There is a small group of Christians who take the Bible literally and interpret a passage from the very last chapter of Mark (16:17-18) that reads: “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” as a test of faith and handled deadly snakes to show that they are indeed true believers.
The story of a West Virginia Pentecostal pastor Mack Wolford who took the Bible literally and died as a result of a rattlesnake bite is a tragic consequence of such delusions. Wolford had also apparently taken some strychnine during the same service in which he was bitten.
What makes this story even more incredible is that Wolford had seen his religious snake handling father die of a rattlesnake bite at age 39 when he was just 15 but that had not deterred him from enthusiastically taking up the practice himself. He had been bitten several times before and survived.
A reporter/photographer who had been observing Wolford for some time as part of making a documentary and had become friends with him missed the part of the service where he was bitten but observed his death throes and has some photos of his last moments along with some agonized reflections on whether she should have done anything differently. She writes:
As photojournalists, we have a unique responsibility to record history and share stories in as unbiased and unobtrusive a way as possible. But when someone is hurt and suffering, we have to balance our instincts as professionals with basic human decency and care.
In my mind, Mack’s situation was different from that of a starving child or a civilian wounded in war. He was a competent adult who decided to stand by what he understood to be the word of God, no matter the consequences. And so I’ve started to come to peace with the fact that everyone in the crowded trailer, including myself, let Mack die as a man true to his faith.
Here we see the damage caused by the ‘respect for religion’ trope. In any other context, what the reporter observed would have been interpreted by her as reckless behavior that had gone seriously wrong and she would have immediately called for emergency medical assistance. But because Wolford was doing it to show he was “true to his faith," people not only did not try to discourage him from doing an obviously foolhardy thing, everyone just froze in their tracks and let events play out even when it was obvious that he was in mortal danger. It should be noted that Wolford himself, perhaps realizing that he was not immune to snake venom after all, eventually asked for medical help to be called but it was too late.