From the author of Into the Wild and Into Thin Air, this extraordinary work of investigative journalism takes readers inside America’s isolated Mormon Fundamentalist communities.
Jon Krakauer’s literary reputation rests on insightful chronicles of lives conducted at the outer limits. In Under The Banner of Heaven: A Story of Violent Faith, he shifts his focus from extremes of physical adventure to extremes of religious belief within our own borders. At the core of his book is an appalling double murder committed by two Mormon Fundamentalist brothers, Ron and Dan Lafferty, who insist they received a revelation from God commanding them to kill their blameless victims. Beginning with a meticulously researched account of this “divinely inspired” crime, Krakauer constructs a multilayered, bone-chilling narrative of messianic delusion, savage violence, polygamy, and unyielding faith. Along the way, he uncovers a shadowy offshoot of America’s fastest-growing religion, and raises provocative questions about the nature of religious belief.
Krakauer takes readers inside isolated communities in the American West, Canada, and Mexico, where some forty-thousand Mormon Fundamentalists believe the mainstream Mormon Church went unforgivably astray when it renounced polygamy. Defying both civil authorities and the Mormon establishment in Salt Lake City, the leaders of these outlaw sects are zealots who answer only to God. Marrying prodigiously and with virtual impunity (the leader of the largest fundamentalist church took seventy-five “plural wives,” several of whom were wed to him when they were fourteen or fifteen and he was in his eighties), fundamentalist prophets exercise absolute control over the lives of their followers, and preach that any day now the world will be swept clean in a hurricane of fire, sparing only their most obedient adherents.
Weaving the story of the Lafferty brothers and their fanatical brethren with a clear-eyed look at Mormonism’s violent past, Krakauer examines the underbelly of the most successful homegrown faith in the United States, and finds a distinctly American brand of religious extremism. The result is vintage Krakauer, an utterly compelling work of nonfiction that illuminates an otherwise confounding realm of human behavior.
I borrowed the audiobook of Under the Banner of Heaven thinking it was a true crime book that was adapted for television in 2022. The cover and synopsis reinforced this perception. However, I found Under the Banner of Heaven to really be a story about the history of Mormonism, its fundamentalism wing, and how extreme beliefs can inspire violent actions.
Jon Krakauer chooses to approach the violent murder of a mother and baby by providing a LOT of context. While the book begins with the Lafferty crime, the narrative quickly shifts to Joseph Smith and his creation of the Mormon religion. Over the course of the book, Krakauer outlines fundamental Mormon beliefs and the history of its believers from the early 1800s to 2002. While I immensely enjoyed learning the history and beliefs of a religion with which I am not particularly familiar, it was a bit of a surprise.
I first want to say that I learned so much from Under the Banner of Heaven. I certainly learned a lot about Mormonism as a faith and came to understand that two primary schools of Mormonism were established – one the Church of Latter-Day Saints (LDS) that no longer preaches plural marriage and one more fundamentalist that believes practicing polygamy is foundational (FLDS). I also was astounded by the historical events, including wars fought within the United States, that I was never taught.
Krakauer’s overall thesis was that extreme religious beliefs, particularly FLDS, provokes violence. He explained that Mormonism’s recognition of continuing revelation has been a problem throughout its history and is often central to the perpetuation of violent actions. Krakauer backed up his argument with more than the Lafferty murder. He discusses historical events as well as more recent news stories, like the kidnapping of Elizabeth Smart. I also appreciated that Krakauer disclosed his own beliefs at the end so that readers could understand although he tried to be objective, he has inherent biases and does not have firsthand knowledge of Mormon practices.
This being my first book by Krakauer, I found his writing to be easily digestible. He did an excellent job making complex events and ideas wieldy. These things made the book lend itself well to the audio format.
Where I found the Under the Banner of Heaven lacking was in its organization. As I have mentioned, there are two streams of narration – one of the crime, its context, and its aftermath and another of the history and principles of the Mormon religion. Although the two narratives eventually connect, there is a lot of flipping back and forth between them. At the beginning of a new chapter, we would be abruptly thrust into the opposite storyline. It definitely felt like whiplash at times. I also found that it made it very difficult to recall names of those involved in the Lafferty murder.
Overall, I really enjoyed Under the Banner of Heaven and recommend it. In particular, I think this is an excellent book for a book club discussion. But if I were to read it again, I would keep a cheat sheet of names or perhaps read some of the chapters out of order.
Under the Banner of Heaven: A Story of Violent Faith
Nonfiction – History; Religion; True Crime
July 15, 2003