51 pages • 1 hour readJon Krakauer
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In 2003, Jon Krakauer, nonfiction author and journalist, published Under the Banner of Heaven: A Story of Violent Faith. Now the inspiration for a television series of the same title on Hulu, the story sent shockwaves as it explored religious extremism on American soil that closely resembled the Taliban-style extremism that had captured the country’s attention following the September 11 attacks. This guide refers to the 2004 paperback edition published by First Anchor Books.
Content warning: This book contains multiple accounts of sexual abuse and murder, which are discussed in the study guide.
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Krakauer explores the story of two men—Ron and Dan Lafferty—who participated in the ritualistic murders of a 24-year-old woman and her 15-month-old daughter in 1984. Motivated by extremist religious views with ties to fundamental Mormonism, the Lafferty brothers felt called by God to enact a blood atonement on their sister-in-law and her daughter: Brenda and Erika Lafferty.
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A childhood marked by physical abuse and strict adherence to a set of radical religious expectations left Ron and Dan psychologically marked. As Dan Lafferty began to explore the legacy of the Mormon faith and became increasingly involved with the principles of Mormon fundamentalism—including blood atonement, polygamy, and personal revelations from God—he encouraged his brothers to embrace his new ideals. Ron, vulnerable due to financial hardship, found strength in Dan’s message and embraced fundamentalism. Dan and Ron, along with their other brothers, forced their wives to submit to their religious views, including pioneer-type living and polygamy.
When Ron’s wife, Dianna, expressed her concerns to Brenda, the wife of the youngest Lafferty brother and a strong-willed and confident college graduate, Brenda fought back against what she believed to be an evil influence on the Lafferty family. Ron’s behavior became increasingly irrational, and soon he began to physically abuse Dianna. Meanwhile, Dan suggested to his wife Matilda that he take his stepdaughter as his second wife. After learning of Ron’s abuse, Brenda urged Dianna to leave her husband. Dianna packed up her six kids and left the state, leaving Ron with a vendetta against Brenda.
Krakauer juxtaposes the experiences and extremist spiral of the Lafferty brothers with the history of the Mormon faith. The 1857 Mountain Meadows massacre committed by Mormons fearful that an innocent wagon train might be part of a government plot against them provides context for the irrational behavior of the Lafferty brothers in 1984. The story of Joseph Smith’s secret commitment to plural marriage closely resembles the lengths the Lafferty brothers were willing to go to pursue the same marital principle. Krakauer suggests that faith itself is irrational and that the line between mainstream religious faith and religious extremism is thin and blurry.
While the mainstream LDS church abandoned Joseph Smith’s more extreme principles and maintains that fundamentalist sects are not part of the Mormon church, Krakauer suggests that the violent history and patriarchal structure of Mormonism create an environment in which these sects can function and lean toward radicalism. Those who turned a blind eye to the impact of this type of faith, as well as the continual conflict between the Mormon faith and the government, allowed many sects to isolate and operate unchecked. As Krakauer reveals in the book, Ron and Dan Lafferty’s actions are merely one part of a larger story of sexual and physical abuse, manipulation, and tyranny.
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