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.
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.
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...
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