UNDER THE BANNER OF HEAVEN by Jon Krakauer
Reviewed by Nordeen Morello, Book'em ...take
(December 15, 2005)
Fundamentalist religious groups have commanded public attention in recent times.
Book-'Em members had an eye-opening look at one particular group, fundamentalist
Mormons, in Jon Krakauer's Under the Banner of Heaven. In a desire to
explore "what might be learned about the nature of faith," the author focuses on
the 1984 slaying of Brenda Lafferty and her three year old daughter by two of
Brenda's brothers-in-law. Ron and Dan Lafferty are members of a fundamentalist
Mormon sect that believes in polygamy and personal revelations. They claim
they were commanded by God to commit the murders.
The Church of The Later Day Saints, or Mormons, is a homegrown, all-American, highly
successful religion founded in 1830 by the charismatic Joseph Smith. Krakauer relates the
often-violent historical origins and oddities of the faith and describes the splintering
off of several fundamentalist sects in the late 1890's after the Mormon Church disavowed
The Saints, 11 million strong today and the fastest growing faith in the western
hemisphere, are a patriarchal religion that believes they are God's favored children.
Some of their original tenets, "revealed" to Smith and laid out in The Doctrine and
Covenants, were jettisoned by later prophets to accommodate acceptance by mainstream
America. The 30,000 fundamentalist Mormons sprinkled in pockets of western North America
still believe in polygamy, maintain that the earth is merely 7,000 years old and that
man has never walked on the moon, and are forbidden alcohol, caffeine, profanity,
television and non-church issued written media.
Our discussion was animated, even agitated at times, and remained topical for an
unusually lengthy period. Members expressed shock and horror at these brutal murders
and at the defiance of anti-polygamy and sexual abuse laws, which characterize these
sects. "The very basis of the religion is disgusting" was one comment made. "How is
it that nothing is done about it?" was another. Many of the multiple or "spiritual
wives" are underage women who have been forced by their families into early marriages
and motherhood. Because multiple wives are not recognized by law, they qualify for
public assistance as technically "single mothers" and collect welfare even if the
family patriarch has the means to support them. This "bleeding the beast" (the U.S.
government) is considered a virtuous practice by the Fundamentalists.
The book's title is a reference to this statement of the late 1800's by Mormon President,
Prophet, Seer and Revelator John Taylor: "God is greater than the United States and
when the government conflicts with heaven, we will be ranged under the banner of heaven."
Our book group explored parallels between LDS fundamentalism and Islamic fundamentalism. A
lack of personal responsibility for one's actions characterizes their similarities. As
Dan Lafferty relayed to the author from his prison cell, "I was doing God's will which is
not a crime."
One Book-'Em reader noted, "Our society must be so lacking in something, so desperate,
that [the tenants of] their religion has such appeal." Quite a few of our members have
Mormon acquaintances and were impressed by the strong support system which exists in the
mainstream LDS church. At the risk of stereotyping, we felt that the order, structure and comfort derived from the religion produces personable, motivated, ambitious and self-possessed individuals. Their religion is their way of life. Not all religions are able to accomplish this.
While illuminating in content, there was a fair amount of criticism of the book's
structure. Copious footnotes were distracting and ultimately annoying to most of us.
Krakauer's non-linear approach to presenting the history led to some confusion in
discerning what applied to both the mainstream church and the fundamentalist sects. This
might give readers a distorted view of the official Latter Day Saints church.
Nevertheless, in Under the Banner of Heaven Jon Krakauer has laid out a fascinating
story in an easy to read style. Many of us felt that it probably was more lengthy than
necessary but that some sections could be skimmed easily. Our structural criticism
should not deter any group from pursuing this stimulating title as a selection.
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