(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 20)

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...

(The entire section is 1581 words.)