A column by Julia Duin in the Washington Post last week documented the death of a Pentecostal pastor who died after being bitten by one of the rattlesnakes he used in his church services.
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.The Washington Post photographer for the story has written a thoughtful companion piece, "Why I watched a snake-handling pastor die for his faith."
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.”
The son of a serpent handler who himself 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...
“Praise the Lord and pass the rattlesnakes, brother” he wrote on May 23...
And so they were gathered at this evangelistic hootenanny of Christian praise and worship. About 30 minutes into the service, his sister said, Wolford passed 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.”
As a photojournalist, what role did I have in this tragedy, and what is it now, in the aftermath? Was it right for me to remain in the background taking pictures, as I did, and not seek medical attention for the dying pastor, whose beliefs forbade it? Or should I have intervened and called paramedics earlier, which would have undermined Mack’s wishes? Finally, what was I supposed to do with the images I shot?The story is of additional interest to me because I lived for ten years in Kentucky, where I became familiar with the phenomenon of religion-based serpent-handling. The knee-jerk reaction by cynics would be to observe that antivenom and hospital treatment with dialysis and life support could be viewed as the mechanism God uses to heal those bitten, but of course for the true believers it's much more complex than that.