snake handler

Snake Handling, Stigmata and Testing God

Snake handler W. R. Tinker standing beside sign for his 1948 revival meeting. (Photo by Francis Miller/Time Life/Getty Images.

A recent piece on the Huffington Post's Religion page described the death of Pastor Mark Wolford, a Christian minister known for handling venomous snakes during his worship services to demonstrate the power of his faith. The stunt went south, however, after he was bitten on the thigh during worship and died at a hospital not long after.

The practice, though rare, is employed in a handful of Christian congregations in response to a literal interpretation of verses 17 and 18 in the 16th chapter of Mark:

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.

There are several dangers this story raises, not the least of which, of course, is death by venomous snake bite. Such communities require public displays of faith that are meant to test the resolve of the faithful. And such practices are not restricted to backwoods protestant churches; some Catholics (and others) are enamored with the phenomenon on stigmata, where people exhibit physical signs of crucifixion, such as wounds on their hands or feet.

There’s the more obvious danger of putting someone in harm’s way by expecting them to perform a dangerous act to prove their faith. But there’s also the undercurrent of religious one-upsmanship, wherein folks are forever striving to be more daring, graphic or otherwise attention-grabbing. In addition to the potential physical danger, there’s the risk of pressing people to be deceptive in their faith practices, simply to enjoy the validation or admiration they seek, and which is held in such high esteem in these particular circles.