Snake Bitten

Mark 16:15-20

And he said unto them, Go ye into all the world, and preach the gospel to every creature.  He that believeth and is baptized shall be saved; but he that believeth not shall be damned.  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.  And they went forth, and preached every where, the Lord working with them, and confirming the word with signs following. Amen.

When 44 year-old Mark Wolford, one of the most famous serpent-handlers in the South, is laid to rest at his West Virginia church, a week after succumbing to a snake bite, don’t be surprised if mourners show up for the funeral with boxes of copperheads, rattlesnakes, and cottonmouths. That’s the Pentecostal (not main-line Pentecostal) way in about forty small towns in the Blue Mountains.  When one believer dies from a venomous snake bite, others often insist that it’s still God’s will that Christians obey a verse or two in Scripture they say mandates the handling of serpents.  Wolford’s own father was a snake-handler who died from a venomous bite in 1983 when his son was fifteen years of age.  Mark Wolford was bitten by a yellow timber rattlesnake at an evangelistic event in a state park in West Virginia’s isolated southern tip.  In recent years, Wolford feared the practice was in danger of dying for lack of interest… …among people in their 20s and 30s.  It’s why he drove to small, out-of-the-way churches around Appalachia to encourage those who handle snakes to keep the practice alive.  “I promised the Lord I’d do everything in my power to keep the faith going,” Wolford said in his last interview.  “I spend a lot of time going to a lot of places that handle serpents to keep them motivated.  I’m trying to get anybody I can get.”  Wolford wanted to travel to the radical edges of faith, where life and death gazed at him every time he walked into a church and picked up a deadly snake.  That’s what drew the crowds and the media; that’s what gave a preacher from the middle of nowhere the platform to offer the gospel to people who would never otherwise listen.    “Mack was one of the hopes for a revival of the practice,” said Professor Ralph Hood of the University of Tennessee who’s written two books on snake handlers and is probably the foremost expert on their culture.  “However, I am sure others will emerge.”  And they are, even in Canada, where eight such congregations are now found in Alberta and British Columbia.  And of the 100 plus who have died since 1900 from serpent-handling in church?  To these folk, it was simply God’s time for them to go.  “It devastated me,” one serpent-handler said about Wolford’s death.  “It just shook my very foundation.  But it’s still in the Word of God and so I’m still going to be doing it.”

Bottom line?  The snake-handling promise was just for a limited time (I Corinthians 13:8) for any accidental contact, not an on-purpose display (Acts 28:3-5).