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Under the Banner of Heaven – Book Review



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Jon Krakauer’s book, Under the Banner of Heaven, a Story of Violent Faith, did what all good books do, it lengthened my already long reading list because it piqued my interest in the topic.

The book uses a useful and easy to follow pattern.  Krakauer juxtaposes the horrific 1984 double murder of Brenda Lafferty and her infant daughter Erica, and the history of the Mormon Church.  The two murderers, Dan and Ron Lafferty (who are still in prison – one on death row and the other in for a life sentence) believe they were ordered to kill by God.  They have never shown any remorse.  Krakauer takes this unseemly and wicked event and uses it to analyze the dark underbelly of the killers’ past and the history of the LDS (Mormon Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints) church itself.  Krakauer connects the violent and rigid authoritarianism of the LDS church to the belief system of the Lafferty’s, using the early days of Joseph Smith, the founder of the Mormon Church, the Mormon migration led by Brigham Young, and the Mountain Meadows Massacre.The book goes into great detail with the story of the early days of the Mormon Church.  The ability of Joseph Smith to propagate his unlikely story of the angel Moroni coming down to visit him in order to direct him to the golden plates that were eventually translated into the Book of Mormon is truly fascinating.  The movement of the Mormons from upstate New York to the Midwest, primarily Illinois and Missouri, shows how the Mormons were persecuted and hated.  Joseph Smith was eventually killed in 1844 during his ill fated presidential run, and the LDS church was taken over by a powerful visionary and ruthlessly efficient leader, Brigham Young.  Because of the persecution, pressure from the Federal Government and general ill will, Brigham Young moved the whole operation to the Utah Territory.  Polygamy, war with the Federal Government, visions from God, disavowal of the September 11th, 1857 Mountain Meadows Massacre all create a fascinating portrait of a unique faith that goes a long way in explaining how the heinous Lafferty murders could come about.
The Prophet
I learned much during my reading of Under the Banner of Heaven.  The Mormon Church has always been a mystery to me.  I never understood how a church that openly uses Jesus’ name could be seen as so different.  Wouldn’t it simply be another branch of Christianity?  I knew that Utah was the central location of the LDS church, they had at one time practiced polygamy, they had a small army of young people who went all over the world on 2 year long missions, and that they had worked for decades to be accepted into the mainstream.  What I had never found out was why there was so much hatred and vitriol directed toward the Mormons for so long.Now things are much more clear.  One of the issues regarding the LDS church is its newness.  Joseph Smith had multiple revelations, was spoken to by an angel and God, and his writings and commands became the rules by which Mormons live.  He created a faith, one that eschewed the faiths of the day, and thousands of people followed this man and his commands.   People were told that it was the ‘one true faith’, and that it would be the faith of those saved when God returned to complete the creation of the Kingdom of God on Earth.  Smith had a revelation that told him that polygamy was acceptable, and should be practiced by all Latter Day Saints.  The very nature of the church, and the creation of ‘Saints’ is noteworthy as these people are like Gods themselves and will not be destroyed during the End of Days.  That a book, written by a person in the comparatively recent past, in quasi biblical prose could galvanize a religious movement and fervor now practiced my millions today speaks volumes about human nature.
Do Not Question Authority
Krakauer’s book, and much of the source material, has been attacked by the LDS church.  The definitive biography of Smith, No Man Knows My History, by Fawn Brodie is seen by the Mormon Hierarchy as a sacrilegious text.  Brodie, related to a high ranking Mormon, was eventually excommunicated by the Church.  Juanita Brooks and D. Michael Quinnwere pilloried by the Mormon Church for their unflattering portrayals of the violent and bloody Mountain Meadows Massacre, an event that the LDS church has been trying to disavow for over 150 years.  Quinn was eventually excommunicated from the church as well. Will Bagley’s follow up to Brooks’ book was heavily criticized by professors at Brigham Young University.There is a curious statement in the PBS Frontline documentary about this fanatical obsession with censoring criticism of the Church.  One of the Elders of the church (they have a Quorum of 12 Apostles at the very top) states unequivocally that “criticism of the church is not allowed, even if it is right.”  This rigid acceptance of authority, a dangerous policy, seems necessary when you look back at the history of the church, its unorthodox beliefs and the things needed to make people commit murder in its name.  Perhaps the vast majority of humanity craves a ‘leader’, and even if that leader is illogical and demands unquestioning fealty, the flock will obey.More Questions and Connections
“One of the events that led to Dr. Quinn’s excommunication was the publication, in 1987, of Early Mormonism and the Magic World View, a fascinating, exhaustively researched examination of Joseph Smith’s involvement in mysticism and the occult.” (Krakauer p. 340)  Smith’s new religion was created in an area of upstate NY where the Masons were especially active.  The proximity of Smith to the William Morgan murder and its Anti Masonic backlash does not seem to be a coincidence.  I have always wondered about the nearness of the two, but until Krakauer’s comment about Dr. Quinn’s book (one that I now want to read), I had never seen the parallels between the Humanists (Masonic beliefs) and the Mormons.  Here are some parallels that are too close to be simply coincidental:  Joseph Smith was a Mason.  The Mormons believed in blood atonement.  The Quorum of 12 Apostles fits the Mystery Schools’ obsession with the number 12.  Mormons too seek to ‘become God’, a humanist belief to the core and antithetical to mainstream Christianity.  The most interesting ‘coincidence’ is that William Morgan’s wife later became one of Joseph Smith’s plural wives.   Is it possible that the Masons went underground after the Morgan affair and were reincarnated as the Mormons?   The connection of Morgan’s widow to Smith is too obvious to ignore.

As you can see, Under the Banner of Heaven is a thought provoking work.  Krakauer’s work acts as a catalyst for further study.  The author’s ability to dig into the history of one of the more strange and fascinating chapters in American History and use it to try to explain a murder that defies description is a stroke of genius.  The blurbs in the back of the paperback edition use words like “audacious”, “provocative”, “thrilling”, “creepy” and “illuminating”.  I agree with all of them, especially the last one.Here is the worthwhile PBS Frontline Documentary:

Watch The Mormons Part One on PBS.

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