A Pentecostal reverend known for preaching with the help of a rattlesnake coiled around his arm lost his life when one of the creatures suddenly bit him.

Mack Randall Wolford, pastor at the Full Gospel Apostolic House of the Lord Jesus in Matoaka, West Virginia, died hours after receiving the deadly bite on Sunday - the day after his 44th birthday.

Wolford's father, who was also a serpent-handling pastor, died in the same way nearly 30 years ago.

Wolford had been bitten three times before, but never sought medical attention, saying that a bite was a test of his faith. It was his wish not to be taken to a hospital unless absolutely necessary.

But by the time he was taken to Bluefield Regional Medical Center, it was too late.

Wolford was holding a 'homecoming' service outdoors at Panther State Forest about 70 miles away from Matoaka while handing the rattler, which is seen by his followers as a sign of faith.

The gathering was a yearly occurrence for Wolford, who joined relatives to celebrate faith and family before sitting down together for dinner during the Memorial Day weekend.

He leaves behind his wife Fran and three stepchildren.

The Bluefield Daily Telegraph reported that Wolford had set the serpent down during the service when it suddenly jerked forward and bit him on the thigh.

Wolford had reportedly owned the timber rattlesnake, named Sheba, for several years, taking care of it in his home and introducing it to his followers during his services.

Videos posted to YouTube show the preacher dancing in previous services while holding the snake.

His unique celebrations were held regularly for his followers - who numbered between five and 30 - most of whom were members of his family.

Wolford owned several snakes, which he cared for in his home, according to filmmaker Kate Fowler, who was shooting a documentary about him called With Signs Following.

In an interview with MailOnline, Ms Fowler, who has worked on the documentary for about a year, described Wolford as 'articulate, well-read, intelligent and charismatic.'

She said that despite handling venomous snakes, he did his best to make his guests feel comfortable.

Ms Fowler said: 'It was pretty scary the first time I was at a service, but I've never seen him put anyone in a bad situation.'

A young resident of Matoaka, who wished to remain anonymous, told the Telegraph: 'I know [Wolford] was really bad off before he died... it was really bad. He's worshiped at that church all his life.

'His daddy passed away the same way, from a rattler. He knew the risks. All of us around here are that way.'

Wolford was only 15 at the time of his father's death, but later took on his mantle.

His devastated mother, who was present at the service when he was bitten, was always fearful for her son, but was extremely proud of his work with those who battled alcoholism and addiction, Ms Fowler said.

A nursing supervisor at Bluefield Regional Medical Center told the Charleston Daily Mail that Wolford was admitted to the facility at about 10:30pm on Sunday night.

The supervisor told the paper: 'He was a snake handler. It looked like it happened maybe during church, but by the time he got here, it was a bad situation.'

Ms Fowler was in the process of a final edit With Signs Following, but is still deciding how to approach Wolford's death in the documentary.

Neighbours told the Daily Telegraph that Wolford, like other snake-handling preachers, was fully aware of the danger posed by the reptile.

There are dozens of species of rattlesnakes, which are the largest of all venomous snakes in the U.S, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The timber rattlesnake, widely regarded as the most dangerous of the species, are common to deciduous forests as far north as Connecticut and as far south as Texas.

It is unlawful to kill a timber rattlesnake, as it is an endangered species.

While rattlers are behind the most common snakebite injuries in the United States, they are rarely fatal if treated quickly.