Snake-handlers cite scripture as evidence that God wants His children to antagonize deadly creatures to demonstrate their devotion. Mark 16: 17-18 reads: "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."
For adherents, no symbolic act is as powerful as taunting a lethal serpent. No sinner is so repugnant as to be denied the opportunity to convert through snake-handling. As proof, this Pentecostal community bucked tradition by reaching out to homosexuals recently. At a small Pride gathering outside Fayetteville in May, members of Wolford's church were seen releasing dozens of rattlers, asps, and cobras into the parade, hoping to bring salvation and transformation to the sinners. Unfortunately, a misunderstanding between the church and local police led to several arrests and harsh criticism of the group's practices.
Still, Wolford practiced what he preached. Having absolutely no training in animal control or proper reptile handling procedures, Wolford demonstrated that "anybody can do it that believes it."
Wolford watched his own father's gruesome 10 ½-hour demise after being bitten by a snake in a similar ritual at the age of 39. "I know it's real; it is the power of God," Wolford told the Washington Post Magazine last year. "If I didn't do it, if I'd never gotten back involved, it'd be the same as denying the power and saying it was not real."
Even skeptics concede Wolford's claim that it's all real.
"Yessir," agreed Dr. Jedediah "Scratch" Blakely. "Getting bit by a rattler's pretty real. Hemorrhaging and puking your guts out for 10 hours until your heart explodes is pretty real too."
Wolford's sister and other family members were convinced that Mark would recover through God's divine intervention when his severe pain, anxiety, and vomiting subsided after a few unbearable hours. At that point, Wolford allegedly announced that he could feel his body bloating with the power of the Lord's blessings and adoration. Blakely, who examined Wolford's corpse at the hospital, attributed the sensation to the dangerous level of swelling caused by the toxins in the venom.
"Untreated, swelling's one of the most damaging effects of the poison," Dr. Scratch Blakely explained. "It'll progress for several hours and seriously restrict circulation. It also causes pressure-related injury to local tissue. The trauma and lack of blood flow would probably also explain Wolford seeing a big light, along with the tingly feeling he said was angel fingers lifting his body up."
Eulabelle Krastreggersworth, a long-time member of the Apostolic House of the Lord Jesus in Matoaka -- Wolford's church -- said she experienced the event as a joyous homecoming for "one of the Lord's most beloved lambs."
"We really believed God's mercy was gonna purge the poison from Mark's body," she said. "But it was still a mercy that he only had to suffer those 12 hours or so. And he can be real thankful, looking down from Heaven on all of us, that he's not the person who has to clean up all that blood and vomit. The funeral was real nice too. Except for the viewing. I've never seen a human body that misshapen and discolored since all them boys blew up in the coal mines a couple years back."
But younger snake-handlers no longer share Krastreggersworth's upbeat outlook. Many of the church's newer members worry that the Wolfords have in some way "pissed God off." And even those who support the necessity of a potentially fatal test before the Lord think a crippling, protracted, and anguishing death by snakebite may be too showy. God, they assert, is not one for pretense or pomp. They have therefore proposed the formation of a new sect that celebrates God's glory through exhibitions of Russian Roulette.
Old school snake-handlers reject the idea because it strays too far from the scripture.
"And," Krastreggersworth added, "we told them they'd have to put five bullets in the gun to bring it to same level. None of those nancies would even consider it. Kids today. So out of touch with religion and spirituality."
(c) 2012. See disclaimers.