Debriefing: Under the Banner of Heaven by Jon Krakauer

Posted on February 9, 2009. Filed under: Books, Personal Reviews | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , |

Krakauer is an author who gets to the heart of issues that we all think about, and writes in a fashion that really not only paints a clear picture of the world he sees but also paints a picture of what he has learned and how he interprets this information. Mormonism is a religion that I know little about. I have been friends with Mormons and have seen their commercials on TV, but mostly I’ve heard the media continually batter and abuse them in a negative light. Krakuer’s title proves that the story does not look to find the holiness in the Mormons, but looks to seek the truth to why parts of their fundamentalist counterparts may turn violent and gives origins of the religion for those of us not raised in that faith.

The history of Mormonism starts with Joseph Smith in Palmyra New York. This is a story that I previously knew nothing about and was eager to hear more of. The early history of Mormonism clearly leaves non-Saints confused as to how this ‘American religion’ has gained so many followers but seems increasingly far-fetched. Krakauer works to consistently remind us that all religion is faith-based and requires followers and leaps of faith. What is striking about Mormons though and their history is that it is under 200 years old, and is completely recorded. Krakauer was able to research actual Mormon texts as well as speak to relatives of the Church founders. The history is complete and complex but completely related to the story as a whole. Additionally, it also shows that cover-ups happen and the Mormons are no different than other great leaders and may have pulled off some amazing coverups in America’s more modern history.

The focus on history is a backdrop of the story. It serves to teach us where they came from, where they have been and possibly serve to show where the church may be headed. The meat of this story focuses on the Lafferty Brothers and their gruesome murder of their sister-in law. Krakauer was fortunate to interview Dan Lafferty which created an interesting angle for the story. Lafferty is an admitted cold-blooded murderer, yet he was also a Mormon. Hearing Lafferty’s viewpoints as a former Mormon fundamentalist are gripping and really make you consider what type of hold this religion has placed over many Americans. Admittedly I think of Mormons as the good kids who seldom, if ever swear, don’t watch movies rated “R” or with extreme profanity, attend church daily, pray more than daily, and live their life for God and the betterment of their people. I would never associate Mormons with murder but fundamentalism can create deviations in the faith that may lead members to kill for God.

The Lafferty Brothers did just that – they killed their sister-in law for God, to support His divine mission and wishes. The tale is retold in a very detailed manner, and while the murders and wrong doings by members of the Fundamentalist sects of the Latter Day Saints (FLDS) are the focus of the book it was really mostly about how the church split and how these sects not only got their power but how the ‘main church’ (LDS) and its leaders may have paved the way for such extremism. The history is the building block that allows outsiders to learn that the LDS church was started quickly and grew even quicker and from the get-go experienced violence both brought upon them and then returned to the outside world.  The LDS church has had to fight to keep it sanctioned by the US and even moved from the far east coast to the far western United States and has branched into Mexico and Canada as well. While the main LDS church has undergone some ‘renovations’ of their scriptures and what is practiced the FLDS focuses on the original documents that created the faith, the most exploited being polygamy.

Polygamy is the giant elephant when discussing FLDS sects. We have seen some of these mothers on the TV, crying because their children have been taken, one of a few other wives with many children. Men who forcibly marry young girls as young as 15 and having as many as 64 children. Krakauer explores the effects of this on the culture as well as how hard the LDS church and its founding leaders fought to keep this principle active and alive. Much of his research included texts written by young women forced into polygamous relationships at an early age and their efforts to break free. The polygamy revelation was a secret to all but Joseph Smith and his closest companions for a long time, but was then revealed to the fellow Saints and didn’t initially spread like expected. The US government always gave the church pressure to withdraw this practice and reminded the Mormons that polygamy was not sanctioned by the US government. Krakuer highlights the violent tales that have spattered the Mormon past as they tried to make their own laws and ways, and insisted to the government that they could not answer to any laws other than the laws of God. Krakauer displays the history when innocent lives were taken by Mormons who wanted respect and power from the US government and then the cover-ups that followed.

There are moments when Krakauer paints the Mormons as a group who was reckless, careless and while they meant good they had their own interests and would stop at very little to accomplish them. At the same time though Krakauer makes you feel passionate about the Mormons and reminds you of the history when the Americans would ‘hunt’ the Mormons and terrorized them when their numbers grew too large. It is a dramatic history that is still evolving and the Lafferty murders are simply a way for Krakauer to highlight the ways that the church has changed and the ways that FLDS sects control their people with outdated principles as well as chilling ways to show their faith.


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One Response to “Debriefing: Under the Banner of Heaven by Jon Krakauer”

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The history of the Mormon Church is so inextricably interwoven with the doctrine of polygamy that no history of the church can be comlete without some discussion of the practice.

The doctrine was first announced by joseph Smith at Nauvoo in 1842 Many of the men close to him knew of it and accepted it as a principle of divine pronouncement.
However it was not until 1852 that it was publicly taught.It should be said at the outset that the practice among the Mormons was radically different from that of oriental peoples.Each wife with her children, occupied a seperate house, or,if the wives lived in the same,as was sometimes the case, in seperate quarters. No distinction was made between either of the wives or the children. The husband provided for eack family, was responsible for the education of the children, and gave both the children and their mothers the same advantages he would have given to his family under a monogamous relationship. If it was thought he could not do this, he was not permitted to enter into plural marriage.
While the practice was extremely limited -only a small minority of the families were involved-it was the kind of thing of which enemies of the church could easily take advantage.
Reaction against the doctrine developed throughout the country, and it entered into the presidental campaign of 1860. when Lincoln was asked what he proposed to do about the Mormons, he replied, “Let them alone.” In 1862Congress passed an anti-Polygamy law,but it was aimed at plural marriages and not polygamous relations. Ten years later the congress passed a bill prohibiting polygamy.
It was considered unconstitutional by many people in the nation,and generally by the Mormons A test case was brought into courts of Utah and carried through the Supreme Court of the United States,resulting in a decision adverse to the Mormons. In the midst of this difficulty, John Taylor succeeded to the presidency of the church. The years that followed were truly years of endurance.

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