By James Nye
PUBLISHED: 21:15 EST, 2 June 2012 | UPDATED: 22:45 EST, 2 June 2012
Stirring themselves into a state of religious ecstacy through hours of music and the drinking of poisonous Strychnine, the serpent handlers of the Appalachian Mountains stand on the edge of radical Christianity.
Holding aloft deadly rattlesnakes, worshipers at the Church of the Lord Jesus in Jolo, West Virginia, claim to speak in tongues and to be able to perform healing miracles as the power of the Holy Spirit comes to them during their services.
It is a tradition that has fascinated and frightened the wider public in equal measure since its institution over 100 years ago and is now back in the news following the death of Mack Wolford, one of the foremost proponents of the risky religious practice.
Bitten by his own yellow timber rattlesnake at a serpent handling event 80 miles west of Bluefield, West Virginia, Wolford took 11 hours to die as he initially refused to seek medical help.
Wolford’s own father was a serpent handler and he died in 1983 from a snake bite when his son was 15-years-old.
But for pastor Harvey Payne, his brother David and Rufus Jewell, fear of death will be no barrier to their faith as they worship at one of the most famous snake handling churches in Jolo.
‘My life is on the line,” said Harvey Payne during a recent service.
‘All Holy Ghost power!’
Dating back to 1909, the tradition of serpent handling began when George Went Henseley introduced the practice into the Church of God in Cleveland, Tennessee.
Claiming to have been bitten over 300 times by snakes as he performed his rapturous services in the hills of the dense Appalachian mountains, Henseley believed in a literal interpretation of the King James Bible and in particular a verse of Mark 16: 17-18.
Rufus Jewell (left) and David Payne (right), bring in their boxes of snakes to the church. Rufus has a box containing a timber rattlesnake and David has two copperheads
‘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.’
Known officially today as ‘Church of God with Signs Following’, the non-denominational movement has around 5,000 followers in around four Appalachian states in the U.S and serpent handling is legal in West Virginia.
The church believes that there is a constant battle between good and evil and by taking poison, speaking in tongues and handling snakes they are fighting the devil through the ‘signs’.
The snake handlers are well aware that what they are doing could be lethal to them.
Some actually expect to be bitten as a way of reminding them of the danger they have chosen to face and some expect to die if they are bitten as proof that their time is up.
The act is not tempting the will of God but a way of confirming their own submission to the Bible as the Word of God.
‘Every time you come to church, it’s a matter of life or death,’ said biblical scholar Bill Leonard of the practice.
It is estimated that up to 100 people have died in the 100 or so years since the practice began, which supporters claim is a small number considering thousands of worshipers have handled thousands of deadly snakes in that time.
‘These people are not just religious fanatics; they’re not strange people,” said Thomas Burton, a professor emeritus of English at East Tennessee State University and the author of the book, ‘Serpent Handling Believers.’
‘They’re members of the Holiness Pentecostal faith, and they are religious fundamentalists who believe the Bible is the inspired word of God that should be taken literally.’
Even though he ultimately died from a snake bite in 1955, it was Henseley who is said to have picked up snakes while preaching Mark 16 after a man dumped down a box of rattlesnakes in front of him.
When a worshiper is bitten by a snake and dies, congregation members accept it as God’s decision that it was time for that person to die.
‘Some will say that God doesn’t say that you won’t get bit, or you won’t die, he just says to do this,’ said Burton.
Conducting their services usually in private, serpent handlers do have a public presence in towns like Jolo in West Virginia and Holiness Church of God in Jesus Name in Greenville, South Carolina.
- Strychnine poisoning can be fatal to humans and its symptoms are some of the most dramatic and painful of any known toxic reaction.
- Ten to twenty minutes after exposure the poison causes the body’s muscles to spasm which spread and cause continuous convulsions.
- The convulsions progress until the victims backbone is set into a continuous arch and death comes from asphyxiation caused by paralysis of the nerves which control breathing.
- There is no antidote to Strychnine poisoning and even in small doses it can be lethal.
Not everyone who attends the high energy services will handle snakes, they usually only do if they feel overcome with the presence of God as the snakes are brought into the church in clear glass boxes.
However, in recent years even though the serpent handlers have attracted morbid curiosity following references to them in shows such as the ‘X-Files’ and ‘The Simpsons’, some such as Mack Wolford feared the tradition would die out.
Before his death on Sunday last week, 44-year-old Wolford was known to drive around Appalachia to small, secret serpent handling churches to encourage them to continue the dangerous practice.
‘I promised the Lord I’d do everything in my power to keep the faith going,’ said Wolford said last fall in an interview conducted with him for the Washington Post Sunday magazine.
‘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.’
Pastor Tommy Addair (left) braces a member of the Church of the Lord Jesus as another congregation member (right) is consumed with religious fevour
Aware of the public fascination with serpent handling, Wolford wanted to use his platform to spread his beliefs to a new younger congregation.
But, even if holding the rattlesnakes and copperheads wasn’t dangerous enough, serpent handlers also ingest deadly strychnine during services.
‘In my life I’ve probably drunk two gallons of it,’ said Wolford.
‘Once you drink it, there is no turning back. All your muscles contract at once. Your body starts stiffening out. Your lungs; it’s like you can’t breathe.
‘I was up all night struggling to breathe and move my muscles and repeating Bible verses that say you can ‘drink any deadly thing and it won’t hurt you.
‘The devil said, ‘You’re going to die, you’re going to die.
‘You can’t go to the hospital. There is not a lot they can do. But (seeking medical help) means you’re already starting to lose faith.’
With the spotlight falling on serpent handlers once again, their supporters are lining up to ensure their freedom of religious worship is protected.
‘I think that generally, law enforcement feels that these people are better left alone as long as nothing happens,’ said Thomas Burton.
‘If somebody gets killed, that sometimes brings about charges if they feel pressure to do something about it.’
And although many believers assert they have a First Amendment right to handle a snake and drink poison as part of a religious service, the issue has never been decided by the U.S. Supreme Court, according to Burton.
However, the U.S Supreme Court does recognise religious practices as ‘sincerity of religious belief’ and there is no doubting the sincerity of the serpent handlers convictions.