Under the Banner of Heaven

by Jon Krakauer
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Last Updated on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 230

Under the Banner of Heaven, by Jon Krakauer, tells the story of Ron and Dan Lafferty, two Mormon fundamentalists who killed their brother’s wife and her infant daughter. They admitted to the crime, and they even justified it, claiming that they were following God-given orders to kill the woman and child. Clearly, they believed they were following God’s orders. So, Krakauer uses the book to shed light on the reason they believed this. Krakauer begins by telling the story of the murders—murders committed by the Lafferty brothers because their sister-in-law Brenda resisted the ideas of the Mormon Church—particularly the endorsement of polygamy. She also encouraged Ron and Dan’s wives to resist polygamy—and as a result of her interference, Ron believed, his wife left him when he made the decision to take another wife.

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After telling the story of the murders, Krakauer relates the history of the Mormon Church and the philosophy of Joseph Smith, who believed that people who believed in the Lord could receive divine revelations. He traces changes in Ron’s behavior to his understanding of the ideas of Mormon fundamentalism, however misguided. In fact, Ron goes to trial and is diagnosed with a mental disorder. Nevertheless, Krakauer links the ideas the Lafferty’s used to justify their Lafferty’s crime to Mormon fundamentalist teachings, and specifically the teachings that endorse polygamy.

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1581

Jon Krakauer’s three previous books, Eiger Dreams (1990), Into the Wild (1996), and Into Thin Air(1997), examined the struggle to survive in extreme climates. In Under the Banner of Heaven: A Story of Violent Faith, Krakauer deals with a different extreme, not of wilderness or high-altitude survival but of inner turmoil and delusion stemming from deeply held religious beliefs. Under the Banner of Heaven looks at religious fanaticism among fundamentalist offshoots of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (LDS), commonly known as the Mormons, and attempts to link the sometimes violent history of the LDS to a modern true-crime story involving two former members of the church.

In a prologue Krakauer outlines the 1984 murders of Brenda and Erica Lafferty, for which two of Brenda Lafferty’s brothers-in-law were sent to prison (Ronald Lafferty to death row) in 1985. Ronald and Dan Lafferty believed that God had told them to kill their younger brother’s wife and her baby daughter; Krakauer wants to understand how religious faith can become fanaticism and lead to murder. This prologue is followed by a description of Mormon fundamentalist communities that have removed themselves from the LDS, usually in disagreement with the mainstream LDS over the practice of polygamy (the taking of multiple wives, also called “spiritual” or “celestial” marriage). The LDS officially rejected polygamy as a sacred doctrine in the late 1800’s.

Krakauer devotes a chapter each to polygamous communities in Colorado City, Utah (also known as Short Creek), and Bountiful, British Columbia. In Colorado City the elderly Rulon T. Jeffs presides over the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (also called the United Effort Plan or UEP). Jeffs has seventy-five wives and nearly as many children. For an insider’s view of Short Creek, Krakauer interviewed DeLoy Bateman, a former UEP member who lost his faith in Rulon Jeffs’s authority and left the UEP. Polygamists in Colorado City and similar communities often marry girls in their early teens, who are told they face damnation unless they marry men chosen for them by community leaders. In Bountiful Krakauer interviewed Debbie Palmer, who grew up in the UEP. Palmer suffered through three arranged marriages and a variety of abuses from the men of Bountiful, becoming so depressed she set her own house on fire while her children were asleep.

Fourteen-year-old Elizabeth Smart, whose 2002 kidnapping and eventual rescue were described in a highly publicized book and television film the following year, was also a victim of Mormon fundamentalists and the doctrine of plural marriage. Brian David Mitchell, an independent Mormon fundamentalist, kidnapped Smart, believing that God had told him to take her as his second, spiritual wife. Mitchell and his wife held the girl captive for nine months. According to Krakauer, Smart made no attempt to escape, and she was returned to her family only after being apprehended by the police. Krakauer argues that Smart, whose parents are members of the mainstream LDS, was susceptible to Mitchell’s fanatic indoctrination because of his extensive knowledge of Mormon sacred texts, which she had been taught to believe since childhood. Krakauer asserts that a young woman raised in a more skeptical or questioning environment might have defied her kidnappers’ authority and escaped.

Krakauer makes it clear that the communities practicing plural marriage are separate from the LDS, which does not endorse polygamy. However, he points out that fundamentalist sects and the LDS believe in The Book of Mormon (1829) and are followers of church founder and prophet Joseph Smith, Jr. Fundamentalists believe that the LDS erred in ceasing its practice of spiritual marriage, a critically important tenet of Smith’s original church.

Smith’s revelations of the Mormon faith began in 1827, when an angel called Moroni led him to a set of golden tablets inscribed with a language that resembled Egyptian hieroglyphics. Smith received a pair of special glasses that enabled him to read the strange text. After translating and publishing the material—which he called The Book of Mormon—Smith returned the golden pages to the angel, although several of Smith’s friends and relatives claimed to have seen them. Krakauer notes that the foundations of other major religions are no less fantastic than Smith’s story of the Angel Moroni and the golden plates; all religious belief ultimately depends on faith.

