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?”