THREE deadly copperhead snakes writhed around Roy Christian’s arm as he held the venomous serpents aloft for the congregation to witness on Saturday. He passed the snakes to a fellow worshipper and raised in his hands a 4ft rattlesnake, just like the one that killed preacher Randall Wolford, whose coffin rested beside him.
It was a perilous, nail-biting funeral for an evangelist who died last week – just as his father had 29 years earlier – handling snakes to prove his faith in Christ.
Randall Wolford, 44, had dedicated his ministry to spreading the message inspired by a literal reading of the Gospel of Mark suggesting that God will protect believers who test their faith by handling venomous snakes and drinking poison.
Wolford died at a festive outdoor worship service in West Virginia, appealing to “ Holy Ghost-filled, speaking-in tongues sign believers… Praise the Lord and pass the rattlesnakes, brother.”
Yet his death has not shaken true believers. “It’s still The Word and I want to go on doing what The Word says,” proclaimed Wolford’s mother Vickie Haywood, who has now lost a husband and son to religious snake-handling.
But Wolford’s death also shines a spotlight on the bizarre world of America’s charismatic preachers, from televangelists to travelling shows that attract millions of followers across the= US – and rake in billions of dollars.
America is the land that gave birth to two of the fastest-growing and most controversial religions of the past century: the Mormons who follow the Church of Latter Day Saints and the Church of Scientology. Yet this God-fearing nation boasts more than 1,200 megachurches, with average weekly congregations of 2,000 worshippers or more; 65 of those attract more than 10,000 congregants weekly.
Most are built around the oversized personalities of their preachers. Mega churches give congregants rock bands, concert lighting and giant video screens.
The Second Baptist Church in Houston, America’s sixth largest with more than 23,000 worshippers, offers a fi tness centre, cafe, school and even car repair.
Joel Osteen, 49, commands the pulpit at the Lakewood church in Houston, Texas, the biggest church in the US,
routinely attracting 43,000 to its weekly services, which are broadcast nationwide.
Osteen stopped taking his £130,000 salary about eight years ago after writing inspirational bestsellers, saying: “God has blessed me with more money than I could imagine from my books.”
God also blessed the Lakewood church with seven million TV viewers and an annual income of more than £45million. Lakewood took over the former stadium home of the Houston Rockets basketball team, leasing the arena in 2004 by paying £8.5million in cash for the first 30 years rent.
They then spent £62million adding three giant video screens, twin waterfalls flanking a stage that rises and falls before a circling golden globe and a pulpit where Osteen preaches.
There are few signs of a traditional church inside – no crucifi x or image of Jesus – and critics accuse Osteen of
preaching “Christianity-lite” with no mention of sin or judgment, though the evangelist argues that he does not want to be “too religious”, hoping to reach the “everyday person”.
As his heavenly reward on earth, Osteen lives in a £7million six-bedroom mansion with three lifts, guesthouse and pool.
Indeed, it’s rare to find an American megapreacher who has taken a vow of poverty. Many live like rock stars with huge mansions, private jets and fleets of fancy cars.
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