Thursday, March 4, 2010

Under The Banner Of Heaven by Jon Krakauer

Under the Banner of Heaven: A Story of Violent FaithI seem to be on a God kick lately.  I'm not sure why, except maybe that the nature of faith, taken to extremes, fascinates and horrifies me.  That presumably normal and rational human beings can convince themselves of total absurdities, and then hurt or kill other human beings based on that belief, demonstrates, I think, a profound deficiency in human brain design.  What's worse is that it is a defect that seems to be on the rise.

On July 27, 1984, the 137th anniversary of  Brigham Young and his Mormon followers arrival in their promised land of Deseret (now Salt Lake City, Utah), two brothers, Ron and Dan Lafferty, slit the throats of Brenda Lafferty and her infant daughter, Erica, the wife and child of their brother, Alan.  They did this because of a revelation from God. 

In actuality, they did it because Brenda Lafferty had refused to conform to the misogynistic tenets of the Fundamentalist Mormon religion, and was instrumental in convincing Ron Lafferty's wife and children to leave him for the same reason.  15-month old Erica was murdered because she was "a spawn of the devil", i.e., Brenda.  Two other individuals who crossed Ron Lafferty were also marked for death that day, but escaped execution through a combination of blind luck, and the killers' confusion and laziness.

It should be pointed out that the Lafferty brothers belonged not to the mainstream Church of Latter Day Saints, but to one of many offshoot sects, known as Fundamentalist Mormons, who still practice their founder's command of multiple marriage.  Members of the FLDS, as they are called, are well known throughout the western United States for a wide variety of criminal behaviors, including polygamy, statutory rape, kidnapping, welfare fraud, and tax evasion.

Krakauer's book is a chilling narrative of the Laffertys' descent into depravity, climaxed by the remorseless murder of their sister-in-law and niece, interspersed with a thorough history of the development of the Mormon faith and its offshoots.  This is a necessary history, because it is impossible to understand the actions of the Lafferty brothers and their ilk without comprehending the unique and sometimes bizarre religion that twisted their reason toward murder.

Mormonism is alone among major religions (with tens of millions of followers in the US alone), in that it is a very recent development, and the texts and dominant figures (or prophets) of the religion are subject to all of the documentation of the modern age, unlike, say, the Bible or Koran.  The founder, Joseph Smith, Jr. was a charismatic con artist and treasure hunter - one of many who founded new religions during the Second Great Awakening of religious fervor in America during the early 19th Century.

Unlike the others, however, Joe Smith had a talent for attracting and keeping followers, as well as a comprehensive, if somewhat nutty, philosophy.  Smith was repeatedly contacted by an angel called Moroni, who revealed to him the location of a golden book of prophecy, describing the pre-Columbian inhabitants of America as Jewish refugees from Babylon in the time before Jesus.  Also, the Garden of Eden was apparently located originally in what is now Missouri.

Fortunately, Christ made a later side trip to the New World to spread the news of his sacrifice to his new disciples.  Later, the people of this holy and wealthy tribe were slaughtered to the last man by the evil minions of Satan (Native Americans), which explains why there was no sign of them when the Europeans showed up. The golden book contains the history of these proto-Mormons, and their rules and commandments for living. 

In addition to wearing special sacred underwear, practicing "blood atonement", and regarding black people as subhuman, Smith (who was a serious ladies' man) later added polygamy to the list of revealed wisdom.  The Mormon church meanwhile endured decades of hostility from unbelievers as they trekked across the country from Palmyra, New York, to Deseret, including massacres and the lynching of Smith in 1844.

Although the modern LDS church jettisoned the practice of polygamy (and later, racism) to assimilate successfully into the American mainstream, thousands of followers refused to abandon these precepts, and formed the core of the FLDS sects, which also teach that women are to remain eternally subservient to their fathers and husbands, may be married against their will as young as the age of 13 or 14 years old, and should serve as one of literally dozens of wives assigned to a single husband.

The conflict of these beliefs with American law (and common sense) has isolated FLDS members from the rest of society, allowing their madness to flourish and grow violent.  The Lafferty killings, the kidnapping and brainwashing of Elizabeth Smart, and the saga of fugitive FLDS "prophet" (and pedophile) Warren Jeffs, all find their source in the original tenets of the unreformed Mormon church.

Though Ron and Dan Lafferty were both convicted of First Degree Murder in 1985, Ron Lafferty successfully worked the system to obtain a second trial (he was again convicted and sentenced to death), and continues to evade the firing squad though claims of mental incompetence, 25 years after his crime.  Dan Lafferty, sentenced to two life terms, remains in prison, and provides Krakauer with much of the narrative of the killings.  Both brothers remain unrepentent, and refuse to acknowledge any wrongdoing, in that their actions were ordained by God.  The wages of faith are death.

Krakauer's writing is sharp, detailed, and moving, and describes the pitiful death of Brenda and Erica Lafferty, and the development of the strange and fateful religion that led to it with the same clarity and intensity he demonstrated in his best-seller Into Thin Air.  Thorough, compelling, and deeply disturbing, Under The Banner Of Heaven is a critical text in understanding the nature of Fundamentalist faith that, in its various forms, seems determined to tear the very planet asunder.


  1. Will read any Jon Krakauer book, but especially loved this one because of the detailed history lesson. I also enjoy your reviews!-B. Harvey

  2. Check out Infidel, by Ayaan Hirsi Ali, a biography-BH