Pastor dies in snake-handling ritual (Updated)

A renowned snake handling pastor in West Virginia succumbs to his faith.

‘Serpent-Handling’ West Virginia Pastor Dies From Snake Bite – Yahoo! News.

A “serpent-handling” West Virginia pastor died after his rattlesnake bit him during a church ritual, just as the man had apparently watched a snake kill his father years before.

Snake-handlers point to scripture as evidence that God calls them to engage in such a practice to show their faith in him. Mark 16: 17-18 reads, “And these signs shall follow them that believe: In my name shall they cast out devils; they shall speak with new tongues. They shall take up serpents; and if they drink any deadly thing, it shall not hurt them; they shall lay hands on the sick, and they shall recover.”

Wolford told the Washington Post magazine in 2011 that he is carrying on the tradition of his ancestors by engaging in snake handling.

“Anybody can do it that believes it,” Wolford said. “Jesus said, ‘These signs shall follow them which believe.’ This is a sign to show people that God has the power.”

Credit: Steve Liberace

Snake-handling is legal in West Virginia but has been banned from public places in Kentucky and Tennessee. The park service where this event was held said they would not have given permission for the event had they known live snakes would be present. However, I doubt that would have stopped it from taking place in private.

It’s a tragedy that someone would think that their faith is like an invisible shield against harm. And then tempt it in that way. As you can see from the quotes and his experiences, he knew the risk. We can only hope that news of such events will cause such demonstrations to diminish in the culture.

Note: Please do not comment that people deserve what they get or mention the Darwin Awards. Such comments will not be allowed.

UPDATE: (1-June-2012) According to this piece from the Washington Post, Wolford did not allow paramedics to be called until it was too late. So, he could have survived if given antivenom. That adds a dimension of faith healing to this story. The photojournalist muses:

As a photojournalist, what role did I have in this tragedy, and what is it now, in the aftermath? Was it right for me to remain in the background taking pictures, as I did, and not seek medical attention for the dying pastor, whose beliefs forbade it? Or should I have intervened and called paramedics earlier, which would have undermined Mack’s wishes? Finally, what was I supposed to do with the images I shot?

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?”

  14 comments for “Pastor dies in snake-handling ritual (Updated)

  1. Bob Jase
    May 31, 2012 at 1:05 PM

    Can I ask if the snake remained unharmed?

    Seriously. It wouldn’t suprise me if the congregation decided it must have been demon-possessed and killed it.

  2. Zone
    May 31, 2012 at 1:52 PM

    This is an example of how thoroughly our beliefs are bound to our identities. Most people would rather risk their lives than go through the potential inner turmoil of changing their sense of self, which has included some amount of misinformation, superstition, and/or delusion.

  3. Massachusetts
    May 31, 2012 at 3:39 PM

    I suspect the snake was not harmed. My understanding is that these people believe your faith must be strong enough to protect you, and that if you don’t survive it’s in some way God’s will, and the snake is therefore an instrument of God’s will. I could be wrong but I think they won’t hurt the snake. Whether they use it in other rituals or retire it, I’m not sure.

    What worries me about this particular brand of religion is the extension that might be made by believers to other aspects of life. If you can guard yourself against a snake bite by faith alone, then why not an air plane crash or catching food poisoning? So does that mean we don’t need regulations, good safety protocols and such, since our faith should be enough to shield us? That could have serious consequences. Although this particular group is relatively small, the more general ‘faith is all you need’ methodology is evident in larger religious venues, and could spread if people continue to embrace certain varieties of religious experience.

    • May 31, 2012 at 5:44 PM

      Massachusetts -

      You are quite right – people do use prayer as a “magic charm.” I used to know a young lady who thought prayer before meals was to protect one from food or other poisoning. Being a Christian myself, I always thought saying grace was to thank God for the food. I have had food poisoning twice, so I know prayer doesn’t work that way!

      I know others who think that if they have enough faith God will grant their prayers. Problem with that belief is that it’s not Biblical. And when their prayers are not answered the way they want, the disappointment can be crushing.

  4. Massachusetts
    May 31, 2012 at 3:47 PM

    Zone, I’m not sure how personal identity is reflected in this. The risk they are taking could be very ego-centric, like “look at me, see how pious and brave I am” or it could be very selfless in a way, like they are turning off their sense of self-preservation and contemplating a power they believe to be far beyond themselves. I suspect the psychology is very complicated. You are certainly right that addressing inner turmoil and affecting inner change is a really key skill in life and important to many spiritual traditions. From what I’ve read of Buddhism this is very important, but I’m sure it’s important elsewhere. I can’t comment though on how the snake handlers faire in this area. Perhaps this very intense experience forces them to confront very personal issues, fears, etc., and affect personal change. Of course, there are less overtly dangerous ways to achieve such goals, and for them, these may not be the primary goals. They probably see it as all about God, not individual development and personal change, regardless of whether such change may happen.

  5. Bob Jase
    May 31, 2012 at 4:07 PM

    Well Massachusetts, there is a much larger faith-based political movement (about 20% of the electorate) in the GOP that takes exactly that stand on climate change, nuclear disarmament and other issues.

    Snake handlers in spirit if not in practice.

  6. Zone
    May 31, 2012 at 8:17 PM

    @Massachusetts
    Either way you describe it, it’s the same to me. The “victim’s” behavior being either ego-centric or selfless doesn’t change that the beliefs behind the behavior are so entangled in one’s sense of self that rational thinking has little chance to change them.

