This is the nail-biting moment a pastor drinks fatal poison while holding up a deadly rattlesnake with his bare hands – and miraculously survives.
As the deadly strychnine, which can cause muscle spasms, convulsions and asphyxiation, begins to take hold, Pastor Chris Wolford has to sit down on the altar, struggling to breathe and sweating profusely.
Chris had mixed a white powder with water to make a clear liquid in the glass jar, before drinking from the supposed “poison”.
But just minutes later the preacher is up on his feet dancing and praising God while swinging the – eerily motionless but still alive – snake through the air.
Shockingly Pastor Chris Wolford was just 11 when he watched his dad haemorrhage to death from a snake bite during a service.
His brother also died from the same dangerous practices – but he refuses to lose faith in God and the “Signs” religion.
The faith is practised in the Appalachian mountains of Kentucky, Virginia and West Virginia and is based on a literal interpretation of a passage in the bible Mark 16:18 which says: “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.”
Earlier this year dramatic footage emerged of Pastor Cody Coots, who was almost killed by a rattlesnake during a ritual at another church in Kentucky.
Many of the religion’s churches – only a handful of which still remain open – are often closed to outsiders and cameras – particularly as snake handling is illegal in Virginia and Kentucky.
But Sun Online was granted exclusive access to one of Chris’s church in Squire, West Virginia – which he says is “open to all”.
Before the service, Chris paces up and down, cries and prays as he gets ready to lead his congregation.
Music is a huge part of the faith, and as the two guitarists and drummer start playing their mixture of blues and country music, Chris starts to preach.
His mother Vicie, 73, comes to the front and begins spinning round and round, eyes closed as her son praises Jesus.
Chris then lights a torch in a glass bottle and Vicie holds it next to her neck, without flinching and leaving no sign of any burn marks.
The pastor quickly takes the hissing rattlesnake out of its wooden box and begins swinging it in the air.
At some point he throws the snake to the floor and stands on it.
The service ends with singing and testimonies from individuals about how God has saved them, before everyone cheerfully gathers in the basement to share dinner – next to Chris’s snake den.
Exhausted Chris sits down and tells me it can take him days to recover but nevertheless he’ll be back the next week to do it all again.
‘Saved’ from drug addiction
Set back off the main road just a few miles from the border of Virginia and West Virginia, the small wooden church looks similar to the dozens of others that dot the rural Bible Belt area.
The serpent-handling churches are believed to have originated as early as the 1800s – and are an offshoot of the Pentecostal faith.
In the past six years, there have been three recorded deaths in the US from snake bites during religious services.
Chris does not advertise that his church practices serpent handling on the outside – after receiving threats to burn down the building from rival Christian groups who believe the practice is against the word of God.
Chris, a recovered drug addict, set up the church after he said: “God saved him” from addictions to crystal meth, cocaine and pain pills – and his congregation has grown from just three to over 30 in just two years.
He decided to open his own church after the death of his brother Randy, who was also a pastor in the faith.
Many members of the congregation claim that they have been healed from other addictions such as alcoholism as well as illnesses such as lupus and heart conditions.
“I guess people, think that by taking up serpents that we’re crazy. But the Bible says if I be a fool, I be a fool for Christ,” Chris said.
‘No greater feeling’
“We’ve had people healed just in the past few months, even a little baby of about nine months old, who had a fever and couldn’t stop vomiting.
“I’ve been healed twice. When I broke my ribs in a car wreck, I remember walking into church in so much pain and I could hardly breathe and somebody put their hands on my ribs and I walked out a different person.
“When I was on drugs I wasn’t even living. All that dope, all that alcohol, all those parties and things that I would go and think ‘boy I’m having fun’.
“It wasn’t even until God come into my life that I actually knew what it was like to live.
“Out of all the dope I’ve ever done I tell people there’s no greater feeling than the power of God moving, on you and through you.
“When God moves on you to take up those serpents, words can’t describe that feeling. It ain’t me. It’s the power of God.”
Speaking in tongues
Services at the House of the Lord Jesus are similar to those practiced by other Pentecostal faiths – except that followers here use snakes, fire and poison in their worship.
They are held every Sunday and can last between 45 minutes to four hours long depending on how many people feel “overcome with the spirit”, want to testify about their experiences or be healed.
The snakes are always brought to the service in their wooden boxes but aren’t always brought out.
Chris had explained earlier how he wouldn’t take out the snakes unless he felt the “holy spirit was with him” a sensation he says “is better felt than described”.
Throughout it all, the snake never bites anyone around it or attempts to, and almost looks lifeless, until Chris puts it down on the pulpit and it coils into a ball.
During the fascinating spectacle, the frenzied churchgoers clap, dance, scream and shout some even appear to speak in tongues.
Afterwards Chris, who suffers from liver problems and is unable to work, is exhausted, sweating and breathless.
He tells me afterwards he had to rush to the bathroom to vomit mid-service: “Sometimes the spirit comes on so strong it makes you sick,” he says.
