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Serpent Handlers And Salvation In Appalachia

Serpent handling is a religious practice where individuals hold and wear poisonous snakes during worship services to prove their faith in God.

It is based on a literal interpretation of a New Testament verse which states that true believers should be able to “take up serpents.” The practice is banned in all states except for West Virginia, where a small community of Pentecostals is still working to keep the tradition alive. Photographer Lauren Pond started documenting this community in 2011 through the story of one particular serpent preacher, Pastor Randy “Mack” Wolford. While photographing a worship service, Pond witnessed Wolford suffer a fatal snakebite. The incident eventually shaped the direction of both her documentary project and her philosophy as a photographer.

Host Frank Stasio talks with Lauren Pond about her work, and the life and practices of modern-day serpent preachers. Pond is this year’s recipient of the Center for Documentary Studies/Honickman First Book Prize in Photography. She will speak about her work “Test of Faith: Signs, Serpents, Salvation” (Duke University Press/2017) tonight at Duke’s Rubenstein Library at 5:30 p.m.

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Anita Rao is an award-winning journalist and the host and creator of "Embodied," a weekly radio show and podcast about sex, relationships & health. She's also the managing editor of WUNC's on-demand content.
Longtime NPR correspondent Frank Stasio was named permanent host of The State of Things in June 2006. A native of Buffalo, Frank has been in radio since the age of 19. He began his public radio career at WOI in Ames, Iowa, where he was a magazine show anchor and the station's News Director.