    The “victim’s” father was reported to have been previously killed by snakebite in a similar incident. A rational response would be to question one’s beliefs. An emotional response would be to blame the dead father as somehow lacking in faith, finding a way to explain away the evidence and justify–even strengthen–one’s beliefs.

    It matters not if we speak of religious, political, social, or other flavor of emotionally held belief. Most of us will cling to them, even as the venom spreads through our body. Snake handlers in spirit, indeed.

  7. Jack
    June 1, 2012 at 9:00 AM

    I find it interesting that the fanatically religious person will choose that part of the passage about snakes, which at least gives you some chance of survival, and ignore the drinking of poison. That seems to show some sense at least. I also find it interesting that you would use the title Zombie Apocalypse Begins for the tragedy in Florida, but would find it offensive to mention the Darwin Awards in this article. That sounds a little hypocritical don’t you think?

    • June 1, 2012 at 9:04 AM

      No. The Darwin awards to me is not in the spirit of Darwin who doubtfully would have approved that his ideas are being used to justify the untimely deaths of people. Not sure how that relates to the Zombie Apocalypse which is fiction.

  8. Massachusetts
    June 1, 2012 at 11:09 AM

    Yes that ‘s consistent with what I’ve read and seen on documentaries, that religious snake handlers don’t get medical attention, choosing as an act of faith to pray and hand over their lives to God to do with as he pleases. It’s a very radical approach, I’d say, even among those with a strong Christian faith.

    Bonnie, that’s interesting. I’ve read that during the middle ages people who dropped food on the ground would pray and make the sign of the cross before eating it, feeling that afforded them protection.

    There have been several articles in the news lately that really do sound like the fictional starts to Zombie stories. That doesn’t diminish the tragedy of some recent events but it is rather strange. Furthermore, if you site the Darwin awards you are basically saying “this stupid jerk deserved to die and we are all better off for it,” which is rather harsh to say the least. To simply recognize that a man who predates and consumes another human being and takes multiple gun shots to stop is similar to a particular fictional disaster scenario is not at all the same thing. You don’t have to wish anyone dead to recognize that they did in fact die in a bizarre and frightening way. That’s a big difference I’d say.

    Also, the CDC has used the zombie apocalypse model as a metaphorical way to teach emergency preparedness and such during modern pandemics. That is a very real tie-in and worthy of note. Not to mention the whole 2012 hysteria that’s out and about.

    • Jack
      June 1, 2012 at 12:42 PM

      The CDC reference is totally out of context and doesn’t make sense. That article inferred that the man on the highway was reduced to the level of ‘Zombie’ (an undead creature who lives off the flesh of the living) and dehumanized him for amusement purposes. That man died. Hardeee har har. Also look at it from the perspective of the survivors. I am sure the relatives of the man in Florida were not amused by the ‘Zombie Apocalypse’ reference, and there were plenty of news articles that did not use the term ‘Zombie Apocalypse’, yet those were not chosen. Instead a term that may have inspired us to treat this awful occurrence with some humor was. You can’t see how this could be construed as offensive? Perhaps Smell the Glove’s original cover was than a totally black one. As far as Darwin Awards go, it is similar in that it is using humor to describe awful occurrences. I don’t think of the people who die in those stories as stupid jerks, I usually feel bad for them and causes me to reflect how close I have been to being in there, and how lucky I have been to not. Conversely, this religious gentleman without doubt knew the risks and suffered the consequences, where the ‘Zombie’ man in question may have been mentally disturbed or on drugs. I am not judging, just noticing what appears to be a double standard. Try not to use too much rationalizing when you justify dehumanizing a man to a brainless undead flesh eating creature as well as his victim, but referencing Darwin awards is just going too far. The cognitive dissonance may cause you to spontaneously combust. Lol.

  9. Max
    June 1, 2012 at 2:42 PM

    This is exactly the type or religious value that scares the heck out of me regarding the values based health bill put before the last congress (passed in house, died in senate.) What if your company’s owner decided that his/her faith only permitted prayer as therapy for any illness?

  10. Harrow
    June 5, 2012 at 2:27 PM

    When pastor Wolford reached Heaven, he had a specific question for God.

    “Your scripture said that You would protect me from poisons and serpents and such. Why didn’t You save me from the rattlesnake?”

    And God spake, “Mark, my dear child. I marked that snake as clearly as I could, that you would know how dangerous it is. I even attached a rattle to it. Then, when you didn’t heed those warnings, I sent an ambulance, a medic, and a doctor with antivenom serum.

    “What more do you want from Me?”

    -Harrow.

  11. Sids
    June 6, 2012 at 11:59 PM

    As a pastor in a snake handling church, he’s presumably done this plenty of times before. Given that he wasn’t dead until this time, he’s presumably never been bitten, or at least not by any of the really dangerous ones before. That would imply that he’s either a good snake handler who deliberately tries not to be bitten, or he’s never held any of the dangerous ones.

    If the latter, then he doesn’t seem to have much faith, so how’d he become a pastor? If the former, why go about actively preventing the snake from biting you if you think your faith is all you need to protect you? Isn’t preventing the bite rather counter-productive given that the reason you’re holding the snake at all is because you think you have enough faith to protect yourself?

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