Fundamentalism and Mental Illness

FILE - In this Aug. 22, 1944 file photo, members of the Pentecostal Church of God, a faith healing sect, surround a woman who has "Got the Spirit" as a man holds a snake above her head in Evarts, Ky. Although a Kentucky statute passed in 1940 prohibits the handling of snakes in connection with religious services, this sect revived the ritual after the recent death of a native of the region who was bitten by rattlesnake. (AP Photo)

And he said unto them, Go ye into all the world, and preach the gospel to the whole creation. He that believeth and is baptized shall be saved; but he that disbelieveth shall be condemned. And these signs shall accompany them that believe: in my name shall they cast out demons; they shall speak with new tongues; they shall take up serpents, and if they drink any deadly thing, it shall in no wise hurt them; they shall lay hands on the sick, and they shall recover.

Mark 16; 15 – 18

Back in June 2012, Mack Wofford, one of the most famous Pentecostal serpent handlers in Appalachia, was laid to rest at his West Virginia church, a week after succumbing to a snake bite,   His friends showed up with boxes of copperheads, rattlesnakes and cottonmouths.

Wolford’s own dad was a serpent handler who died from a snake bite in 1983.

In recent years, Wolford feared the tradition was in danger of dying for lack of interest among people in their 20s and 30s. It’s why he drove to small, out-of-the-way churches around Appalachia to encourage those who handle snakes to keep the tradition alive.

“I promised the Lord I’d do everything in my power to keep the faith going,”

Mainstream Christians – Pentecostals included – do not believe Mark 16:17-18 means that Christians should seek out poisonous snakes or ingest poisonous substances.

But experts say that several thousand people – exact numbers are hard to come by – in six Appalachian states read the verse differently. Known as “signs following” Pentecostals, they see a world at war with evil powers and believe it’s a Christian’s duty to take on the devil by engaging in the “signs.”

Now I ask you – Are these folks mentally ill?

Obviously THEY don’t think they are.  Is it ok to believe or do anything if you are a “believer?”   Does religious freedom trump mental illness?  Is mental illness just a social construct of the observer?

Mack Wofford regularly drank strychnine during worship services, to show God has power over poison.

“In my life I’ve probably drunk two gallons of it,” Wolford said. “Once you drink it, there is no turning back. All your muscles contract at once. Your body starts stiffening out. Your lungs; it’s like you can’t breathe.”

He’d gotten sick from strychnine a handful of times. “I was up all night struggling to breathe and move my muscles and repeating Bible verses that say you can ‘drink any deadly thing and it won’t hurt you,’ ” Wolford aaid, recounting one episode. He said a voice in his head taunted him as he struggled to recover.

“The devil said, ‘You’re going to die, you’re going to die,’ ” he said. “You can’t go to the hospital. There is not a lot they can do. But (seeking medical help) means you’re already starting to lose faith.”

So is a religious fanatic like Wofford mentally ill or just a “devout believer?”  Or does society not care so long as the believer harms no one but himself and doesn’t attempt to harm anyone else or force them to believe?

Is religious fanaticism a mental disorder or the symptom and manifestation of another underlying mental disorder?  Or am I the one with the problem; the one who cannot see what is so obvious to others.

Adossés à l'abbaye aux Dames et ses mille ans d'histoire, onze jeunes hommes motivés se préparent à devenir prêtres pour leur Normandie, un reportage au cœur de leur temps, une tranche de vie du séminaire de Caen.

I was raised a Catholic and was taught Eucharistic theology early on  – the existence of Christ in the host taken at communion and Eucharistic adoration of the Blessed Sacrament.  All based on the words in the Bible spoken at the Last Supper:

“Take this, all of you and eat of it, for this is my body which will be given up for you.  Take this, all of you, and drink from it, for this is the chalice of my blood, the blood of the new and everlasting covenant, which will be poured out for you and for many for the forgiveness of sins. Do this in memory of me.”

The church believes the consecrated host, a wafer, is the body of Christ – by the power of the very words the substance of the bread is changed into the body of Christ, and the substance of the wine into the blood – still under the appearance of bread and wine.

Now it is one thing to believe that the ceremony of the mass is a remembrance of Christ and his teachings.  It is quite another to believe in transubstantiation.  If you a fanatical Catholic believer and accept such things as truth, are you mentally ill?

Now these days the church no longer forces anyone to believe in the Eucharist or attend mass if they don’t want to – but it wasn’t that long ago that they did.  Once upon a time the church burned you at the stake for not believing the obvious. The Catholic church is more active in American politics than anytime in my lifetime, continuing to teach that celibate men and women are somehow more holy than ordinary men and women.

Now classifying fanatical believers as mentally ill has a real sordid history exemplified by the oppressive use of the label by Soviet psychiatrists.  Believers who wouldn’t stop proselytizing were labeled as delusional; those who were simply anti-Soviet suffered from “sluggish schizophrenia.”   They just couldn’t see the paradise they were living in as others clearly did and this manifested itself in “anti-social behavior.”

Even when religious fanatics begin killing people because they don’t have the same delusions as the killer we don’t call them mentally ill.  They are simply terrorists.

We never mention the underlying cause.


The delusional belief in their book and the unseen.




About toritto

I was born during year four of the reign of Emperor Tiberius Claudius on the outskirts of the empire in Brooklyn. I married my high school sweetheart, the girl I took to the prom and we were together for forty years until her passing in 2004. We had four kids together and buried two together. I had a successful career in Corporate America (never got rich but made a living) and traveled the world. I am currently retired in the Tampa Bay metro area and live alone. One of my daughters is close by and one within a morning’s drive. They call their pops everyday. I try to write poetry (not very well), and about family. Occasionally I will try a historical piece relating to politics. :-)
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7 Responses to Fundamentalism and Mental Illness

  1. beetleypete says:

    I have never been religious, Frank. I also don’t subscribe to the widely-held theory that it’s OK to be a religious fanatic, as long as you don’t actually harm anyone. They always end up doing just, that; if not by deed, then by word.
    It is also a convenient label for the media. A Muslim shooter can be called a ‘religious fanatic’ but if a white fundamentalist Christian shoots someone who works at an abortion clinic, they are usually referred to as ‘devout.’
    If I ever got the chance, i would ban all religions. But then again, that might make them more attractive…
    Best wishes, Pete.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. sojourner says:

    On a side note, and as a former bible thumper, the bible also says, “Put not to the test the Lord thy God”

    But most Christians, like others of faith, including Darwinians, don’t really know what they believe. They are ignorant!

    As Stevie Wonder sang, “When you believe in things you don’t understand, then you suffer! Superstition is not the way!:”

    Liked by 2 people

  3. jfwknifton says:

    What fundamentalists do not ever seem to understand is that it is complete rubbish to follow literally any text which has been translated. Forty years as a foreign language teacher have taught me that translation is always a matter of opinion. Furthermore, whatever language the text is in, mistakes will have been made when it was transcribed. That can have a huge impact. There is only one letter difference between ‘lend’ and ‘land’ for example. In other words, such an exact approach to religious texts is a complete waste of tame.

    Liked by 1 person

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