Death from snake handling

There is a small group of Christians who take the Bible literally and interpret a passage from the very last chapter of Mark (16:17-18) that 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” as a test of faith and handled deadly snakes to show that they are indeed true believers.

The story of a West Virginia Pentecostal pastor Mack Wolford who took the Bible literally and died as a result of a rattlesnake bite is a tragic consequence of such delusions. Wolford had also apparently taken some strychnine during the same service in which he was bitten.

What makes this story even more incredible is that Wolford had seen his religious snake handling father die of a rattlesnake bite at age 39 when he was just 15 but that had not deterred him from enthusiastically taking up the practice himself. He had been bitten several times before and survived.

A reporter/photographer who had been observing Wolford for some time as part of making a documentary and had become friends with him missed the part of the service where he was bitten but observed his death throes and has some photos of his last moments along with some agonized reflections on whether she should have done anything differently. She writes:

As photojournalists, we have a unique responsibility to record history and share stories in as unbiased and unobtrusive a way as possible. But when someone is hurt and suffering, we have to balance our instincts as professionals with basic human decency and care.

In my mind, Mack’s situation was different from that of a starving child or a civilian wounded in war. He was a competent adult who decided to stand by what he understood to be the word of God, no matter the consequences. And so I’ve started to come to peace with the fact that everyone in the crowded trailer, including myself, let Mack die as a man true to his faith.

Here we see the damage caused by the ‘respect for religion’ trope. In any other context, what the reporter observed would have been interpreted by her as reckless behavior that had gone seriously wrong and she would have immediately called for emergency medical assistance. But because Wolford was doing it to show he was “true to his faith”, people not only did not try to discourage him from doing an obviously foolhardy thing, everyone just froze in their tracks and let events play out even when it was obvious that he was in mortal danger. It should be noted that Wolford himself, perhaps realizing that he was not immune to snake venom after all, eventually asked for medical help to be called but it was too late.

And so a man has needlessly died, and the blame can be laid squarely at the feet of religious delusions and ‘respect for religion’, nothing else.

Having said all that, I have a grudging respect for people like Wolford, even if their beliefs are insane. They are not like the hypocritical leaders of religious institutions, like the clergy in the Catholic Church or the leaders of the megachurches who live a life of luxury and ease on the donations of poor people and take only those parts of the Bible that are self-serving and ignore the rest. They impose on believers things that they do not do themselves. Such people are nothing more than con artists exploiting the gullibility of believers to enrich themselves. The Pentecostal snake-handlers, on the other hand, seem to take their beliefs seriously even if it could result in their deaths. What bothers me are those who do not share those insane beliefs but do not do anything because of feeling that they need to treat those beliefs with respect.

The passage in Mark from which such believers draw their inspiration about handling snakes is interesting. It comes at the very end as part of things Jesus said to his disciples after he rose from the dead. Some have argued that verses 9-20 were added later and thus should not be taken as ‘gospel’. But if that is done and those verses thrown out, then Mark’s account would end with the empty tomb and that means that one has to throw out his entire account of the resurrected Jesus meeting and talking with his disciples. That would undermine similar accounts in the other gospels since they came later and seemed to use Mark as a source.

Furthermore, there is another passage where Jesus seems to grant his followers immunity to snakes. In Luke 10:19 he says, “Behold, I give unto you power to tread on serpents and scorpions, and over all the power of the enemy: and nothing shall by any means hurt you” as part of his regular pre-death teaching.

One often hears that even if one thinks that Jesus was not divine, one must concede that he was a great teacher. I am not willing to concede this. It is true that he said some good things, though nothing that was truly original or carried tremendous insight. But he also said some awful things, the casual treatment of snakes being one. Why say such a thing? What was the point of encouraging his followers to take life-threatening risks for no benefit? How could someone who encourages his followers to take pointless and life-threatening risks be considered a great teacher?


  1. says

    I was somewhat less down on Lauren Pond’s (the photojournalist) decision not to seek medical help… she did use some language that suggested the whole respect-for-religion nonsense, but I interpreted her reasoning as being more based in the idea that an adult acting out of strong convictions (no matter how deluded those convictions might be) is different from, say, a starving child.

    Imagine a photojournalist documenting a person going on a hunger strike against an oppressive regime. Should she, in that case, call the authorities so the protester could be force-fed? I would argue definitely not! Even if the photojournalist thought there was absolutely no hope of the hunger strike accomplishing anything, the protester’s strong convictions ought to be respected.

