Under the Banner of Heaven: A Story of Violent Faith

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Overview

Jon Krakauer’s literary reputation rests on insightful chronicles of lives conducted at the outer limits. In Under the Banner of Heaven, he shifts his focus from extremes of physical adventure to extremes of religious belief within our own borders. At the core of his book is an appalling double murder committed by two Mormon Fundamentalist brothers, Ron and Dan Lafferty, who insist they received a revelation from God commanding them to kill their blameless victims. Beginning with a meticulously researched account...
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Overview

Jon Krakauer’s literary reputation rests on insightful chronicles of lives conducted at the outer limits. In Under the Banner of Heaven, he shifts his focus from extremes of physical adventure to extremes of religious belief within our own borders. At the core of his book is an appalling double murder committed by two Mormon Fundamentalist brothers, Ron and Dan Lafferty, who insist they received a revelation from God commanding them to kill their blameless victims. Beginning with a meticulously researched account of this “divinely inspired” crime, Krakauer constructs a multilayered, bone-chilling narrative of messianic delusion, savage violence, polygamy, and unyielding faith. Along the way, he uncovers a shadowy offshoot of America’s fastest-growing religion, and raises provocative questions about the nature of religious belief.
Krakauer takes readers inside isolated communities in the American West, Canada, and Mexico, where some forty-thousand Mormon Fundamentalists believe the mainstream Mormon Church went unforgivably astray when it renounced polygamy. Defying both civil authorities and the Mormon establishment in Salt Lake City, the leaders of these outlaw sects are zealots who answer only to God. Marrying prodigiously and with virtual impunity (the leader of the largest fundamentalist church took seventy-five “plural wives,” several of whom were wed to him when they were fourteen or fifteen and he was in his eighties), fundamentalist prophets exercise absolute control over the lives of their followers, and preach that any day now the world will be swept clean in a hurricane of fire, sparing only their most obedient adherents.
Weaving the story of the Lafferty brothers and their fanatical brethren with a clear-eyed look at Mormonism’s violent past, Krakauer examines the underbelly of the most successful homegrown faith in the United States, and finds a distinctly American brand of religious extremism. The result is vintage Krakauer, an utterly compelling work of nonfiction that illuminates an otherwise confounding realm of human behavior.
From the Hardcover edition.
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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble
The Barnes & Noble Review
In bestselling wilderness adventures like Into Thin Air and Into the Wild, award-winning journalist Jon Krakauer has taken us to the extremes of human experience. Now he focuses his sights on extremism of another sort in Under the Banner of Heaven, a chilling tale of violence and fanaticism that strikes at the very heart of religious faith in America.

The centerpiece of the story is a grisly double murder committed in 1984 by Ron and Dan Lafferty, Mormon fundamentalist brothers who claimed to have killed at God's direct command. In Krakauer's expert hands, the bizarre details of this brutal crime play out against the equally bizarre history of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS) and its subsequent splintering into fundamentalist sects over the issue of polygamy -- a sacred doctrine put forth by Mormon founder Joseph Smith in 1830.

Discarded decades ago in the Mormons' steady march toward the American religious mainstream, polygamy has become a touchstone for fundamentalist dissenters, who seek to return the church to its original vision…at any cost. Krakauer investigates the violent legacy of this single article of faith, explores the link between fundamentalism and the Mormon tradition of personal revelation, and draws a direct line between the religious fervor of a God-fearing community and the religious fanaticism that inspired the Lafferty brothers to kill in the name of the Lord.

Storytelling at its most compelling, Under the Banner of Heaven is a gimlet-eyed look into the blood-soaked history of the fastest-growing religion in the Western Hemisphere and a sober examination of the nature of faith in America. Anne Markowski

