would be a “homecoming like the old days,” full of folks speaking in tongues, handling snakes and having a “great time.” But it was not the sort of homecoming he foresaw.

Instead, Wolford, who had turned 44 the previous day, was bitten by a rattlesnake he had owned for years. He died late Sunday. …

“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.

Pond told Duin earlier in the week: “I didn’t see the bite. … I saw the aftermath.”

Because she had earlier earned the trust of the Wolford family, Pond was allowed to simply stay beside the preacher while his loved ones surrounded him to pray. After all, he had survived bites in the past. There was music and there were prayers. This was a way of life.

On this day, it was a way of death. As a journalist, what was Pond going to do? Thus, the headline on her personal and pained essay was blunt: “Why I watched a snake-handling pastor die for his faith.”

There are the details to report. Then there are the questions.

Wolford’s family had questions, as well as a few answers. Some of the onlookers did not share their certainty. And Pond was left with the kinds of questions that linger for people who work with cameras, notebooks and pens.

Mack’s family wanted me to know that he was more concerned with helping people attain salvation than getting them to handle snakes. “The Lord used him in so many ways, with so many people, and all ages,” his sister Robin said.

Some of the people who attended last Sunday’s service have struggled with Mack’s death, as I have. “Sometimes, I feel like we’re all guilty of negligent homicide,” one man wrote to me in a Facebook message following Mack’s death. “I went down there a ‘believer.’ That faith has seriously been called into question. I was face-to-face with him and watched him die a gruesome death. … Is this really what God wants?”

That’s a good question.

I know many photojournalists have been in situations similar to mine. Pulitzer Prize winner Kevin Carter photographed an emaciated Sudanese child struggling to reach a food center during a famine — as a vulture
waited nearby. He was roundly criticized for not helping the child, which, along with the disturbing memories of the events he had covered and other factors, may have contributed to his suicide. As photojournalists, we have a unique responsibility to record history and share stories in as unbiased and unobtrusive a way as possible. But when someone is hurt and suffering, we have to balance our instincts as professionals with basic human decency and care.

In my mind, Mack’s situation was different from that of a starving child or a civilian wounded in war. He was a competent adult who decided to stand by what he understood to be the word of God, no matter the consequences. And so I’ve started to come to peace with the fact that everyone in the crowded trailer, including myself, let Mack die as a man true to his faith.

And what to do with her photos of the scenes at the preacher’s death watch?

It will take time, but please read all three of these pieces. See the faces and listen to the voices.

It’s called journalism. Some people get it.

EDITOR’S NOTE: It goes without saying, but try to focus on the journalism questions linked to these stories, not the beliefs of Wolford and his flock.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • Bill

    Fascinating series of stories, well told. Pieces about snake handling preachers in the mountains have the same kind of macabre appeal as stories about cannibals, voodoo and Tibetan sky burials. But Julia Duin’s two articles and Lauren Pond’s told the story without falling into the trap of condescension. I think Lauren Pond has the makings of a book or a compelling documentary there.

    This passage from Julia Duin’s 2011 article grabbed my attention and left me with questions:

    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.

    Wolford had problems. He liked to live on the edge. Handling pit vipers is on the edge. People participated who wanted a real experience. Is there any connection between the desire to sky dive, extreme sports, hunting dangerous game and snake handling? Is there a connection between watching believers handle serpents, drink poison and hold hands to the flame and watching Evel Knievel try to jump a canyon on a motorcycle? Is it a desire for the mystical and divine? Or is it more akin to watching YouTube videos of fatal accidents? We humans are odd creatures.

    Not surprisingly, there is a lot of folklore about rattlesnakes. For anyone interested, the late J.Frank Dobie devoted a volume of his collection of Texas histories to this: Rattlesnakes, Univ Texas Press, 1982. This is not a scientific treatise on rattlers (or buzzworms, as some desert dwellers call them), but an examination of what people in rattlesnake country believe about them.


  • http://www.getreligion.org Mollie


    What a great set of questions for reflection. I think, too, that this is what I loved about the various stories and essays. They weren’t simply about the interesting character but what his actions meant and what our response to him means, too.

  • Bill

    Thanks, Mollie. It is often hard to tell the desire for an trial of faith from the mere urge for an adrenalin rush. (Young men will do incredibly dangerous and stupid things for the latter. Don’t ask how I know this.)

    Another ghost in this story for me is the desire for a real and visceral religious experience. Stories about Filipinos being flogged and crucified are one example. But in a way, so are stories about Jumbotrons in mega churches, ear-splitting praise music and worshippers whirling like dervishes. Mainline Protestant and Catholic congregations have lost members to groups that offer the promise an intense spiritual high. I am not criticizing that here, but I often wonder how much is a desire for physical stimulation. Are there connections between revival meetings and mosh pits? Yes, I know it’s moving, but what does it mean?

    A friend of mine is an ordained Baptist pastor of extraordinary intelligence, education and insight. He is 60 and discussed how when he was in seminary, only about a third of Southern Baptist pastors had formal seminary training. That has changed, and theological training alone does not make someone a good pastor, or a even good Christian But I would like to know more about how Wolford became a pastor. An elaboration of his theology and doctrines would be interesting.

  • http://pastorbrendan.blogspot.com Brendan

    Simply put, the articles are excellent. While in my head I kept thinking “this snake handler is nuts”, the articles kept bringing me back to seeing him as a real person with real passions and real faith. I still think he was nuts, but these stories gave me compassion for him.

  • MJBubba

    It is really nice to see the Washington Post treat the subject respectfully.