Jon Krakauer’s appearance in Hood River next week is sold out, but you can get the book that’s bringing him here as part of his national book tour at any bookstore. And if you’re in for an intriguing, sometimes frightening and downright compelling read, you should do just that.
“Under the Banner of Heaven: A Story of Violent Faith” was released last week to mostly glowing reviews. At first glance, it seems a departure from his past explorations of people who push the extremes of physical and mental endurance. His best selling “Into Thin Air,” detailing a disaster on Mt. Everest in 1996 in which eight climbers died, and his earlier book, “Into the Wild,” about a young man who walked into the remote Alaska wilderness in order to test his self-reliance and wound up dead, both established Krakauer as a skilled storyteller and master of narrative nonfiction.
It turns out that “Under the Banner of Heaven,” too, is a story of extremes — this time, religious extremes — and he once again weaves a page-turning tale by combining history and current events.
At the core of the story are the Lafferty brothers of Utah, a family anyone in Mormon country — and many elsewhere — know for the notoriously heinous murder the two brothers, Ron and Dan, committed in 1984. The Lafferty brothers, Mormon fundamentalists who had been excommunicated from the LDS church for their radical views — among them their adherence to polygamy — claimed they received a revelation from God instructing them to kill their 24-year-old sister-in-law, Brenda, and her infant daughter. Brenda had been outspoken against the brothers’ fundamentalist views.
The Lafferty brothers carried out the “revelation” to gruesome ends and were caught a few days later on the run in Reno, Nev. Ron Lafferty is on death row for his role in the crime while Dan is serving a life sentence.
Krakauer presents the Lafferty brothers’ descent from upright Mormons to crazed killers in the context of Mormon fundamentalism. And to understand Mormon fundamentalism, Krakauer argues, requires an understanding of Mormonism’s relatively brief history since its founding by Joseph Smith in 1830. What makes that understanding possible, as Krakauer shows, are the meticulous records kept by Mormon leaders since the religion’s inception. Indeed the Mormon church, born in the age of the printing press, is the only major religion in the world to have a written history dating to when Joseph Smith translated the “golden plates” he discovered on a hill in central New York into the Book of Mormon, thus founding what has become the world’s most successful grassroots religion.
One of Joseph Smith’s revelations that formed the doctrine of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints was the “divine institution” of polygamy. Smith himself married at least 33 women — many of them barely in their teens — before he was murdered in 1844 at age 38. When Brigham Young, who succeeded Smith, brought the Saints west to the remote Utah territory a few years later in order to escape persecution in the Midwest, he established a virtual theocracy, with the tenets of the LDS Church — including polygamy, despite federal laws banning it — made the law of the land. (Smith himself had at least 20 wives.)
In the late 1800s, facing increasing threats to the survival of the church by not only the federal government but mainstream America, then-leader of the LDS Church Wilford Woodruff suddenly had a revelation that it was God’s will for Mormons to cease practicing polygamy. This break with the church doctrine laid down by Joseph Smith — and later revelations by church leaders, such as one allowing blacks into the LDS ministry — brought the church more in line with mainstream America. But it is this break that forms the foundation of Mormon fundamentalism. Fundamentalists believe that these changes compromised Joseph Smith’s vision, and that the LDS Church has forsaken its original ideals by selling out to politics. And some fundamentalists have shown they’re willing to draw on Mormonism’s violent past to rectify the situation.
More than 200 Mormon fundamentalist factions have established themselves in pockets around Utah and Arizona, as well as in British Columbia, Mexico and elsewhere. The LDS Church doesn’t acknowledge that fundamentalists are even Mormons. But the fact that they keep cropping up in the news makes them hard to ignore. In two separate, widely publicized cases which Krakauer explores, in 2001-02 outspoken polygamist Tom Green of Colorado City, Ariz., was convicted of polygamy for having seven wives (two of whom left him) and child rape for having sex with a 13-year-old, who later became one of his wives.
And Elizabeth Smart, the 14-year-old Salt Lake City girl who was kidnapped from her bedroom in June 2002, turned up nine months later with fundamentalist/polygamist Brian David Mitchell and his wife. Mitchell had long claimed he’d received a revelation from God to take seven additional wives — Elizabeth, apparently, being the first one.
Krakauer spent more than four years researching and writing “Under the Banner of Heaven,” an admittedly different book from the one he set out to write. Before the book was even released, the LDS Church issued a “response” blasting Krakauer for his “decidedly one-sided and negative view of Mormon history,” and the book as “a condemnation of religion generally.”
This close-minded view is to be expected from a church leadership which sanctions only “faith promoting” accounts of Mormon history.
But in seeking to denigrate Krakauer, LDS Church leaders have failed to recognize the larger significance of the book as an important and timely study of religious extremism in our very midst.