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Once bitten

Mack Wolford, the pastor of House Of The Lord Jesus Snakehandling Pentecostal Church in Matoaka, West Virginia, has died of poisoning from a snakebite.

Snakehandling Pentecostalism - or Signs Following as they call it themselves - was begun in Appalachia by George Hensley around 1910, inspired by Christ's final speech in Mark's Gospel: 'And these signs shall follow them that believe… They shall take up serpents; and if they drink any deadly thing, it shall not hurt them'.

Numbers of churches and members are so uncertain that even academic studies, such as Them That  Believe by the psychologists Hood and  Williamson, can't guess. But  reported deaths average one a year. Hensley himself died after a snakebite in 1955. So did Wolford's father in 1983.
This record seems as fatal to Signs Following theology as it is to the followers themselves. But Hood and Williamson show that the theology has adapted to experience.

For Hensley, the Bible promised immunity, so deaths were explained by the time honoured lack of faith. But deaths became too numerous for that excuse, so snakehandlers noticed that the text only says 'they shall take up serpents', making no explicit promise of safety. So now they see handling as an act of dangerous obedience.

Only this year, Kate Fowler and Mark Strandquist made a film made about Wolford's church, With Signs Following (pictured). In it, Wolford says: 'They always bring up "Why would you get bit with it if God's commanded you to do it?" And I always say, "Why did he tell the Apostles to go out and preach, and they were killed for preaching?'