Preacher opens up on 'taking up serpents,' a faith display
By JORDAN NELSON, The Register-Herald
SQUIRE, W.Va. (AP) — A pale yellow church sits perched atop a hillside above a swift creek in Squire, West Virginia. Three wooden crosses are nailed to the side of the church with a purple sash draped over the middle. A sign up front welcomes all to the “House of the Lord Jesus.”
The McDowell County church of Pentecostal faith welcomes all, without judgment, according to the church’s pastor, Chris Wolford.
He said the House of the Lord Jesus is just like any other Christian-based church, with just a slight distinct difference — members take part in something called “taking up serpents,” because the Bible tells them to do so.
The 25 to 30 members of the church worship like many other congregations in the area — with music, fellowship and food. But they also use snakes.
Wolford explains that the black and brown rattlesnake hissing in its wooden box on the altar is just a typical part of any normal Sunday service at the House of the Lord Jesus.
Serpent handling, now outlawed in every state except West Virginia, leaves many wary, but according to Wolford it’s one thing he puts his full faith in.
The 45-year-old pastor was only 11 years old when he witnessed his father die from a snake bite during a church service. He says his dad had found something worth dying for.
“My father was an alcoholic, a mean man, but when he began serpent handling, I saw a change in his life,” Wolford says. “I knew he got a hold of something unexplainable because he was a new creature in Christ.
“I realized that what he got a hold of, he loved enough to die for. He became a better man with this, and I saw that.”
Seeing his father die didn’t discourage Wolford or steer him away from serpent handling, but instead encouraged him even more to take part in the faith.
“I had seen him become a great man, and I knew I wanted to take part.”
Wolford, a well-respected serpent handler in his small community, sat in a pew in his church, dressed in his Sunday best with khaki pants and a lavender button-up shirt. He and his brother, Mack Wolford, are the second generation of Wolfords to take part in serpent handling.
Mack Wolford died in 2012 from a snake bite he sustained during a service. Wolford says that just like his father, his brother laid down his life for the Lord.
“They had something in them that meant more to them than this world,” he says. “The Bible says there’s no greater love than man to lay down his life for a friend, and Jesus is the greatest friend anyone could ever have.”
Although he spent most of his life in a serpent-handling church, it wasn’t until Wolford went through a time he said was his lowest point before he actually began taking part in it himself.
“I used to be a drug addict. I was on pills, cocaine, shooting dope, I’ve done it all, but it wasn’t until I gave my heart and soul to God that he set me free from all that,” he explains. “I no longer desire the drugs, or desire the alcohol. He took that from me.”
Wolford’s church bases its belief upon the 16th chapter of the Gospel of Mark stating “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.”
The five signs are practiced within serpent-handling churches, including the sipping of strychnine, a poison, as a test of faith.
A jar with a clear substance is perched near the altar. A label with a black skull and cross bones and the words “poison” sticks to it.
Wolford takes a sip during service often, along with several others.
He says anyone who attends his church is given the option to not handle a serpent or sip on poison; nothing is forced. He says it all boils down to faith.
“It’s the word of God; you can’t debate it. It says so in scripture, but if you don’t have the faith, don’t take part,” Wolford said. “I’ve got the Bible to back up my faith, but if you don’t see that and you don’t feel it, then don’t do it. It’s not the time.
“You won’t be looked down upon. You do it when you’re ready, when you have the faith. You’ll know. God will move when he knows you’re ready.”
Wolford realizes many people on the outside of what he and his church members take part in may see it as “odd” or as “tempting God,” but, he says, it’s far from that.
For those who believe that about serpent-handling churches, Wolford says he has only one piece of advice — “study your scriptures.”
“Unbelief is the only way God can be tempted,” he explained. “The Bible says God cannot be tempted by evil, nor does he tempt any man.
“Someone is tempting him more by not believing in taking up serpents than I am by believing. The Bible says to do so. I believe it. I believe in his word.”
Wolford pointed to scars on his hand, bites he’s received since he began handling serpents.
He compares the pain from the bites to sucking through a straw and not being able to breathe.
The second bite, from a little over a year ago, was the closest to death he had ever been.
“Within 15 minutes I couldn’t breathe, and lost all control of my bodily organs.”
Like many serpent handlers, Wolford refuses to seek medical attention after he is bitten. He says he went home, but after 48 hours he just couldn’t take the pain anymore.
“It was so much pain. It felt like someone took a hammer and was beating me in the heart with it. Finally, I told God I couldn’t do it anymore and I was going to have to go to the hospital, but, in just a minute, the pain left me,” Wolford says, snapping his fingers.
Seeking medical attention for a bite isn’t frowned on after getting bitten, Wolford says, but is uncommon.
Once someone does get bit, he explains, the first thing they are asked is if they want to go to the hospital. If they refuse, they’re prayed for, and the church will sit with the person while “the poison runs its course.”
Getting bitten can mean many things, Wolford says, whether it was someone willing to lay their life down for God or they thought they were ready to handle a serpent, but really weren’t.
“It’s about waiting for God, being patient with God. If you don’t have that faith inside of you, you shouldn’t do it. If you’re fearful, it’s not the right time,” he says.
Being scared of something such as a serpent is human nature, Wolford explains, but the joy you feel while handling a serpent the right way is overwhelming joy.
“When God moves on you, that fear goes away. When the spirit of God or the Holy Ghost begins to stir, he brings you so much joy.”
During a near three-hour service, filled with music, foot stomping, dancing and prayer, the couple dozen people in the congregation rose to their feet to worship God. In the church’s tradition, women wear skirts, wear no makeup and leave their hair uncut.
While Wolford gets into the worship, he begins to open the box, bringing the serpent to the forefront. The snake coils its body around Wolford’s arm, and slides over his back. He shouts into the microphone excitedly.
“Woooweee, by the Grace of God!”
He wipes sweat from his forehead as he begins passing the snake to other men within the church. He grabs the jar of poison and takes a sip.
“The power of God!” he shouts again.
Wolford says any and all are welcome to the House of the Lord Jesus.
“We may look different, we may act different, and we may dress different; but we don’t look down on anyone.”
Information from: The Register-Herald, http://www.register-herald.com