Under the Banner of Heaven, by Jon Krakauer, is a disturbing yet immensely compelling read. Subtitled A Story of Violent Faith, this non-fiction work explores the subject of Mormon Fundamentalism and its outgrowth from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (LDS). The main narrative theme focuses on the 1984 murder of a young woman and her infant daughter at the hands of two of her husband's brothers. The culprits, both lifelong LDS members who had become involved with a fundamentalist strain of Mormonism, claimed that God Himself ordered the killings. Using this horrible crime as a launching point, Krakauer delves into the history of the LDS faith, as well as the practices of extremist sects that have broken away from (or have been excommunicated by) the mainstream Mormon church.
Polygamy is the major distinctive of these Fundamentalist groups (FLDS, for convenience), and Krakauer describes several "colonies" established throughout rural North America where the practice continues. Because the men cannot legally marry more than one wife, these FLDS enclaves have astronomically high rates of "unwed mothers" and, thus, qualify for significant amounts of federal assistance. Moreover, these groups view this fraud against the United States as justified, for they view the government as hopelessly corrupt (and indeed, this anti-government sentiment has significant precedent within LDS history). The descriptions of the convoluted familial linkages within these sects border on the comic, such as the case of one woman who has become her own stepgrandmother via "plural marriage." However, these situations are actually tragic, because the "women" taken into polygamous relationships are usually underage girls with little opportunity for escape. Although Krakauer stresses that the LDS Church has officially repudiated plural marriage and now denounces groups that still practice it, he also details how polygamy was a core facet of early Mormon teachings, including those of founder Joseph Smith and his successor Brigham Young. FLDS groups claim to be restoring the historic tenets of their faith; moreover, Krakauer states that their numbers continue to grow as devout LDS members, sincerely seeking to learn more about their founders, continue to discover a host of teachings that the LDS church has steadily downplayed during the last century.
Another downplayed facet of the Mormon story is the considerable violence surrounding the birth of the LDS church. Although Joseph Smith's own history was rife with questionable behavior, the Mormons typically were on the receiving end of mistreatment during the years of his leadership, even while he began propagating new revelations concerning plural marriage -- albeit stealthily -- towards the end of his life. Under the leadership of Brigham Young, however, the LDS went public with Smith's teachings on polygamy, "the Most Holy Principle." These revelations created schisms within the church and greatly inflamed animosity from those outside. However, the Saints under Young adopted a policy of retaliation against their persecutors. During this dark period, violence committed against and by Mormons was widespread, including the infamous Mountain Meadows Massacre of 1857, during which a group of LDS settlers (most likely on Young's orders) and Indian "allies" ambushed and exterminated a west-bound wagon train. In an 1880 address, John Taylor, Young's successor, rallied the faithful "under the banner of heaven" against the US government in order to preserve polygamy. Even when the violence eventually subsided, the anti-government rhetoric from LDS leaders did not diminish as quickly.
At last, in 1890, the LDS church officially renounced plural marriage and began the process of mainstreaming into American society. Those devoted to "the Principle" refused to abandon polygamy and were eventually forced to break ties with the LDS. Krakauer notes that, ironically, Smith himself had established the foundation for these schisms: he denounced the cold formalism of existing denominations, and he instead advocated a vibrant personal faith marked by direct revelation from God. Unfortunately, problems soon arose regarding how to determine which personal revelations took precedence over other conflicting ones. Although Smith quickly (and conveniently) received word from God establishing himself as the sole authoritative revelator for the LDS, the damage had already been done, and a steady stream of prophets arose, usually splitting from existing groups. To this day, many of these would-be revelators claim the mantle of the "one mighty and strong," whom Smith foretold will usher in the return of Christ.
These strands of LDS and FLDS history all converge in the case of Ron and Dan Lafferty, who committed the double homicide that forms the focal point of the book. They, along with their brothers, were once shining examples of devout LDS members. However, as they delved into the church's history -- especially those aspects downplayed by the mainstream LDS establishment -- they began to gravitate towards FLDS teachings on polygamy, opposition to the government, and the imminent return of Christ (preceded by the "one mighty and strong"). When sister-in-law Brenda (wife of brother Allen) began to speak out against these new ideals, Ron claimed to have received a revelation directly from God calling for the "removal" of her and her infant daughter, both of whom posed an obstacle to the spread of "the Kingdom of God." The account of Ron's trial is fascinating, centering on the issue of mental competence and the insanity plea. Should a person instructed to murder "by God" automatically be considered insane? After all, is the notion that someone "hears from God" enough to question their mental competence? If so, argued the State of Utah, then millions of religious Americans should likewise be considered insane. This interplay between faith and "rational behavior" segues into Krakauer's conclusions on the nature of religion. Unfortunately, the author creates a rigid dichotomy between faith and reason, and this tension appears throughout the book. Krakauer admits that he is an agnostic when it comes to matters of faith, and this presupposition permeates his writing and often reveals a subtle bias against strongly-held religions beliefs.
However, this flaw is not enough to ruin the book. Krakauer has done a very detailed job of researching the facts behind the murder case, as well as the history of the LDS and the current activities of FLDS groups. Additionally, he has done a tremendous job with narrating all these strands into a cohesive whole. The details are certainly chilling and not for the squeamish, but the book is utterly fascinating, especially for those interested in learning about one of the fastest-growing religions in the world.