    The only difference in this scenario is how we feel about the person’s aims. Both actions are quixotic and hopeless and likely to result in death. It’s just that one, I agree with (liberal protest against an oppressive regime) and the other I don’t (proving that Jeebus will heal the faithful). Now, I don’t think there is any ambiguity here about which one of those is the worthy cause, but nonetheless I think a journalist ought to respect the strong convictions of adults, no matter how unworthy.

  2. says

    I don’t have much of a problem with the photojournalist’s decision not to call for medical help, not because this involved faith, but because this man had survived such incidents before. So at first it might not have been at all clear that this was life-threatening, it might just have been a case of the attitude of “Oh, yeah, I’ll be sick for a day or two, then I’ll recover, just like I did last time.” And without being a snakebite expert, how can you tell what’s going to be lethal from what isn’t? If she had not been there, he would have certainly died. And even if she had called for help, he might not have lived, or if he had pulled though he would be right back to snake-handling. This sort of death for him seemed not so much as an “if” as a “when”.

    I just hope that seeing this story may help somebody else. Perhaps not a snake-handler, they seem pretty far gone, but others who are starting to think their religions are also over-the-top crazy, and considering leaving them.

  3. Mano Singham says

    The hunger striker case is interesting but I am not sure that it is a close parallel. There the striker is consciously taking actions that he or she knows for sure will lead to death. It is essentially suicide and how one reacts will depend on one’s feelings towards allowing people to commit suicide.

    The snake handlers don’t want to die or expect to die. They are suffering from a delusion. It would be closer to the case of someone on a drug-induced hallucination who thinks they are not only invincible but can also fly and tries to jump off a high building to prove both. Should one try to stop it? And if the person does jump and falls and is injured, should one call the ambulance or let the person think that because they are invincible, their body will heal by itself?

  4. says

    Whether your analogy is apt or not strikes to a very important point, one on which I have not really made up my mind. And unfortunately it’s very difficult to ask the question without making a whole bunch of dualist implications, so I’m going to ask it in a somewhat roundabout way:

    Is religious belief more like a) a psychotic delusion, like when my schizophrenic brother-in-law thinks aliens are following him, or b) a poorly-supported political opinion, like when my Republican uncle says that tax cuts for the rich will help the economy?

    And for that matter, is there a bright line between (a) and (b)? Again, I don’t think it’s clear we can draw a strong delineation without invoking some sort of dualism (the schizophrenic doesn’t “really” believe that, it is only the disease talking, not his homunculus; while the Republican “really” believes it). But I do think they seem to be two ends of a continuum of false belief.

    I tend to think that religious belief falls closer to (b), and as such I lean towards giving it the same sort of protections as (b) (i.e. you can think that all you want, and even engage in certain dangerous actions as a result, e.g. voting for Romney, but I will criticize you mercilessly for your false belief). But I’m not pretending there is an obvious answer.

  5. mnb0 says

    Wolrord did not die needlessly. He did a great job falsifying the inerrancy of the Bible.
    I agree that Jesus was not that great a teacher; I like both Gautama Boeddha and Epicurus better. What’s more, the thing I like best of Jesus seem to stem from the Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs, probably written by a Pharisee.
    I refer to Bertrand Russell’s famous Why I’m not a christian.

  6. Mano Singham says

    This may depend on the specific nature of the religious belief. If the religious beliefs are of the kind that people use to base moral values and extend them to the political sphere, then it is more like your (b). But if the beliefs are such that they think they are beyond the laws of nature, then I would classify them as (a).

  7. Sunny says

    He did a great job falsifying the inerrancy of the Bible.

    I thought his father’s death had already demonstrated as much.

  8. Scott says

    The irony is that probably not a single one of his church members questioned his or her faith because of this incident.

  9. Sids says

    As a pastor in a snake handling church, he’s presumably done this plenty of times before. Given that he wasn’t dead until this time, he’s presumably never been bitten, or at least not by any of the really dangerous ones before. That would imply that he’s either a good snake handler who deliberately tries not to be bitten, or he’s never held any of the dangerous ones.

    If the latter, then he doesn’t seem to have much faith, so how’d he become a pastor? If the former, why go about actively preventing the snake from biting him, if he thinks his faith is all he needs to protect him? Isn’t preventing the bite rather counter-productive given that the reason he’s holding the snake at all is because he wants to demonstrate that he has enough faith to protect himself?

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