A snake-handling Pentecostal preacher who witnessed his father die in a similar fashion, passed away Sunday after he was bitten by a poisonous snake he had owned for years. Mark Randall "Mack" Wolford, 44, was reportedly one of the few pastors who openly shared his beliefs about Christians being commanded by Jesus in the Bible to take up serpents without fear of death.
Wolford, pastor of House of the Lord Jesus in Matoaka, W. Va., died at a relative's home May 27 after he sat down next to a yellow timber rattlesnake and was bitten in the thigh. The incident occurred during an afternoon service at the Panther Wildlife Management Area.
According to The Washington Post, the service soon came to a halt and Wolford was taken to his relative's home to recover from the poisonous bite -- a common occurrence for the charismatic Christian who grew up with a father who also preached snake-handling during his ministry. Wolford died about 10 p.m., according to a statement from his church.
The pastor, noted for his enthusiasm for sharing his belief that Jesus calls on his followers in passages like Mark 16:17-18 to handle snakes, was officially declared dead Monday at Bluefield Regional Medical Center. It appears that no one aware of Wolford's condition had called emergency services for help, according to a local report.
A statement on House of the Lord Jesus' website describes Wolford, who was married, as "a dynamic and zealous man for God" who loved the Word of God and "studied the Scriptures to no avail." It continues, "He prayed heavily. He fasted heavily. He loved his family, his church, his friends and neighbors to no avail and wasn't bothered at some of his harsh critics. He was a loving father, a vibrant and fully equipped minister, an awesome mentor and a positively influential best friend."
The Mark 16 passage often cited by serpent-handling Holiness churches reads: "17. And these signs will accompany those who believe: In my name they will drive out demons; they will speak in new tongues; 18. they will pick up snakes with their hands; and when they drink deadly poison, it will not hurt them at all; they will place their hands on sick people, and they will get well."
According to a statement on the House of the Lord Jesus church website, congregants believe in speaking in tongues, casting out demons and healing the sick. "But don't stop there," the statement adds. "Jesus preached also that in His name believers shall 'take up serpents and if they drink any deadly thing, it shall not harm them.' Jesus said. That settles it. No exceptions. We are solid and serious believers in the Word of God and can pray for you if you need it."
"I promised the Lord I'd do everything in my power to keep the faith going," Wolford told the Post in a 2011 interview. "I spend a lot of time going a lot of places that handle serpents to keep them motivated. I'm trying to get anybody I can get involved."
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Wolford, who started preaching in 2002, will be laid to rest Saturday, June 2, at House of the Lord Jesus church.
Although critics have argued that nowhere in the Bible are Christians commanded nor encouraged to handle poisonous snakes, the practice of serpent-handling has grown since its start in the late 1900s. It is more common in Appalachian states like Alabama, West Virginia and South Carolina, but is also reportedly practiced in states where it is illegal.
Ralph Hood, a professor of social psychology and the psychology of religion at the University of Tennessee, Chattanooga, told National Geographic several years ago that there were more than 100 documented cases of deaths from serpent bites.
"In every tradition, people are bitten and maimed by them," Hood said. "They risk their lives all the time by handling them. If you go to any serpent-handling church, you'll see people with atrophied hands, and missing fingers. All the serpent-handling families have suffered such things.
"It's a misconception that these people believe they won't get hurt. The Bible says to take up serpents, not that they won't be bitten. If they're bit, that's up to God. The issue is obedience to God. There's no magic power type of stuff. They know the reality of it because so many families have had people hurt and killed."