A “serpent-handling” West Virginia pastor died after his rattlesnake bit him during a church ritual, just as the man had apparently watched a snake kill his father years before.
Pentecostal pastor Mark Wolford, 44, hosted an outdoor service at the Panther Wildlife Management Area in West Virginia Sunday, which he touted on his Facebook page prior to the event.
“I am looking for a great time this Sunday,” Wolford wrote May 22, according to the Washington Post. “It is going to be a homecoming like the old days. Good ‘ole raised in the holler or mountain ridge running, Holy Ghost-filled speaking-in-tongues sign believers.”
Robin Vanover, Wolford’s sister, told the Washington Post that 30 minutes into the outdoor service, Wolford passed around a poisonous timber rattlesnake, which eventually bit him.
“He laid it on the ground,” Vanover said in the interview, “and he sat down next to the snake, and it bit him on the thigh.”
Vanover said Wolford was then transported to a family member’s home in Bluefield about 80 miles away to recover. But as the situation worsened, he was taken to a hospital where he later died.
Jim Shires, owner of the Cravens-Shires Funeral Home in Bluefield, told ABC News that Wolford died Monday. Wolford’s church, the Apostolic House of the Lord Jesus in Matoaka, will host a viewing Friday and a funeral service Saturday morning. Wolford will be buried at the Hicks Family Plot in Phelps, Ky.
Officials at the Panther Wildlife Management Area had been unaware of Sunday’s event until they were notified by callers after the service.
“We did not know that this event was happening, and if we had known about it or if we had been asked for permission, permission would not have been granted,” Hoy Murphy, public information officer for the West Virginia Division of Natural Resources, told ABC News.
Hoy said West Virginia state park rules prohibit animals other than dogs and cats on the property.
While snake-handling is legal in West Virginia, other Appalachian states, including Kentucky and Tennessee, have banned the practice in public spaces.
Snake-handlers point to scripture as evidence that God calls them to engage in such a practice to show their faith in him. 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.”
Wolford told the Washington Post magazine in 2011 that he is carrying on the tradition of his ancestors by engaging in snake handling.
“Anybody can do it that believes it,” Wolford said. “Jesus said, ‘These signs shall follow them which believe.’ This is a sign to show people that God has the power.”
Wolford said watched his own father die at the age of 39 after a rattlesnake bit him during a similar service.
“He lived 101/2 hours,” Wolford told the Washington Post Magazine. “When he got bit, he said he wanted to die in the church. Three hours after he was bitten, his kidneys shut down. After a while, your heart stops. I hated to see him go, but he died for what he believed in.
“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.”