June 22, 2012

A snake-handler's death: 'The serpent will bite'

Donald Dover and I have been talking about his friend Randy for about 15 minutes when he quit answering my questions and posed one of his own:

Donald Dover and I have been talking about his friend Randy for about 15 minutes when he quit answering my questions and posed one of his own:

When it comes to faith, he asks, “Why is it so dramatic for a person to believe what he believes?”

I try to explain:

Mack Randall Wolford died three weeks ago in West Virginia after being bitten by a yellow timber rattlesnake. At the time of the bite, Wolford was practicing his religion.

According to a story in the Washington Post, the 44-year-old was “a legend in the local Pentecostal snake-handling community,” and Dover had seen his friend work with the same snake at two other religious services.

This time, something went wrong.

Just before 2 p.m. on Sunday, May 27, during an outdoor service at a wildlife-management area, the snake bit Wolford in the right thigh.

Dover, a Rutherford County evangelist, didn’t see the strike. But after learning of it, he watched Wolford keep preaching. Later, he carried him to a car. There, he told him he loved him. He didn’t know he was watching his friend die.

A week later, Dover gave the sermons at the funeral, which was held at Wolford’s church. His message: Are you ready?

Was Randy?

“Yeah,” Dover said. “He was ready.”

He goes on, worried that Wolford has been branded by some in the media as a religious kook.

“What I witnessed ,” the 40-year-old stops and starts again. “You know, as Christians, everybody ought to love one another and not put one another down on how they believe. Just because we might not agree doesn’t mean I don’t love you.”

“The word of God is the true word of God,” he continues. “If you don’t believe in one thing in the Bible, if you take one word out of the word of God, then that makes it a false book.”

He turns our conversation toward the Gospel of Mark and the five signs of the believer:

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 not hurt them; they will lay hands on the sick, and they will recover.

It’s common for Pentecostals to adhere to a few of the directives. But Wolford was “a five-sign Christian,” Dover says, and the spiritual leader “of one of the godliest groups of people I’ve ever met.”

If so, I ask, why was he bitten? Why did he die?

Dover goes back to his Bible.

“The Old Testament says that ‘when the hedge is broken, the serpent will bite.’ A lot of times, at a gathering, sin might be in the camp.”

Dover, a husband and the father of two young children, says he doesn’t handle serpents himself.

“Just because you don’t do it, doesn’t mean that it’s not true,” he says. “I believe in what the Bible says. But every time I see those things up there, my head says, ‘Stay away.’ I can’t say that’s for always.”

A test of faith

The practice appeared in the folds of the Southern mountains at the beginning of the 20th century, an extension of the Holiness movement that arose a century before, says Norris Frederick, the James A. Jones professor of philosophy and religion at Queens University of Charlotte.

No one knows how many believers still use snakes to test their faith. Frederick says the practice often is passed between individual churches and families. Wolford’s father died from a snakebite when his son was in his early teens.

His mother, Vicie Haywood, told the Post: “I couldn’t give up when his dad died, and now that (my son has) given his life, I just can’t give up. It’s still the Word, and I want to go on doing what the Word says.”

Why so much interest in such a small niche of the Christian world?

“It’s the raw power of it, like taking a revival and multiplying it by 20,” Frederick says. “We do know that in a certain way that these people are serious about their religion. We may think they’re wrong, but they’re putting their lives on the line.”

At the West Virginia service, Dover watched from the wings of the stage when Wolford picked up the snake. He says his friend had been working with it for about 15 minutes when Wolford’s mother told him of the bite.

A Post photo shows Dover on stage near the stricken Wolford, who seems to be wincing even as he continues to hold the rattler.

The revival band played on. Wolford kept preaching on his theme of repentance to his audience of about 25. Dover says he never mentioned the bite. Thirty minutes or more went by. All the while, Wolford refused medical treatment.

In the photographs, Wolford looks pale and barely conscious as Dover helps carry him through the parking lot. Even so, Dover says he fully expected to see his friend again after he put Wolford in his wife’s car, then began his own drive home to the Bostic community near Forest City, about 60 miles west of Charlotte.

Early Monday morning, he learned that Wolford had died. The obituary says he had four children, two of them in Statesville.

Wolford’s wife asked him to help officiate the funeral.

Returning to West Virginia

More than three weeks later, Dover says he’s still in shock about what happened. And he can’t really say how or if the experience has changed him.

He grew up in church but strayed into drugs and did “a little bit of everything under the sun” until God “started to deal with me.” He became a minister more than seven years ago, pastored several small churches, and now evangelizes when he can while working in a machine shop in Chesnee, S.C.

He says he tries to be a good Christian, a good husband and father, and never take anything for granted. For as Jesus says, “My time has not yet come, but your time is always ready.”

This Sunday he’ll be back on the road, making the 3 hour and 45 minute drive to the Apostolic House of the Lord Jesus Church in Matoaka, W.Va., speaking to his dead friend’s congregation, a group of believers, he says, who have always embraced him “with a godly love.”

He says he doesn’t yet know what he’ll preach. “I’m waiting on the Lord.”

Researcher Maria David contributed.

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