“They shall take up serpents; and …” … die.


I never cease to be amazed about the diversity of truly crazy things that people believe. One recent example concerns a verse in the bible that says …

“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,” (Mark 16:17-18).

You can just see it now, some believer is thumbing through his bible, reads the above and thinks, “Hey, I have an idea”, and so there are now churches that practice snake handling and drinking poison in worship services.

OK, you have just got to ask the obvious, how many members do they have? Lots, there are possibly fifty to a hundred congregations, yes OK not a huge thriving movement (I wonder why) but still, that is a rather large number of utterly bat-shit crazy kooks who think handling snakes and drinking poison is a jolly good idea.

So is this a new idea? Nope, not at all, it first emerged in the early 1900s.

And what exactly happens when they meet? Well in addition to the usual stuff, hymns prayers etc…, at front of the church they have a special area for handling snakes. They take this seriously, so this is not a pet store, because there you will find rattlesnakes, cottonmouths, and copperheads.During the service, believers may approach the front and pick up the snakes, usually raising them into the air and sometimes allowing the snakes to crawl on their bodies. The snakes are considered incarnations of demons, and so handling the snakes is supposed to demonstrate your power over them. The good news is that nobody is made to handle the snakes, it is completely optional, but I do fear that the pressure to confirm and be accepted might drive some foolish insecure individuals to take wholly inappropriate risks for some very dubious reasons. Apparently some believers also engage in drinking poison (most commonly strychnine). I’d really hate to be a medical professional working nearby, it must be a rather tedious face-palming calling.

And of course its all good fun because nobody has ever been hurt … right? Oh come on now, you know the answer. Over sixty cases of death as the result of snakebites in religious worship services have been documented. It really is a no-win scenario for any skeptic, they will happily point out that most of the time their god protects them, and when you point out the deaths, “Oh that was his/her fault, it happened because of their lack of faith”.

So what prompts me to blog about this? Another death, Mack Wolford, a flamboyant Pentecostal pastor from West Virginia

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.”

There is also a rather tragic punchline to all this … the verse that gave birth to this craziness is not in the original text of Mark, it was a latter addition. Most scholars hold the view that verses 9-20 of Mark chapter 16 were not part of the original text.

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