In “Under The Banner Of Heaven: A Story of Violent Faith,” Jon Krakauer delves into the complex and compelling world of Mormon fundamentalists, their dark past and its violent ideologies, which have been concealed for generations from the public eye. Krakauer, the bestselling author of “Into the Wild” and “Into Thin Air,” presents an investigative narrative of the brutal 1984 murder of Brenda Lafferty and her infant daughter, Erica, by two brothers – Ron and Dan Lafferty – devout followers of the Mormon fundamentalist movement. The chilling account uncovered by Krakauer is ultimately a meditation on the nature of faith itself and the slipperiness of defining and combating extremism.
The book opens with the chilling account of the Lafferty brothers brutally murdering their sister-in-law and niece because they believed God commanded them to do so. Krakauer’s detailed account and extensive research provide a gripping, haunting insight into the gruesome event that shook the Salt Lake Valley. The narrative delves into the lives of the Lafferty brothers and their extreme religious views that led them to commit this heinous crime. Krakauer’s choice to focus the story on such a shocking and graphic opening sets the stage for the reader to understand the complex and fascinating world of Mormon fundamentalism, creating an indelible impression that binds the book’s diverse strands together.
As a work of narrative nonfiction, “Under The Banner Of Heaven” presents readers with an unsettling picture of a violent, faith-driven fringe culture that is deeply embedded in the larger fabric of Mormonism. As the story unfolds, Krakauer skillfully entwines the narrative of the 1984 murder with the larger history of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS). He traces the church’s roots from its founding in the early nineteenth century by Joseph Smith, who claimed to have received divine revelations that nonbelievers have, from the outset, derided as fabricated self-serving delusions. Additionally, the author examines the Church’s controversial teachings on polygamy, which are still practiced in some Mormon fundamentalist communities today.
In “Under The Banner Of Heaven,” Krakauer achieves a fascinating and well-researched balance between investigative journalism, personal narrative, and religious history. By interweaving the Lafferty brothers’ story with the complex history of the Mormon faith, the author investigates the darker side of a seemingly peaceful American religion. Krakauer’s thorough research and measured storytelling allow him to illustrate how the Lafferty brothers and other fundamentalist Mormon groups are able to find religious justification for their actions within the very tenets of their faith.
One of the most striking features of “Under The Banner Of Heaven” is the way in which Krakauer meticulously traces the historical underpinnings of the modern-day Mormon faith. As he delves into the early history of the Church, we see how the passionate, charismatic, and often controversial Joseph Smith created a religious empire from the seeds of his claims of prophetic revelation. Krakauer demonstrates how Smith’s teachings on polygamy and the subjugation of women – which eventually led to his imprisonment and murder – fundamentally shaped the Church’s subsequent development.
It is in these early sections of “Under The Banner Of Heaven” that Krakauer’s journalistic skills truly shine. Drawing on primary sources such as journals and diaries, as well as secondary research and analysis, Krakauer vividly recreates the tumultuous world of nineteenth-century America, where a fledgling faith was being forged in the crucible of persecution and violence. The author’s ability to synthesize the disparate threads of his narrative enables readers to see the connections between past and present-day iterations of Mormon faith, illuminating the links between the nineteenth-century Mormon pioneers and their twenty-first-century descendants, some of whom continue to practice polygamy and other beliefs that the mainstream Mormon church has long since disavowed.
As the narrative moves forward, readers are drawn into a world where ancient rituals and beliefs continue to hold sway, often with devastating consequences. The book explores the concept of “Blood Atonement,” which lies at the heart of the Lafferty brothers’ extreme beliefs. According to this doctrine, certain sins can only be forgiven through the shedding of the sinner’s blood. Krakauer explores how this doctrine, embraced by various fundamentalist Mormon sects, becomes a means of justifying murder and the exercise of unbridled power by self-appointed “prophets.”
Krakauer’s examination of the reclusive and secretive polygamous communities that exist today in the American West reveals a disturbing pattern of fundamentalist religious zealotry that often leads to violence, misogyny, child abuse, and incest. One of the most harrowing narratives in the book is the story of Debbie Palmer, who was born into a polygamous family and married off at a young age to a much older man against her will. Debbie’s story serves as a cautionary tale against the dangers of blind faith, which allows religious leaders to exploit the vulnerable and perpetuate cycles of abuse.
While “Under The Banner Of Heaven” may make some readers uncomfortable, both with its graphic descriptions of violence and its penetrating critique of religious extremism, its ultimate contribution is not to condemn the Mormon faith as a whole, but to shed light on the dangers that can arise when religious fervor goes unchecked. Krakauer’s work is a thought-provoking, deeply researched exploration of the dark side of faith, its power to both unite and divide, and the limits of human understanding.