Updated: Apr 25
The Signs Following Believers
Among the sound of the roaring river and the bustling sounds of forestry, one can hear the echo of Chris Wolford’s passionate voice coming from inside of The House of the Lord Jesus in Squire, W. Va. Inside of the church, 12 pews line the floor with tambourines sitting and waiting to join the hands in worship. Before long, the hiss of two rattlesnakes joins the twirling, stomping and dancing of the barefoot congregation. As the hissing grows in volume, so does the speed and fervor of the electric guitar and tambourines.
In the lower corner of McDowell County just mere miles away from the West Virginia state line sits The House of the Lord Jesus. It is the last “signs-following” Pentecostal serpent-handling church of West Virginia. A signs-following church is an informally organized Pentecostal church that is distinguished by their acts of handling serpents, poison and fire.
“I just want to reach people and tell them what God has done for me,” said Chris Wolford, pastor of The House of the Lord Jesus. “If you read the word, it says that the truth shall set you free, not a truth, but the truth. I believe I’m in the truth.”
Once the sermon begins, loud blues and bluegrass music blares through the speakers connected to the lively instruments. As the energy builds in the congregation, so does the voice of Wolford as his message persists. The congregation makes their way up to the front of the altar, and begins twirling barefoot around one another. Those that are not dancing are stomping and urgently shaking tambourines.
In this time of worship, Wolford and the members of the church begin to pass around a bottle of lighter fluid with a flame underneath their chin as a demonstration of their faith. Not long after, the buzzing sound of rattlesnakes joins the worship. The faces of those in the congregation are alive with almost every emotion. They demonstrate joy, sorrow and passion.
Some of the sorrow is evident when they speak of Wolford’s brother and father, who both died from the bite of a serpent during a service. Mack “Randy” Wolford died in 2012 from the bite of a rattlesnake, the same way that his father died years before. He was the founding pastor of The House of the Lord Jesus and remains a driving point for those in the congregation. When talking of their faith, they often mention him and his devotion to the practice. They believe that death is obedience to God and beneficial in salvation.
Wolford’s sermon gestures to the framed verse plastered on the wall beside the stage which reads: “lift your hands in the sanctuary and bless the Lord,” from Psalms 134:2. He faithfully practices what he preaches, and the congregation unites with pride. Their pure, unapologetic joy is simply overwhelming.
“Do Not Judge, Or You Too Will Be Judged”
The preconceptions and judgements projected upon their celebration of God are not to be of their concern. Fellowship and passion permeate the spiritual abode, leaving no room for dwelling on the opinions of others. So, Wolford sings out to the children of God: do not detest the outsiders who mock, for they know nothing of the love that this worship provides.
“There’s just a lot of people that will talk bad about us and have never met us,” said Wolford. “There’s a lot of people that will put us down that have never been to our church and never seen it. And they'll talk about how they know it all.”
There are significant preconceptions and misinformation regarding this religious practice in Appalachia. This misinformation derives from cultural cognition and the framing of information. Many see those that practice this religion as ignorant or lacking because of where they are from. Whether they are sunk in poverty or not, religion in West Virginia remains an embodiment of the people.
“People will think ‘they’re nothing but a bunch of crazy serpent handlers’,” said Wolford. “They come in and they get a video of us and all they will ever show on TV is us handling a big rattlesnake. But they will never show how much we love Jesus.”
Abe Partridge, now a friend of Wolford’s, first found an interest in this role of worship after researching Jamie Coots, who was a Pentecostal church pastor and third-generation serpent handler. Initially, Partridge held the same preconceived opinions as most: confusion, hesitation and doubt. Still, he found himself overly fascinated by their music – calling it completely distinct from any other Christian denomination.
Now, two years past, he has come to an understanding of this worship and actively travels to different serpent handling churches across Appalachia. Partridge understands that people harbor confusion as to why exactly these services are performed as they are, but he believes that humans simply fear what they do not understand. This fear can lead to hatred and henceforth, anger. The media further stimulates this, as the coverage on these churches is defamatory.
“They’re human beings, and they have a perspective that is foreign to most people,” said Partridge. “If you can get yourself out of your own world and consider things from their perspective, I don’t think it’s any more wild than any of the thousands of different forms and strains of religion that are in the world.”
A Century of Serpents
There is a significant dispute as to who began this subset of Christian worship, as well as where and when it specifically occurred. Minister George Went Hensely is largely considered to be responsible for the popularization of this rite in the early 1900s. However, the legitimate origin is speculative, as some claim this practice existed for centuries before its expansion. Still, Hensley bore the power to guide and influence his closely linked community in southeastern Tennessee. Over the following decades, he preached to small towns hidden between the mountains in Tennessee, Kentucky, and other Appalachian states, further fueling this movement.
Serpent handling churches were identified with the great Pentecostal movement during the 1920s, and from this movement emerged The Church of God and The Church of God of Prophecy. According to Ralph W. Hood in “Them That Believe,” the Pentecostal denomination no longer endorses the practice of serpent handling or the drinking of poison. In the 1950s, M.A. Tomlinson wrote in defense of the separation of the churches from the denomination. He believed that the “signs following believers” was a prominent teaching in the Bible.
“These signs shall follow believers and the preaching of the Word is clearly set forth in the Scriptures,” stated Tomlinson in an article referenced in Hood’s book. “If one is to eliminate this point of doctrine, he might as well eliminate the Scriptures which teach justification, regeneration, sanctification, divine healing or any of the others.”
This religious practice still flows deep through the veins of Appalachia, rooted in Mark 16:18, which reads, “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.” Snakebites, while relatively infrequent, are not to be criticized or perceived negatively – it is believed that those bitten must look towards God to reach healing, and if this results in fatality, it is of God’s intention.
“I don’t care if a person ever takes up a snake, I don’t think you have to handle a snake to get into heaven,” said Wolford. “There will be people in heaven that have taken them up, and there will be people in heaven that haven’t taken them up. I think that you have to believe it’s the word of God.”
The Last Generation
A growing concern for endangerment prompted the criminalization of serpent handling churches across the Appalachian states. Today, West Virginia is the sole location where serpent handling is fully legalized due to claims of religious persecution. Although it is only legalized in West Virginia, many states still secretly handle serpents in church. These laws are not strict and are often forgotten, the reason being that most of the churches simply restrain from publicizing their practices.
“Chris has often mentioned that he thinks this is the last generation of serpent handling,” said Kurt Lengfield, a friend of those that attend The House of the Lord Jesus. “It’s pretty rare now that I see someone that isn’t closely connected to Chris handling the serpents. This culture is definitely dying out.”
Lengfield has been doing research and photography of The House of the Lord Jesus and McDowell County for years. He has since formed a strong connection with the people of the congregation and refers to them as his friends. He believes that this culture in Appalachia is slowly perishing but remains in strong religious communities. He even believes that there are more churches in the county than there are people. The love and faith of those in the church reaches Lengfield in his practice.
“They are all true believers and they believe that the Lord is allowing them to pick the serpents up,” said Lengfield. “There is something going on there, no one can deny that. But I’ve grown close with them over the years, and they are amazing people.”
Despite the mill of misinformation and debasing comments, those that still handle serpents do so with great faith. This culture, while overlooked and misunderstood, remains in existence across the rugged Appalachian landscape. This praise will not falter nor run dry, for the voices of worship flow along the streams as they bubble and trickle throughout the valleys.
“I believe that with all my heart,” said Wolford. “I believe that is the word of God. It said: ‘they shall take up serpents.’”
Photos 1, 2, 4 and 5 were taken by Kurt Lengfield. Photo 3 was taken by Abby Herndon.