Mark Randall "Mack" Wolford, 44, had been bitten before and survived. But he died earlier this week after witnesses say a timber rattler bit him on the thigh. Wolford's sister and a freelance photographer told media outlets it happened during a Sunday service at Panther State Forest.
Lauren Pond, a freelance photojournalist from Washington, D.C., didn't immediately return messages Thursday but told the Bluefield Daily Telegraph she was among 25 people at the service. She saw Wolford bitten but said congregants were unfazed.
"I don't think anyone necessarily expected it," she told the newspaper, "but they've dealt with it before so it's not such a huge shock, maybe."
Bluefield Regional Medical Center spokeswoman Becky Ritter said Thursday that Wolford was a patient and died Monday, but that federal privacy laws prevented her from releasing additional information.
Officials at the Cravens-Shires Funeral Home also declined to answer questions, saying the family had asked that the cause of death be withheld. Several relatives did not answer email and telephone messages.
The state medical examiner's office referred questions to the state Department of Health and Human Resources, which didn't immediately respond.
Born in Pike County, Ky., Wolford had lived in the Bramwell area for the past five years and was a pastor at Apostolic House of the Lord Jesus in Matoaka. Unlike many Pentecostal preachers, he embraced publicity, welcoming journalists and photographers, and even taking some on snake hunts as he tried to revive interest in his religion.
Ralph Hood, a religion professor at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, saw Wolford bitten by a copperhead about six years ago.
Wolford and others prefer to be called "serpent handlers" as a reflection of Scripture, and Hood said his friend would want people to remember him as "a Christian who was living his beliefs and being obedient."
"Serpent-handling was only a small part of that," he said. "He was trying to revitalize a strong tradition that doesn't make a distinction between beliefs and practices."
"A common misunderstanding is that handlers believe they can't get bit or it won't kill them," Hood added. "What they'll tell you is, `No one will get out of this alive.' They'll also tell you it's not a question of how you live; it's a question of how you die. ... This is how he would have wanted to die."
Wolford and his followers have a literal belief in Mark 16:17-18.
"And these signs will follow those who believe," the verses say. "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."
"I know it's real; it is the power of God," Wolford told The Washington Post Magazine last year. If he hadn't started handling snakes after returning to his church, he said, "it'd be the same as denying the power and saying it was not real."
Although most Appalachian states have outlawed snake handling, it remains legal but rare in West Virginia.
Wolford acknowledged that last year, telling the magazine his mother was the only relative who still followed the tradition. Her husband died of a rattlesnake bite at age 39 in 1983.
Cody Ford, interim executive director of the West Virginia Council of Churches, represents 15 mainstream denominations and has little interaction with independent churches. But he said serpent-handling is "absolutely not" common in West Virginia, and churches that do it are hard to find.
"To the ordinary person sitting in the pews in any one of our churches, the snake-handling concept would be as strange and foreign as it would be to the most erudite reader of the New York Times," Ford said.
But Hood said the serpent-handling tradition remains scattered throughout the region, from Alabama to Ohio to New York. Its popularity waxes and wanes with the passing of generations, and it is currently seeing a resurgence of sorts.
"It tends to be transmitted through families, and as these young kids mature, the tradition grows and becomes strong again," he said. "And that's what's happening again now."