Flamboyant Pentecostal preacher Mark Randall “Mack” Wolford, who was one of the last serpent-handling preachers of his kind in the U.S., passed away on Sunday after being bitten by one of his snakes, according to the Washington Post. The Washington Post Magazineprofiled Wolford in November of 2011, telling of his ongoing faith in his ministry in spite of his own father’s death by snakebite in 1983.
Wolford was holding a outdoor service at Panther Wildlife Management Area in his native West Virginia when he was bitten. The pastor promoted the event on Facebook on May 22, calling it “a homecoming like the old days. Good ’ole raised in the holler or mountain ridge running, Holy Ghost-filled speaking-in-tongues sign believers.”
On May 23, he wrote on Facebook, “Praise the Lord and pass the rattlesnakes, brother.” He had invited his congregation, his family and extended family to the event, which was located roughly 80 miles west of Bluefield, West Virginia.
Wolford’s sister Robin Vanover told the Post on Monday that snake-handling had been a family tradition, “At one time or another, we had handled [snakes], but we had backslid. His birthday was Saturday, and all he wanted to do is get his brothers and sisters in church together.”
Snake-handling Pentecostals claim that they use their practice as a means of getting closer to god by testing their faith. They take as their inspiration verses 17 and 18 from Chapter 16 of the Gospel of Mark, which reads, “And these signs will follow those who believe: in My name they will cast out demons; they will speak with new tongues; they will take up serpents; and if they drink anything deadly, it will by no means hurt them; they will lay their hands on the sick, and they will recover.”
The practice is legal in West Virginia, but not in most states. Wolford was struck on the thigh by a rattlesnake he had owned for years. It is a tenet of snake-handlers’ faith that they rely on only god for healing if they are bitten in the course of their worship.
After being bitten, Wolford halted the service and was taken to a relative’s home to recover, as he had on the four other occasions when he was struck by one of his snakes. This time, however, he was unable to shake off the effects of the rattlesnake’s venom.
Hours after the bite, frantic prayer requests began to appear on Facebook. Paramedics were called, but by the time help arrived, Wolford was dead.
Like his own father, Wolford lived approximately ten hours after being bitten. He described his father’s death to the Post in November thusly, “When he got bit, he said he wanted to die in the church. Three hours after he was bitten, his kidneys shut down. After a while, your heart stops. I hated to see him go, but he died for what he believed in.”
Wolford’s funeral will take place Saturday, June 2 at his church, The House of the Lord Jesus, in Matoaka, West Virginia.
David Ferguson is an editor at Raw Story. He was previously writer and radio producer in Athens, Georgia, hosting two shows for Georgia Public Broadcasting and blogging at Firedoglake.com and elsewhere. He is currently working on a book.
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