Thursday, May 31, 2012

The Death of a Biblical Literalist

I began life as a Baptist and I studied at a Baptist college and a Baptist seminary.  Back in the late 1970‘s and all through the 1980‘s, it was popular amongst prominent Baptist preachers to claim to be biblical literalists.  Having been born on Sand Mountain, in Northeast Alabama, in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains, the only biblical literalists I knew were snake handlers.  The rest, as far as I was could tell, were pretenders to the title “biblical literalist.”

The Rev. Mack Wolford was a true biblical literalist.  Wolford, a Pentecostal preacher, was known in Appalachia as a man of his convictions. He believed that Christians, such as himself, should handle serpents to test their faith in God.  Further, if they were bitten, they were to trust God to heal them.

Wolford searched the woods of Appalachia for the snakes he kept for worship services at the Church of the Lord Jesus where Pentecostal Christians, like himself, handled poisonous snakes, drank strychnine and played with fire as required by their faith.

The Gospel According to Mark, chapter 16, verse 18 clearly states that Christians are to  "take up serpents.”  A biblical literalist who is true to his convictions could do nothing else.  The passage reads (verses 17 & 18):  “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” (King James Version).  Those verses are a pretty good description of the worship services at the Church of the Lord Jesus Christ.

If worshipers are bitten and they do not recover, like Wolford did not recover, then it is believed by the other worshipers at the Church of the Lord Jesus Christ that it was “simply their time to go and God took them.”  Mark Wolford, like his father before him, died from the bite of a rattlesnake.  Such is the price some of the biblical literalists at the Church of the Lord Jesus Christ pay for their convictions.

I am not, and have never claimed to be, a biblical literalist.  I do not share Wolford’s convictions.  I, in fact, believe he was mistaken in the way he read Holy Scripture and wrong-headed in the way he practiced his faith.  I do, however, admire a believer who practices his faith even when that faith is likely to cost him something.  It seems to me hypocritical to call yourself a biblical literalist, and then not pick up snakes in worship.  Wolford was misguided but, he was no hypocrite.


Cody Blair said...

Father Charles,

Thank you so much for this blog! I couldn't agree more. If a Christian is going to claim sola scriptura and purport to be a "biblical literalist" (i.e. "If the bible says it, I believe it, that settles it" type of person) and they fail to take up serpents and drink poison then I would call BS on their so-called "biblical literalism". Furthermore, among many of our ultra-conservative brothers and sisters who hold this claim to biblical literalism one can clearly see that it's not about being a biblical literalist, but about simply being counter cultural. I don't disagree with a persons right to be counter cultural, but I have huge problems with individuals who hide behind the claim of "just doing what the bible says"...or simply "just believing what the bible teaches". That can be a huge crutch to the so-called literalist to lean on as he or she hates others that are not just like them.

Attention "biblical literalist"...start taking up snakes or SHUT UP!

Thank you again Father for your insights in this story.

Many Blessings,


Tamara said...

The first I ever heard of snake-handling was when the father of one of my cousin's classmates died of a snakebite at a church service. (This was in the Appalachians in western Virginia.) I was stunned. Later, when I read Salvation on Sand Mountain, I stayed stunned, if that's possible. I remember how surprised I was when I learned that you are from Sand Mountain, Charles!

Derrick from Bama said...

I know where a few rattle snakes are located. I would be more than happy to show the location to any fundamentalists. ....I'm sure they would fit right in.

Dan Kinkead said...

Thank you for your blog… But, I guess I have to take issue with saying that all who call themselves literalists in terms of the Bible are somehow equated with Snake-Handling-Backwoods-Pentecostalism. I am an Anglican, an university graduate, an aspirant to Holy Orders and yet could easily term myself a Biblical literalist.

Taking the Bible literally mean that we take the Bible as it was meant to be read. For example, Christ tells us that He is “the door”, meaning the entry to the Father. We do not (tongue in cheek) believe that Christ is an actual wooden structure with a knob and hinges. We take this verse literally in that he meant it to be a metaphor.

So, just as I try to not paint my more liberal and “non-literalist” friends as off-the-wall-left-wing-pseudo-Buddhist-wackos; I would hope that you can try to look at us literalist as fellow believers who are just trying to get it right. We really are not so horrible. And, BTW, I have no intent on handling snakes in church or anywhere else..

GOD’s peace to you…

(Please check out my blog at

Dan Kinkead said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Charles Hawkins said...


As someone who is from the "Backwoods" (as you put it), I don't know why you think that would be a bad thing. We have our virtues. However, I do note that I did not use that term.

I did say that he was a Pentecostal and I said that with no malice. I studied Pentecostalism at Harvard with Harvey Cox and he is very fond of Pentecostals. Growing up in the "Backwoods," I can say with no irony, some of my best friends are Pentecostals (In fact, now that I think of it, I recently did a "pulpit" swap with a local Pentecostal pastor).

What I said was that (1) if you call yourself a biblical literalist and (2) do not handle snakes, then (3) you are not a real biblical literalist. I was not equating persons like yourself with "Snake-Handling, Backwoods, Pentecostalism," I was saying that persons who articulate the postion you have below, are not, as you say you are, "biblical literalists." The real biblical literalists are those "Snake-Handling, Backwoods, Pentecostals." Who, as I indicate, I admire for the strength of their convictions.

It sounds to me like you also think that Wolford was mistaken in the way he read Holy Scripture and wrong-headed in the way he practiced his faith. Therein we agree and I contend that makes you something other than a biblical literalist. It seems to me hypocritical to call yourself a biblical literalist, and then not pick up snakes in worship. Wolford was misguided but, he was no hypocrite.


Melbourne Hardiman said...

Being a biblical literalist is clearly stupid in this day and age. A bit like the idea Noah actually collected every kind of animal for his "ark" - considering there remain many species still unknown to science.
The pastor should have done a few snake handling courses before handling the snakes and who knows, he may still be alive today!