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Book Review: Under the Banner of Heaven

By Jon Krakauer

Reviewed by Eric Johnson

To order this book directly from Amazon, click Under the Banner of Heaven: A Story of Violent Faith and also available in Kindle.

Well-known author Jon Krakauer (Into Thin Air, Into the Wild) originally wanted to write a book titled History and Belief that would focus “on the uneasy, highly charged relationship between the LDS Church and its past.” In this not-yet-written book, he planned to see “how does a critical mind reconcile scientific and historical truth with religious doctrine? How does one sustain belief when confronted with facts that appear to refute it?”

Instead of writing this book, though, Krakauer’s research led him to write about the dual July 24, 1984 murders committed by the infamous Lafferty brothers (Ron and Dan) in American Fork, Utah. The story told in Under the Banner of Heaven is both intriguing and revealing. In fact, Krakauer makes it very evident that the Laffertys not only held fast to Mormon fundamentalism and a deep-seeded belief in polygamy, but they were also closely aligned with the thinking of numerous early Mormon leaders, especially Joseph Smith and Brigham Young, the first two LDS prophets.

Krakauer opens the book by giving background information on the night when the actual murders that occurred. Ron and Dan brutally ambushed their younger brother Allan’s infant daughter and his wife, Brenda, whom they blamed for causing Ron’s wife to leave for Florida. The murders are not exactly described until the latter part of the book, but it should be understood that graphic details are given…and it’s not a pretty sight.

However, this is more than just a tale centering on the Laffertys. Throughout the book, as the account is unfurled describing how the Laffertys got to the point of cold-blooded murder and thinking their actions were God-ordained, Krakauer weaves in the basic history of the LDS Church, starting with LDS founder Joseph Smith in chapter 5. Events such as Carthage, Mountain Meadow (he points out that only later was it called “Meadows”), and the Manifesto are detailed.

Krakauer intersperses the historical aspects of Mormonism with the different interpretations of this religion as explained by numerous leaders. Since many fundamentalist Mormons place special emphasis on polygamy, Krakauer highlights the more well-known polygamous individuals such as LeRoy Johnson, Brian David Mitchell (who kidnapped Elizabeth Smart), Tom Green, and the LeBarons. Displayed are the many problems associated with polygamy including incest, spousal abuse, septuagenarians marrying teenagers, and the stealing from the government.

Although the general history is accurate and can be easily supported, this book is not meant to be a historical work. In fact, Krakauer utilizes other researchers such as Fawn Brodie (No Man Knows My History), Will Bagley (Blood of the Prophets), and D. Michael Quinn (Early Mormonism and the Magic World View). Thus, anyone hoping for new historical nuggets may be disappointed (though I did learn a few new things). Truly this book is tailor-made for the person who doesn’t have a deep understanding of Mormonism’s roots.

One thing that Krakauer does not provide is the in-text citations of his sources. Instead, he merely uses asterisks and provides the footnoted information at the bottom of the page. No resource/page number addresses are provided, meaning that the reader has to take the author’s word for it. While there may be a place for these kinds of books, this type of documentation drives us researchers who thrive on specific source/page information crazy. At the same time, Krakauer makes some very astute observations that show how he understands the many inconsistencies in Joseph Smith’s philosophical system.

Under the Banner of Heaven, which hit the presses in July 2003, has infuriated many Mormons who consider this tome as an affront to their faith. After all, how dare the author insinuate that these Mormon Fundamentalists are even faintly related to the only true church on earth, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints! Yet this thinking is quite flawed. As the author insinuates, if Smith and Young were to return to the earth today, certainly they would recognize the Fundamentalist churches as being more authentic than the LDS Church and its structure. Why should we think so poorly of these modern-day polygamists when their attitude is certainly shared by those who guided the church in the early years?

He has a point, though Mormons have flooded the Internet with their ranting protests. For instance, many of the more than 300+ reviews of this book on are LDS critics complaining that Krakauer is somehow anti-Mormon and therefore must have a vendetta against the Church. Thus, many of these reviewers give the book a “one star” rating and display their ignorance with archaic reviews, which clearly show they never read the book. This proves that there are many Mormons who are more concerned with their religion’s public relations image rather than history or, egad, the truth. While Krakauer is an agnostic/atheist and is certainly no friend to Christianity, I believe that he holds no bigoted bent against the LDS Church.

Overall, I recommend this book, especially for those who would like to better understand the polygamist mindset that can be found throughout the western United States. Since I personally know polygamists from Utah, I commend Krakauer for accurately displaying the mentality that characterizes many of these sincere folk (i.e. “it’s us against the world”). The only caution I would give is that the book is quite graphic when it comes to the description of the murders and the language used by the Lafferty boys.

Finally, though I certainly disagree with Krakauer on theology, I would like to encourage Krakauer to pursue the book he originally set out to write. Of course, Mormons will once again color him with that dirty “anti-Mormon” label, but I for one would be an interested observer should he ever complete that book.

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