“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.”
Pentecostal serpent handlers, also known as Signs Followers, hold a literal interpretation of these verses in the King James Bible’s Gospel of Mark. For more than a century, members of this predominantly Appalachian religious tradition have handled venomous snakes during their worship services, risking death as evidence of their unwavering faith. Despite scores of deaths from snakebite, as well as the closure of numerous churches in recent decades, there remains a small contingent of serpent handlers devoted to keeping the practice alive.
Who are the serpent handlers? What motivates them to continue their potentially lethal practices across generations? What is their faith really about? With these questions in mind, in 2011, I traveled to West Virginia, where I met West Virginia Pastor Mack Wolford, a well-known preacher in the region. By photographing Mack during both his worship services and daily life, I hoped to provide a more nuanced view of serpent handlers and generate greater understanding about their contested beliefs.
The direction of my work changed dramatically on May 27, 2012, when Mack, 44, was fatally bitten by a rattlesnake during a worship service I attended. As a photojournalist and outsider, I felt it was not my place to intervene to save the pastor, who, like many serpent handlers, did not believe in seeking medical attention for the bite. Instead, I watched Mack entrust his fate to God and die in front of friends, family, and my camera. Since then, my project has become deeply personal, chronicling the healing process I have shared with Mack’s family and reflecting the insight this has given me into the tenets of their faith – namely, forgiveness and renewal.