Pros: Extremely well written, attention given to multiple contexts of a complex story
Cons: Unbalanced, an LDS or someone wanting balance in a history is unlikely to finish
The Bottom Line: Whether you like true crime or history, this book will not disappoint. I withhold the final star because of a particular anti-Mormon bias.
A couple of years ago, before joining epinions, I picked up a copy of John Krakauer’s Under the Banner of Heaven: A Story of Violent Faith partially due to the word “violent” but mainly due to this on the front cover: “On July 24, 1984, a woman and her infant daughter were murdered by two brothers who believed they were ordered to kill by God. The roots of their crime lie deep in the history of an American religion practiced by millions . . .” I typically steer well clear of books with that sort of front material because it will likely be “sensational” in the bad way and poorly written. In as much as you can be based on the history of a real murder, I was pleasantly surprised.
The main story is what the front material explains. Dan Lafferty claimed to have a revelation from God that he and his brother Ron were compelled to kill their sister-in-law Brenda and her daughter Erica. Further this murder had to occur using a knife. These murders were tied to one or more of the polygamist sects generally calling themselves members of FLDS (the Fundamental Latter Day Saints). (As of this writing, July 2008, the state of Texas is still involved in trying to determine what criminal charges to bring against a large community of FLDS’s busted for, among other things, polygamy, fraud, and child abuse.)
The main story could fill a hundred pages or so if pressed. However, Mr. Krakauer writes in a nested style that puts the story in one context, then another. As mentioned, the murder occurred due to a family disagreement over the FLDS. So Mr. Krakauer explains that the FLDS had its roots going back to the early days of the religion, but particularly focuses on how the groups formed while Utah tried to gain statehood (it took 3 tries and a serious promise to crack down on polygamy before the rest of the states agreed to add Utah to the nation. Forerunners to the slightly more organized FLDS looked at the Mormon controlled state and accused it of selling out.
Mr. Krakauer explains how Tom Green and Roulan and Warren Jeffs operate (Green is serving time for fraud and child abuse, Roulan is dead but his son Warren is in the same position as Green). They create communities in distant places that are next to impossible to access. Their money largely comes from Welfare since only one woman can be considered a legal “wife” the celestial wives are given Welfare and some form of AFCD (aid to families for dependent children). These groups flaunt the laws of the United States but use Welfare etc as a way of “bleeding the beast.”
This is not foundation enough for Mr. Krakauer. He gives the history of the Mormon Church from its beginnings in Palmyra New York through to Salt Lake City. The relevant parts for the review (and the direct ties to the murders) are two-fold.
Along with the Bible, Mormons hold two other books as sacred, obviously The Book of Mormon, but there is another that often has greater weight: The Doctrines and Covenants. This last book lists messages from God given directly to Joseph Smith as the nascent religion began to gain a following. Briefly, the Mormons started to leave New York heading to a promised land. Along the way they stopped in Missouri and Illinois before finally making it to Salt Lake.
In Missouri, Joseph Smith announces Covenant 132 which “nearly split the church.” Obviously this was the revelation that plural marriage wasn’t just sanctioned but all but required by God. In large part, this practice and the secrecy around this part of the religion is why the front material calls the faith “violent.”
The more secret something is, particularly if it is illegal or socially unacceptable, the more violent people will become toward it. In both Missouri and Illinois the Mormons began to move into public office to the point where they were able to gain significant representation. This upset, to say the least, the natives and violence in both places sent the Mormons farther west. Joseph Smith was murdered in Illinois, for example.
Ultimately, the Lafferty murder is put into the context of what is called the Mount Meadows Massacre. A group of settlers moving farther west run into Mormons protecting their territories (more than one US administration tried to end the plural marriages occurring in the Utah territory, so the sect was going to be defensive). The reason it is a Massacre is that the settlers were guaranteed passage only to be ambushed in Mountain Meadows by a group of zealots.
When violence has a precedence it is often hard to stop it whether writ large (a massacre or crusade) or small—at least in number—the murder of a woman a child.
The three stories are literally braided. The beginnings and migration of the Mormon Church are covered in a linear fashion but the FLDS and Lafferty murders are not quite as tidy. The book requires careful attention, but the flow is easy so there should be no struggle paying proper attention.
Under the Banner of Heaven is an anti-LDS book. I don’t think this was the intent, but that is the result. I have written positively and negatively about the LDS Church (and most other churches for that matter) so I can see the easy motive towards a negativity. I say this by way of full disclosure not because I find it misrepresentative. His topic is the violence that has occurred within the faith. Mormonism is not even 200 years old, so writing a history of the violence, particularly in the light of many other books covering other topics is not out of place. Try doing that for Christianity alone and 300 pages would not be even half an outline.
While it is not balanced it does not attack the religion as being absurd. With regards to how the religion started and the migration, what Mr. Krakauer writes is the story that members of the LDS church itself tells. The way many in mainstream religion see the golden plates and peep-stones that Mr. Smith was given to translate into The Book of Mormon does not, at least to me, appear to be written in a judgmental way.
John Krakauer is able to tell a true crime drama that places it within multiple contexts. This widens the audience past the true crime buffs to history buffs with ease. I recommend it with only the warning that the book is not a balanced history.
Jon Krakauer's literary reputation rests on insightful chronicles of lives conducted at the outer limits. In UNDER THE BANNER OF HEAVEN, 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 ₃divinely inspired₄ 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 ...