Krakauer, Jon. Under the Banner of Heaven. New York: Anchor Books (a division of Random House, Inc.), 2003.
Jon Krakauer’s literary legacy has shown that he is a man impressed with extremes. It takes one form of extremism to give in to one’s wanderlust and decide to forsake all earthly possessions to attempt to live in the wilderness like in Krakauer’s Into the Wild, and another form to attempt to summit the formidable Mt. Everest as in Into Thin Air. However, with Under the Banner of Heaven Krakauer attempts to reconcile the vast difference between the clean-cut, wholesome image of the modern day Mormon church, or Latter Day Saints (LDS) and it’s fanatical extremist splinter groups, or fundamentalist Latter Day Saints (FLDS).
Under the Banner of Heaven explores the Mormon faith within the context of the gruesome 1984 double homicide of Brenda Lafferty and her daughter Erica. Both were killed in cold blood because Brenda’s brothers-in-law (Dan and Ron Lafferty) received a revelation from God that instructed them to “remove” Brenda and Erica so that, as God said, “my work might go forward.” As the story unfolds, Krakauer exposes religious fanaticism and the violence that it can breed. In giving a factual, historically accurate account of the beginnings of the Mormon church and the tenets on which it was founded, he describes the history of "faith-based violence". However, in continuing this history he further explores the evolution of the Mormon church (and its entry into a mainstream religion) and the splintering of the fundamentalists (FLDS) from the mainstream church (LDS). Throughout the book, the reader becomes more and more aware of the conflict between religious freedom and governmental (the U.S. government, federal and state) authority. Piece by piece it becomes clear that the mainstream leaders are willing to change the basis of their religion to fit the times. The book’s chapters describe the events that led up to the founding of the Mormon faith and the church’s early blood soaked roots and are intercut with chapters detailing the Lafferty murders and eventual trial.
In the Author’s Remarks section (p335), at the end of the book, Krakauer notes that initially he set out to write a book about how the modern day Mormon church is at odds with its origins and history and how it’s leaders are able to ‘walk in the shadows of faith’ – he even planned to title it “History and Belief.” However, the more he delved into the sordid past of the church the more he discovered the modern church’s determination to sanitize, omit, and sometimes deny altogether the fact that certain events happened or that certain church leaders were involved in anything other than the holiest of activities. Thus, Under the Banner of Heaven came to be in its current form. Krakauer successfully connects the dots between the fanaticism of the Lafferty brothers, Joseph Smith’s Mormon church, the FLDS groups, and the Mormon church as it is today.
In the book’s prologue we are introduced to the Lafferty brothers and given a peek into the heinous crime that will be committed by them. The reader is taken through a quick version of the arrest and trial to come, and given the idea that the Lafferty brothers were fully aware of what they were doing and to this day show little remorse for what they’d done. They felt that God had commanded them to commit a blood atonement – a Mormon doctrine which holds that when a person is in a state of grievous sin, any Mormon in good standing who kills that sinner according to the proper protocol is actually doing the victim a service, cleansing the sin with blood (pp. 137). In addition, both Lafferty brothers stood by a deeply held belief, decreed by the prophet Joseph Smith himself, that the laws of God take precedence over the laws of men. So they both felt they were fully justified in “removing” their sister-in-law and niece.
The first chapter moves right...