Last Sunday, in the foggy mountains of West Virginia, a snake-handling preacher was handled by a snake in the worst possible way. Mack Wolford spent most of the service holding a Bible in one hand and a poisonous serpent in the other. With no more than the usual few-dozen faithful looking-on, this Pentecostal preacher could be seen bouncing in hypnotic circles and shouting to God as the rock-a-billy gospel music chugged away in the background.
Eyewitnesses say that Wolford had just finished the “handling” portion of the service and was in the process of putting Sheba – his own personal timber rattlesnake – back in its cage, when her head coiled upward, leapt forward and struck Wolford in the thigh. As is usual with Signs Following members, Wolford refused medical treatment throughout the day – just as he has done on the three previous occasions when he has been bitten. By 10:30pm, however, he was brought to a nearby hospital. He died shortly thereafter, just one day after his 44th birthday.
Here is an excellent summary on snake-handling in Appalachia, produced by the History Channel.
(The clips begins at the correct spot. The snake-handling history is only about 10 minutes long.)
While snake-handling in religious services is only legal in West Virginia, it is still practiced throughout Appalachia, with tiny pockets of such churches in Mississippi, Alabama, Tennessee and even parts of Canada. In 2008, 10 men were arrested in Kentucky for selling poisonous snakes for church use. While most of these churches are fewer than 30 people, some estimate that there are over
4,000 2,000 total adherents.
One of most famous snake-handling incidents, in recent years, was a case from 1992 in Scottsboro Alabama. Glendel Summerford, a Pentecostal preacher, attempted to force his wife, whom he had suspected of having an affair, to put her hand in a snake cage during a church service. Summerford is currently serving a 99 year sentence in the state penitentiary for attempted murder. (For an excellent read on this bizarre story, I recommend Salvation on Sand Mountain by Dennis Covington.)
The awkwardly-named Signs Following movement gets its practice from Mark 16:17 which reads “And these signs shall follow those who believe.” The passage goes on to state that those who show these signs shall, “cast out devils…speak with new tongues…take up serpents; and if they drink any deadly thing, it shall not hurt them…” These Signs Following churches claim to obey the plain word of God by doing what it literally says. In addition, these groups are known to speak in tongues as well drink strychnine, a clear poisonous liquid – all as evidence of their faith.
Several years ago, (believe it or not) I shared a full, 45 minute message with the church, on a Wednesday night, entitled, “Snake-Handling: Faith or Foolishness?.” (Download and listen to it here.)
Not only did I explain the historical roots of this unusual phenomenon, but I attempted to uncoil the confusing theology and twisted Bible interpretations involved in this unwise and unbiblical practice.
Given this recent event, I thought I would briefly summarize some of my reflections from that study.
1. Many of those who practice snake-handling are, I believe, sincere.
While there are, inevitably, some hucksters among them, many of those in this movement are trying to obey the Bible, submit to their pastor, and show their faith. Having said that, let me be clear: sincerity is no substitute for truth. Those who carried out the 9-11 attacks were, obviously, very sincere in what they did. Sincerity, though, does not substantiate a religious practice. While many Signs Followers are imprisoned by a tradition-laden brand of religion, they are not putting on a fake show. I think these people are sincere – though I think they are sincerely wrong.
2. As deadly as snake-handling may be, the more dangerous aspect of the Signs Following movement is their heretical theology of God.
The Signs Following movement is a tiny sliver within the Pentecostal Holiness church. By their own admission, these groups do not hold to an orthodox view of the Trinity. They may talk about “loving Jesus” but, theologically, they are not talking about the same “fully-God, fully-man, co-equal with the Father and Spirit” Person that we do. As such, the Signs Following movement – while it is ordinarily classified as the Christian church – should be relabled as unorthordox or, more properly, as a cult.
3. Snake-handling is denominationally, geographically, and historically limited.
If ever there were an argument against the practice of snake-handling this is it. Let me sum it up in one sentence: there is no record of any church practicing snake-handling 1) outside of the Signs Following movement, 2) beyond the region of Appalachia, and 3) before 1909. This is an extremely LIMITED practice. Even among churches located in cultures that revere snakes, such as India, Pakistan, Thailand, etc., there is no evidence that any of them mix snake-handling with Christian worship.
4. The ending of Mark 16, the passage which serves as the foundation for their practice, is highly debated as original.
While I don’t have time to unpack the whole idea behind this, (those of you who came to the Panel Discussion heard us mentioning this), there are a few passages in the Bible that warrant a footnote – Mark 16:9-20 is one such passage. It does not appear in the oldest and best manuscripts that we have. It is highly likely that these verses were added, as part of an oral reflection of the events from the book of Acts (where most all of these “signs” did, in fact, follow the works of the apostles.) Given how little evidence there is for this ending, it is certainly not a good idea to base an entire church practice (like snake-handling) on it.
5. Supposing that Mark 16 is genuine, Jesus’ words about snake-handling and poison-drinking are “predictive” not “prescriptive.”
Imagine, for argument’s sake, that Mark 16 was part of the original Marcan ending. These final words from Jesus are still not a basis for snake-handling. Notice carefully, Jesus’ words were a statement about what “will happen” not what “must happen.”
In fact, this DID happen to the apostle Paul as recorded in Acts 28:3 and verse 5. The Bible says,
“But when Paul had gathered a bundle of sticks and laid them on the fire, a viper came out because of the heat and fastened itself on his hand…However, he shook the creature off into the fure and suffered no harm.”
If Jesus did in fact speak these words to the apostles, it is clear that Jesus was preparing them for what was ahead, not instructing them about what to go do. Also, the only imperative in Mark 16:15-18 is the word “preach” not the phrase “pick up.”
What happened to Mack Wolford was tragic. But, it does, in many ways, serves as a parable for what careless religion can produce – a fatal end. While it was not originally given in reference to this practice, 1 Corinthians 10:9 (NLT) provides a fitting warning to the Signs Following movement,
“Nor should we put Christ to the test, as some of them did who then died from snakebites.”