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Can Serpent-Handling Preachers Charm Snakes?

A snake-handling preacher, who refused treatment until it was too late, died after being bitten during a religious service in a remote state park in West Virginia last weekend.
/ Source: Discovery Channel

A snake-handling preacher, who refused treatment until it was too late, died after being bitten during a religious service in a remote state park in West Virginia last weekend.

The Rev. Mark Wolford, 44, lived with poisonous snakes in his Bluefield, W. Va. home, according to a recent Washington Post profile.

Snake-handlers have been charming us (and perhaps saving souls) for years, but can they really do it or are they just lucky?

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Experts say there’s no sure way to tell when a venomous serpent like the timber rattlesnake -- the kind that probably killed Wolford -- will strike. Nor is it easy to tell whether you’ll get a harmless “dry bite," or a deadly injection of toxins that can kill a full-grown human within hours.

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“It is not always easy to predict their behavior,” said Matthew Evans, a biologist at the National Zoo in Washington, DC, who runs the Reptile Discovery Center. “But you are trained to know the signs when a snake is stressed out or threatened.”

According to the Washington Post, Wolford was performing a service for about 25 people at Panther State Forest in McDowell County on Sunday morning. During his sermon, he laid the rattlesnake on the ground and it struck his thigh. Family members took him home to recover, but his condition worsened. He was pronounced dead upon arrival at nearby hospital on Sunday afternoon.

Wolford was part of a tradition of snake-handling at so-called "sign churches," a small sect of Pentacostalism that follows a Biblical passage from the Book of Mark 16:18 which reads: "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." Some believers also drink poisons during as strychnine or gasoline in accordance with the five signs. Serpent-handling began in the Church of God around 1910 and is practiced by about 2,000 people throughout parts of West Virginia, Kentucky, Tennessee, Georgia and Alabama. It is illegal in all states except West Virginia. But experts say the practice is declining.

“When you see it done, you cannot believe your eyes,” said the Rev. Bill Leonard, a professor of church history and religion at Wake Forest University and a scholar of snake-handling congregations.

“They know what the dangers are and they play gospel roulette by doing this, “Leonard told Discovery News. “They pick up the serpents in all kinds of ways, often more than one in their hands.”Leonard estimates between 75 and 100 people have died over the past century of snake handling. He says families who belong to these congregations believe their faith will keep them alive, that’s why they don’t have snake venom anti-toxins available should something go wrong.

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“When it happens, there’s almost a naivete about this and it hits them very hard,” Leonard said. “On the one hand they are affirming their faith, but when it goes badly, they are often stunned by it.”

Snake handlers like Wolford scour the hills of southern Appalachia to collect poisonous rattlesnakes, copperheads and water moccasins, sometimes bartering with nearby congregations to get enough animals for their ceremonies, according to Ralph Hood, professor of the psychology of religion at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga.

“Serpent handlers are very cautious except in church,” Hood said. “Many believe that God anoints them and have a distinct feeling and they can handle the snake without being bit.”

That may be, but most professionals like the National Zoo’s Evans say snakes are unpredictable. That’s why they use hooks to pick them up and clean their cages or administer medicines. Evans says timber rattlesnakes -- relatively common throughout parts of the Eastern United States -- are more deadly than other species of rattlesnakes because they produce two separate poisons. A hematoxin kills cells upon contact, causing swelling and blackening of nearby tissue and, in effect, starting the digestive process for the snake. That compound sometimes turns a victim’s fingers into lumps of broken-down flesh. The snake also produces a separate neurotoxin that can paralyze the lungs.

Wolford likely knew the risks from performing his religious faith. His father -- also a serpent-handling preacher -- died from a rattlesnake bite when Wolford was 15 years old.