Under The Banner Of Heaven Summary

Jon Krakauer

Under The Banner Of Heaven

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Under The Banner Of Heaven Summary

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In 2003, the nonfiction author Jon Krakauer published his book Under the Banner of Heaven: A Story of Violent Faith. Motivated to expand the typically Islam-focused understanding of religious extremism that dominated the U.S. after 9/11, Under the Banner of Heaven addresses fundamentalism and the violence that often accompanies it in a totally different context – the Mormon faith. Krakauer tells in parallel the history of Joseph Smith and the founding of his church, and of the modern-day extremist offshoots that embrace Mormon beliefs but do not belong to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS). By juxtaposing the brutal double murder committed by the fundamentalist Lafferty brothers in 1984 with the 1857 Mountain Meadows massacre committed by Mormons and members of the Paiute tribe, Krakauer argues that all-consuming religious faith is antithetical to rational behavior.

Under the Banner of Heaven opens with a description of the murders of twenty-four-year-old Brenda Lafferty and her fifteen-month-old daughter, Erica, the wife and daughter of Allan Lafferty. Brenda and Erica were slaughtered by Allan’s older brothers, Ron and Dan, who were acting under a “revelation” supposedly received by Ron from God. Ron and Dan Lafferty were born into mainstream Mormonism, but when they experienced financial setbacks as adults, both joined a fundamentalist polygamist sect. Because Brenda argued against this authoritarian belief system, urging Ron and Dan’s wives to resist as well, Ron and Dan felt free to “remove” her. The brothers have been excommunicated from their splinter sect and are serving life sentences in prison – but neither has expressed any remorse for the killing, which they openly admit to, and both are still committed to their religious convictions.

Krakauer then moves backward in time to explore the founding of the Mormon faith under Joseph Smith, who started as a small-time con artist before meeting the angel Moroni in 1823 and leading a small congregation of followers westward to the Mexico-owned territory that later became Utah. Violence followed the group – both initiated by the members of the new religion and by the Protestants who persecuted them along the way. Still, Krakauer dwells on early Mormon tenets like “blood atonement,” the systematic oppression of women inherent in polygamous societies where young teenage girls are told whom to marry to avoid damnation and the strong-arm authoritarian tactics that are necessary to keep young superfluous men (who are unable to marry because of the way polygamy math pans out) in line.

Although both blood atonement and polygamy were rejected by the mainstream LDS church at the turn of the twentieth century in order to enable Utah to become a state and join the U.S., Krakauer points out that extremist Mormons have never abandoned either of these practices or the ideology underlying them. Of course, Krakauer does agree that most Mormons are peaceful, industrious, and law-abiding. He also takes as given that the mainstream LDS church rejects the idea that the splinter groups he is describing have anything to do with modern Mormon beliefs. But nevertheless, the fundamentalist extremists Krakauer profiles use the same book of scripture and espouse most of the same religious principles.

Jumping forward in time again, Krakauer describes the totalitarianism inherent to life in the small insular “Taliban-like” communities that follow fundamentalist Mormonism. These details became mainstream knowledge a few years after the publication of Under the Banner of Heaven, during the arrest and prosecution for assault of a minor of Warren Jeffs, the leader of one of these groups who had at least eighty “spiritual” wives (some as young as twelve). Krakauer also recounts the abduction and forced “marriage” of fourteen-year-old Elizabeth Smart, whose captor was an unaffiliated Mormon extremist.

By comparing the historical roots of the religion with some of its modern-day incarnations, Krakauer asks larger questions about the nature of unwavering faith. The effects of fanaticism, no matter what belief system it espouses, seem eerily similar: hostility and sometimes violence towards outsiders as well as the surveillance and policing of members. Krakauer asks us to consider what our country’s dedication to the idea of freedom of religion means in the face of this kind of extremist faith. He also wonders what to make of the Lafferty brothers’ claims to have spoken to God – do we consider them mentally ill? And if we do, does that mean that all people who claim to have communed with God are also mentally ill?

The book ends with the experiences of a man born into fundamental Mormonism who has now become an atheist. He admits that the certainty and lack of doubt that faith brings can be comforting, but stresses that the freedom to think for yourself is much more important.

When it was published, Under the Banner of Heaven became a bestseller and was later optioned for a movie. Representatives of the LDS church objected to many of the details of Krakauer’s description of Joseph Smith and his successor Brigham Young, and also criticized the book for making it sound as though all Mormons are prone to violence. Reviewers praised Krakauer’s ability to tell a spellbinding, page-turning story, and the ambition of his subject matter, even if he doesn’t quite manage to fully make his case. The main thrust of the reactions is well summarized by Robert Wright, who wrote in The New York Times, “Almost every section of the book is fascinating in its own right, and together the chapters make a rich picture, but there is little narrative synergy among them.”