Before Lewis Grizzard, before Jerry Clower, before Brother Dave Gardner -- there was Wendy Bagwell. He was the founding member of the Southern gospel group, the Sunliters -- and hailed from Chamblee -- back when Chamblee was still a part of the United States.
He was a fine singer, but like Brother Dave and the other aforementioned Southern icons, Wendy Bagwell was best known for his comedy. He loved to tell funny stories and, more importantly, he knew how to tell a story funny.
I used to listen to Wendy and Brother Dave on the radio and record albums. I would listen to Jerry Clower on 8-tracks and Grizzard on CDs. Now I can catch all their acts on YouTube, right over the Internet. It's a great country, isn't it?
I liked all of Bagwell's stuff, but the story of his that I listened to time after time after time -- always laughing at the punch line even though I knew every word of the soliloquy by heart, was the one about the time that he and his partners, Geraldine and Georgia, visited a small country church, way back in the boonies, to sing and proclaim the gospel. He always told it for the truth.
While the Sunliters were onstage performing, several in the congregation went to shouting. According to Wendy, all the women "shouted their hair down." Then five of the folks in the congregation decided it was time to take out the serpents. They brought out five rattlesnakes and brought them right up onstage with Wendy and the girls and started parading them around -- then they tossed them on the floor.
That's when Wendy turned to Geraldine and said, "Where's the back door?" to which she replied, "There ain't one."
Then came the funniest thing Wendy Bagwell ever said. "Reckon where they want one?"
I can concur. I have at least as much faith as the next man, but when Mark wrote that those who believe will "pick up snakes with their hands; and when they drink deadly poison it will not hurt them at all," well, I think he must have been talking about other believers because I have never been compelled to take up a serpent in order to test my faith in the Lord.
Other folks have, of course, and I am not judging them -- not in the least. I suppose that's why there are so many different denominations in the church and so many different beliefs and interpretations of the Scripture, even within denominations.
There was a feller in West Virginia who interpreted that particular passage from the book of Mark quite literally. Mack Wolford, who was 44, died this past Sunday after being bitten by a rattlesnake he had owned for years and handled many, many times.
It seems that the Rev. Wolford was well known in the Appalachian region of the South and he traveled all over West Virginia and neighboring states, preaching revivals and encouraging those in attendance at his events to demonstrate their faith by emulating him in taking up the serpents -- rattlesnakes in this instance.
Now I am not castigating the late Rev. Wolford or any of his followers, but one little tiny verse from the Bible, taken all out of context, seems to be a small thing to base an entire ministry on -- especially when it is can have such dire consequences.
Sunday's service was in a state park about an hour's drive from Bluefield, W. Va. Believe it or not, I have spoken in Bluefield, W. Va. It is a small town full of wonderful people and I received a very warm welcome there. So did Mack Wolford, from the people. He posted on his Facebook page, just prior to the service "Praise the Lord and Pass the Rattlesnakes."
A half-hour into Sunday's service, Wolford had placed his pet rattlesnake on the ground beside his chair. The snake struck and bit him on the thigh. Ten hours later, Wolford was dead.
Ironically, his father, also a snake handler, had died under almost identical circumstances, at the age of 39. Wolford was 15 at the time and witnessed his father being bitten and his subsequent death.
In a recent interview, Wolford had stated that his father's death was a part of his motivation. "I spend a lot of time going to a lot of places that handle serpents to keep them motivated. I'm trying to get everybody I can involved."
Wow. I am sorry that Mack Wolford died so young and so tragically, but if I start a ministry, I think I will find another passage to base it on -- like "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you." I wouldn't want someone to hand me a rattlesnake, so I'm thinking I wouldn't hand a rattlesnake to anybody.
I visit a lot of small country churches myself and if any of them start dumping rattlesnakes out on the floor I'll be about like Wendy Bagwell. I'll start looking for a back door and if there isn't one, I will wonder where they might want one.
Darrell Huckaby is a local educator and author. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org. For past columns, visit www.rockdalecitizen.com or www.newtoncitizen.com.