The Book of Mormon tells of a Christian religion based in the United States rather than distant Bethlehem or Jerusalem. According to it, a sixth century b.c.e. man named Lehi left Jerusalem and settled in North America, where his sons Nephi and Laman became rivals for leadership of his tribe. Jesus Christ appeared to followers of both brothers after his resurrection and instructed them to live together in peace, but eventually the Lamanites slaughtered the entire Nephite tribe.

Smith initially taught that all believers could receive divine revelations (although he later revised this so that only he, as president and revelator, could receive them). The second most important sacred text of the LDS is The Doctrine and Covenants, Smith’s 133 core revelations, including doctrine number 132 commanding that Mormon men engage in polygamy.

Krakauer describes a church history fraught with persecution and bloody retaliation. Smith had begun gathering followers even before The Book of Mormon was published. His church grew rapidly but faced violent opposition from surrounding communities, and Smith moved his followers west. In Illinois in 1844 Smith was arrested and charged with violating the First Amendment; Mormons had destroyed a printing press on Smith’s orders because its owners had published newspapers questioning his authority. Vigilantes shot and killed Smith in his jail cell before he could be tried.

Smith had at one time preached a doctrine of blood atonement. When the men who killed him were acquitted, his successor Brigham Young began preaching vengeance. Young moved the church farther west, into Utah, and under his leadership the Mormons became more committed to defending themselves, particularly against the federal government, as federal law threatened their communities and their practice of polygamy. Krakauer’s account highlights the 1857 Mountain Meadows Massacre, wherein a group of Utah Mormons surrounded and slaughtered 120 men, women, and children traveling west through Mormon territory from Arkansas.

Brigham Young died in 1877 and was succeeded as Mormon president by John Taylor, who perpetuated Young’s defiance of federal authorities. However, Taylor’s successor Wilford Woodruff capitulated at last to the law and in 1890 announced that God had revealed he no longer sanctioned plural marriage.

The centerpiece of Under the Banner of Heaven is a chilling example of religious devotion taken too far: the 1984 murders of twenty-four-year-old Brenda Wright Lafferty and her fifteen-month-old daughter. Brenda Lafferty’s husband, Allen, and his five brothers had formed their own small Mormon fundamentalist sect, separate from the LDS but loosely associated with a group called the School of the Prophets, led by self-styled prophet Robert Crossfield (the Prophet Onias). Dan Lafferty cancelled electrical and water service to his home, refused to carry a driver’s license or pay taxes, and punished his wife with physical abuse if she disobeyed him. Ron Lafferty also became abusive toward his wife, Dianna, and discussed taking additional spiritual wives.

Brenda Lafferty resisted Allen’s attempts to conform to his brothers’ new beliefs. She encouraged the other Lafferty wives to stand up to their husbands and supported Dianna when she divorced Ron and moved to Florida with their six children. Ron subsequently received a revelation from God telling him four individuals, including Brenda Lafferty and her baby daughter, must be “removed” because they stood in the way of God’s work. Everyone named in Ron’s “removal revelation” had encouraged or assisted his wife as she planned to leave him.

Personal revelations from God are often discussed among groups of Mormon fundamentalist men, so that agreement can be reached as to whether a given revelation is truly divine. Ron and Dan presented their “removal revelation,” to the general consternation of other fundamentalists. While no one confirmed its godly origin, neither did anyone step forward to warn their intended victims or report their plan.

Krakauer interviewed Dan Lafferty, who is serving two life terms in a Utah state prison and feels no discomfort or remorse over cutting the throats of his sister-in-law and tiny niece. Lafferty describes feeling “completely comfortable” while committing the murders and nineteen years later still believes God ordered him to kill. His account of the crime is truly horrifying and gives a lurid, true-crime cast to Krakauer’s account, in contrast to his more traditional history of the LDS.

Krakauer intends to link the bloodshed surrounding nineteenth century Mormons with the Lafferty murders and with the abuses suffered by young spiritual wives in polygamous communities. However, the connections are not clear, in part because of the book’s disjointed presentation of a wide variety of topics and a large number of personalities. Krakauer argues that Americans often ignore the negative aspects of religious faith and, especially since the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, are too quick to associate religious violence with Islamic fundamentalism. Krakauer believes any religious faith can lead to fanaticism and wants to show that, although the LDS is a uniquely American religious phenomenon, its past and present are littered with incidents of violence against people both inside and outside the faith.

Review Sources

The Economist 368, no. 8331 (July 5, 2003): 75.

The New York Times Book Review 152 (August 3, 2003): 7.

Newsweek 142, no. 3 (July 21, 2003): 56-57.

People 60, no. 3 (July 21, 2003): 47.

Publishers Weekly 250, no. 26 (June 20, 2003): 72.

Time 162, no. 3 (July 21, 2003): 62.

The Wall Street Journal, July 11, 2003, p. W14.

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