Pentecostal reverend Mack Wolford died after a severe snake bite at a service in Matoaka, West Virginia on Sunday. The outdoor morning service started innocently enough at Panther Wildlife Management Area with enthusiastic Christian praise and worship. Wolford started handling a snake about 30 minutes into the worship. He had endured bites in the past, so when a yellow timber rattlesnake struck him, his congregation appeared calm. The service ended immediately after the snake bit Wolford and within hours, he passed away at the Bluefield Regional Medical Center. Wolford's father also died from snake venom nearly 30 years ago.
Unlike many of his contemporaries, Wolford openly welcomed journalists interested in his practice and even extended invitations to participate in snake hunting expeditions. He worked hard to keep serpent handling alive in Appalachia.
Snake handling remains legal but rare in West Virginia. Snake handling is a religious ritual in a small number of Pentecostal churches but the practice has been outlawed in most US states. Practitioners follow a literal belief in a gospel passage from the Book of Mark:
"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)
Wolford's death occurred days after National Geographic released Animal Underground, a series of documentaries profiling the relationships between human beings and animals. The series featured Pastor Jamie Coots of the Full Gospel Tabernacle in Jesus Name, a small congregation in Middlesboro, Kentucky.