Mack Wolford, a flamboyant Pentecostal pastor from West Virginia, hoped the outdoor service he had planned for Sunday at an isolated state park would be a "homecoming like the old days," full of folks speaking in tongues, handling snakes and having a "great time." But it was not the sort of homecoming he foresaw.
Instead, Wolford, who had turned 44 the previous day, was bitten by a rattlesnake he had owned for years. He died late Sunday.
Mark Randall "Mack" Wolford was known all over Appalachia as a daring man of conviction. He believed that the Bible mandates that Christians handle serpents to test their faith in God — and that, if they are bitten, they trust in God alone to heal them.
He and other adherents cited Mark 16:17-18 as the reason for their practice: "And these signs will follow those who believe: in My name they will cast out demons; they will speak with new tongues; they will take up serpents; and if they drink anything deadly, it will by no means hurt them; they will lay their hands on the sick, and they will recover."
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The son of a serpent handler who died in 1983 after being bitten, Wolford was trying to keep the practice alive, both in West Virginia, where it is legal, and in neighboring states where it is not. He was the kind of man reporters love: articulate, friendly and appreciative of media attention. Many serpent-handling Pentecostals retreat from journalists, but Wolford didn't. He'd take them on snake-hunting expeditions.
Sunday started as a festive outdoor worship service at Panther Wildlife Management Area, a state park about 80 miles west of Bluefield, W.Va. In the preceding days, Wolford had posted several teasers on his Facebook page asking people to attend.
"I am looking for a great time this Sunday," he wrote May 22. "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."
"Praise the Lord and pass the rattlesnakes, brother" he wrote May 23. He also invited his extended family, who had largely given up the practice of serpent handling.
"At one time or another, we had handled snakes, but we had backslid," his sister Robin Vanover said Monday. "His birthday was Saturday and all he wanted to do is get his brothers and sisters in church together."
And so they were gathered at this evangelistic hootenanny of Christian praise and worship. About 30 minutes into the service, his sister said, Wolford had been passing a yellow timber rattlesnake to a church member and his mother.
"He laid it on the ground," she said, "and he sat down next to the snake, and it bit him on the thigh."
The festivities came to a halt shortly thereafter, and Wolford was taken to a relative's house in Bluefield to recover, as he always had when suffering from previous snake bites. By late afternoon, it was clear this time was different, and desperate messages began flying about on Facebook asking for prayer.
Wolford got worse. Paramedics took him to Bluefield Regional Medical Center, where he was pronounced dead. It could not be determined when the paramedics were called.
Wolford was 15 when he saw his dad die at age 39 of a rattlesnake bite in almost the same circumstances.
"He lived 101/2 hours," Wolford told The Washington Post last fall. "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."
According to people who witnessed Mack Wolford's death, history repeated itself. He was bitten about 1:30 p.m.; he died about 11 that night.
One of those present was Lauren Pond, 26, a free-lance photographer from Washington, D.C. She had been taking pictures of serpent handlers in the area for more than a year, including for The Post, and stayed at Wolford's home in November.
"He helped me to understand the faith instead of just documenting it," she said Tuesday. "He was one of the most open pastors I've ever met. He was a friend and a teacher."
The family allowed her to stay near Wolford's side Sunday night, and she's still recovering from having witnessed the pastor's agonizing death. "I didn't see the bite," she said. "I saw the aftermath."
In a Post interview for last year's story, Jim Murphy, curator of the Reptile Discovery Center at the National Zoo, described what happens when a rattlesnake bites.
The pain is "excruciating," he said. "The venom attacks the nervous system. It's vicious and gruesome when it hits."
But Wolford refused to fear the creatures. He slung poisonous snakes around his neck, danced with them, even laid down on or near them. He displayed spots on his right hand where copperheads had sunk their fangs. His home in Bluefield had a spare bedroom filled with at least eight venomous snakes: usually rattlers, water moccasins and copperheads that he fed rats and mice. He was passionate about wanting to help churches in nearby states — including North Carolina and Tennessee, where the practice is illegal — start their own serpent-handling services.
"I promised the Lord I'd do everything in my power to keep the faith going," he said in October. "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 involved."
His funeral will Saturday at his church, House of the Lord Jesus, in Matoaka, just north of Bluefield.