What are the essential marks of a religious tradition? What are marks that we can either agree to disagree on or even, perhaps, oppose? One of the principles of my tradition, borrowed from a Reformation-era leader states: "In essentials unity, in non-essentials liberty, and in all things charity (love)." But where do we draw the line? Should we laud people for practices they faithfully perform, even if we find them inappropriate?
Seth Perry writes here of the death of a snake-handler, part of a Pentecostal community that believes that snake-handling is an essential aspect of Christian faithfulness. What should we make of such a belief? That takes us to the further question -- how do we interpret the texts and tenets of our faith? What is essential and what is adiaphora?
-- Seth Perry
At about 11 p.m on May 27, a preacher in West Virginia named Randall “Mack” Wolford passed away from a rattlesnake bite he had sustained that afternoon. Wolford was a widely known advocate of serpent handling, practiced by a handful of Appalachian Pentecostals who believe that the phrase “they shall take up serpents” in Mark 16 means that handling poisonous snakes is a required sign of Christian faith, just like casting out devils, speaking in tongues, and laying hands on the sick (the signs that ordinary Pentecostals observe). During services people like Wolford pass poisonous snakes around, sometimes wave them about, and occasionally, per Luke 10:19, walk on them. Early in the proceedings on Sunday the 27th, Mack Wolford sat down next to a yellow timber rattler that he had placed on the floor and it bit him on the thigh. As a sign of faith in God’s protection and, ultimately, obedience to His will, he refused medical care.
Serpent handlers pride themselves on the claim that they are the rare Christians who live and practice according to the entirety of Christ’s message, the entirety of the Bible. “We feed over ALL of the Lord's Will, His Word and His Way,” Wolford’s church’s site says. “We are not side choosers that pick apart the Scriptures and cross out verses we don’t like.” Serpent handlers, like other Christians, have chosen something to emphasize. Over the course of two thousand years, others have chosen the precise nature and identity of Christ, the proper understanding and practice of the Eucharist, the correct way to baptize, the proper way to organize a church, which day of the week to call the Sabbath, and any number of other things as the sine qua non of being a true Christian, and in each case some other Christians have regarded that defining center of faith as “adiaphora”—something indifferent.
The dark extremes of eccentric faith unsettle a public discourse on religion predicated on tolerance and understanding: How do we react to a faith like Wolford’s? Often the law provides us with a guide—many destructive forms of religious expression are also illegal—but this was not one of those times. There are no laws against snake handling in West Virginia, and as a grownup Wolford was free to choose how he died. A photographer who had been working with Wolford was present as he lay dying, and has written about “com[ing] to peace with the fact that everyone in the crowded trailer, including myself, let Mack die as a man true to his faith.” Such extreme devotion carries an air of nobility. A deliberately provocative op-ed in the Washington Post by a psychologist who has studied snake handlers suggests that they be “lauded for their faith.”
An adult rattlesnake’s venom is “hemotoxic,” which means that a severe bite in the wrong place, untreated, eliminates your blood’s ability to clot and begins to dissolve the tissue of your muscles and organs. The snake begins to digest you, from the inside. With some biblical resonance of her own, a young mother in San Diego bitten by a rattlesnake last year described the pain as “more horrific than giving birth.”
In an important sense, respecting the depth of Wolford’s faith is an essential part of avoiding easy caricature; but in another sense, avoiding caricature of a man like Wolford should make his death sadder and harder to understand, not more approachable or ennobled. Wolford’s life, like his faith, had aspects other than snake handling that he might have chosen to emphasize. He was friendly and voluble, according to those who knew him; Facebook has pictures of him posing playfully with a filmmaker who is finishing a documentary about serpent handlers. A few days after his death, Wolford’s widow changed the cover photo of her Facebook page to one of her late husband cuddling not a snake but a small, shaggy dog she described as his “little shadow.” At 44, Wolford had a wife, a daughter, three stepchildren and nine grandchildren, as well as at least one devoted pet, but at least compared to his faith, it seems, the other parts of his life were so much adiaphora. We are obligated to respect a faith like this, but not to laud it.
“Change in Christian thought,” writes Edmund Morgan, “has usually been a matter of emphasis, of giving certain ideas a greater weight than was previously accorded them or of carrying one idea to its logical conclusion at the expense of another.” “It all boils down to Mark 16:17 & 18 to be taken literally that differentiates pure believers from pale imitations,” a snake-handling site says. “One man esteemeth one day above another: another esteemeth every day alike,” Paul observed to the church at Rome. “Let every man be fully persuaded in his own mind.”
"Rattlesnake Victim: 'Pain Worse Than Childbirth'," NBC San Diego, August 31, 2011.
Julia Duin, "Serpent-handling pastor profiled earlier in Washington Post dies from rattlesnake bite,"Washington Post, May 29, 2011.
---, "In West Virginia, snake handling is still considered a sign of faith," Washington Post, November 10, 2011.
Seth Perry is a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Chicago Divinity School and a Mellon Fellow in Early American Literature and Material Texts at the University of Pennsylvania’s McNeil Center for Early American Studies.
Sightings comes from the Martin Marty Center for the Advanced Study of Religion at the University of Chicago Divinity School.