Three people come forward to be healed or to ask for prayers for loved ones. The congregations gathers around them and lay their hands on them.
“Outside of believing in the five signs of the Gospel I don’t think we’re much different from any other church.
“When God moves in that way we participate in taking up the serpents and whatever else he may ask it to be, fire, poison, pray for the sick, speak in tongues, cast out devils.
“We don’t worship the snake, we worship the Lord Jesus Christ, but in the Bible Luke tells us that he gives us power to tread on the scorpions and serpents and nothing shall hurt us by no means.
Families finding Jesus through snakes
James Bowman, 40, a mechanic from West Virginia, said he came to the church for the first time two months ago after seeing a video of a service online and believes “finding Jesus” has finally cured him from his lifelong alcoholism.
“It was the serpents that attracted me here,” he said.
“I was a full blown alcoholic but as soon as I saw him lift those snakes that was it for me and I haven’t touched a drop of alcohol since and I don’t plan to. I’ve got my life back.”
James now brings his wife Crystal, 41, to the church – along with their three grandchildren, Elaila, 8, Justin, 5, and Aubrey, 2, who sit in the front row mesmerised and unafraid during the snake-handling service.
‘Worth dying for’
Pastor Chris was just 11 years old when he saw his dad receive a fatal bite from a rattlesnake as he was preaching.
Mack Ray Wolford died a slow and painful death as the snake’s poison coursed round his body stopping his blood from clotting, causing him to haemorrhage to death – taking his last breathe around nine hours later.
Almost 25 years later, Chris watched as his beloved brother Mack “Randy” Wolford die in the same way – bitten by a deadly rattlesnake while he was preaching during an outdoor service.
Chris tearfully recalls trying to give his brother – who he described as his “best friend” – CPR and how blood gushed out of his lungs with every compression.
“I hated to lose my dad. I loved my dad. And I loved my brother more than anything. He was my pastor, my brother, my best friend.
“I mean there wasn’t a day that went by that I didn’t call him or he didn’t call me – we were very, very close. Not a day goes by I don’t think about him but he found something that was worth dying for, something that he loved more than he loved his self.
“The day he got bit – and it was the same with my father – when we asked ‘do you want to go to the hospital?’ They could – we don’t force nobody not to go. But they chose not to go. They were willing to give their lives for what they believe.
“I tell people this, if it ain’t worth dying for, it ain’t worth having and it ain’t worth believing in.
“With my father and my brother, they kept the faith. They fought a good fight, they kept the faith, they finished the race, the course and they’re at peace or with the Lord now.
“And I don’t even think if they could come back, they’d want to come back. I believe that they’re just happy where they are.
“The night he died – my brother – I remember sitting at his feet and I told him, I promised, that we’d see each other again, that it’s not going to be the last time we saw each other and I’m going to do my best to keep that promise. So one day we can meet on the other side.”
And Chris, who has been bitten several times, the last time just two months ago, says that while he doesn’t want to die from a serpent bite, he would be willing to die for his beliefs if he had to.
“It’s not for us to question why these things happen – it’s to believe,” he said.
“I watched my father die that way, I watched my brother die that way and it’s a hard way to die, but I hope if it’s ever asked from me from the Lord, I’m willing to do it.
“I’d rather go that way than with a needle in my arm.”
Chris’s wife Judy comes in part-way through the service and stands at the back.
Each Sunday could be his last
She also lost a family member – her brother – who got bitten while serpent handling and she is terrified of losing her husband the same way.
“Of course every Sunday I worry it might be the last time I see him. I worry about him getting bit.
“I’d rather he could worship God another way – without drinking that poison or holding those snakes.
“But it’s his choice and there ain’t nothing I can do to change that.”
Chris keeps around half a dozen fully grown snakes in the basement underneath his church – including venomous timber rattlesnakes and copperhead snakes.
He also has around four babies after he was given a pregnant snake.
Usually the snakes are caught from the surrounding countryside, and kept with heat lamps in glass cages and fed mice.
A picture of Jesus watches over the snake den.
Chris rejects any claims he mistreats the snakes – and has past inspections from local authorities.
“We take good care of these snakes. Some of them I reared since they were babies.
“If any of them refuse to eat we put them back out in the wild – some of them just won’t eat in captivity and we don’t want them to die so we turn them back out.”
Bizarrely Chris seems terrified of the snakes when he uses his snake hook to display them for the camera.
The jittery snakes rattle and hiss at every opportunity – the very opposite of how the rattlesnake in the service limply allowed itself to be swing around.
“You can see how scared I am of them when God is not with me,” he says.
“But when the Spirit is with you all fear just goes.
“Anything is possible with the Lord.”
Date published: 23/10/2018
Written by: Emma Parry, Digital US Correspondent in Squire, West Virginia
Feature image: JOHN CHAPPLE FOR SUN ONLINE, Pastor Chris Wolford holds a poisonous rattlesnake just inches from his face
Article source: www.thesun.co.uk