The New York Times
In collecting evidence, Mr. Krakauer ventures out to a lunatic fringe of polygamous self-appointed prophets, where the Mormons and the Martians are almost interchangeable. — Janet Maslin
USA Today
Heaven uses the murder of a young Mormon wife, Brenda Lafferty, and her 15-month-old daughter in 1984 as a launchpad to probe the roots of all religious faith and the extremes to which it can be taken. … In the hands of a less perceptive writer, the book would be just another lurid true-crime tale with superficial religious overtones. Instead, Krakauer … presents events in historical context. — Deirdre Donahue
The Los Angeles Times
The split between the Fundamentalists and the official Mormon church is the backdrop for Jon Krakauer's new book, Under the Banner of Heaven, in which he explores the fanatical fringe of Mormonism and the nexus between extremist faith and predatory violence through the story of a bone-chilling double murder committed in 1984 in the heart of Mormon country. — Emily Bazelon
The Washington Post
Under the Banner of Heaven is not likely to be popular in Utah or other LDS sanctuaries. Perhaps it will inspire backlash books highlighting the violent and tawdry details of Gentile (non-Mormon) faiths. None has a pristine history. This is a chilling book, slowed occasionally by the sheer number of names to recall and relationships to connect, and the somewhat awkward juxtaposition of current events and remote history -- not a beach book but rather a tour de force that must be read carefully and savored. — Ann Rule
NY Times Sunday Book Review
Dan and Ron Lafferty saw their quest for security and stature frustrated and then found someone to blame -- a description that, in one sense or another, applies to Mohamed Atta, Timothy McVeigh and the Columbine killers. Under the Banner of Heaven is an arresting portrait of depravity that may have broader relevance than the author intended. — Robert Wright
Publishers Weekly
Using as a focal point the chilling story of offshoot Mormon fundamentalist brothers Dan and Ron Lafferty, who in 1984 brutally butchered their sister-in-law and 15-month-old niece in the name of a divine revelation, Krakauer explores what he sees as the nature of radical Mormon sects with Svengali-like leaders. Using mostly secondary historical texts and some contemporary primary sources, Krakauer compellingly details the history of the Mormon church from its early 19th-century creation by Joseph Smith (whom Krakauer describes as a convicted con man) to its violent journey from upstate New York to the Midwest and finally Utah, where, after the 1890 renunciation of the church's holy doctrine sanctioning multiple marriages, it transformed itself into one of the world's fastest-growing religions. Through interviews with family members and an unremorseful Dan Lafferty (who is currently serving a life sentence), Krakauer chronologically tracks what led to the double murder, from the brothers' theological misgivings about the Mormon church to starting their own fundamentalist sect that relies on their direct communications with God to guide their actions. According to Dan's chilling step-by-step account, when their new religion led to Ron's divorce and both men's excommunication from the Mormon church, the brothers followed divine revelations and sought to kill, starting with their sister-in-law, those who stood in the way of their new beliefs. Relying on his strong journalistic and storytelling skills, Krakauer peppers the book with an array of disturbing firsthand accounts and news stories (such as the recent kidnapping of Elizabeth Smart) of physical and sexual brutality, which he sees as an outgrowth of some fundamentalists' belief in polygamy and the notion that every male speaks to God and can do God's bidding. While Krakauer demonstrates that most nonfundamentalist Mormons are community oriented, industrious and law-abiding, he poses some striking questions about the closed-minded, closed-door policies of the religion-and many religions in general. (July) Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
In 1984, Brenda Lafferty and her baby daughter Erica were found murdered in their Utah home, victims of a "removal revelation" that her Mormon brother-in-law had supposedly received from God. Krakauer (Into Thin Air) aims to explain why and how this crime happened by recounting the history of Mormonism from its conception by Joseph Smith in the 19th century and tracing the origins of its extremist sects through to the present day. Using current examples, Krakauer reveals that there are fundamentalist communities throughout North America and that although these sects are not recognized by the accepted Latter-day Saints (LDS) church (mainly because they still practice polygamy), they are able to exist unchecked by both the church and the U.S. government. The author's chronicle of the Mormon religion and its extremist offshoot is tempered by the very real and tangible story of Lafferty and her baby, whose lives were, in effect, taken by a fundamentalist faith. Krakauer, admittedly just trying to get to the heart of religious extremism, remains as impartial as possible toward his elusive and controversial subject, but the result is still unnerving. A thoroughly engrossing and ultimately startling comment on all fundamentalist ideas; for public libraries. [Previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 5/1/03.]-Rachel Collins "Library Journal" Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
The jarring story of a double murder committed by fundamentalist Mormons, told with raw narrative force and tight focus. Yet this is far more than just the retelling of a grisly murder, for Krakauer (Into Thin Air, 1997) would like to know what was going on in the heads of the men, Dan and Ron Lafferty, when they killed Brenda Lafferty and her 15-month-old daughter Erica (who happened to be their sister-in-law and niece, respectively), and why Dan, in particular, could be so equi-poised when talking of the event as to display an utter lack of remorse. Finding out requires an extended journey through the world of Mormonism, its history and schisms, and by extension the history of its expansion over the western half of the country. Fundamentalist Mormons differ from mainstream Latter-day Saints in many ways, but their practice of polygamy, notions of blood atonement (revenge), and belief in the importance of personal revelation-their listening to that "still small voice" of God, once a hallmark of Joseph Smith's religion, until he realized it would compromise his authority in matters of church doctrine-made them outlaws in the eyes of the establishment Mormons. Dan's "yearning to return to the mythical order and perfection of the original church," one that had been corrupted by the church hierarchy for years now, led him to fundamentalism, which in turn led him to believe his brother Ron's revelations: that Brenda and Erica must die for the good of the Lord's work (that Brenda encouraged Ron's wife to leave him may have played, let's say, a small role in the revelation). Krakauer worms deeply into the Mormon religious experience, its fractures, violence, and fight against the growing powerof the central government. At the moment "when religious fanaticism supplants ratiocination," then "all bets are suddenly off." Krakauer lays the portent on beautifully, building his tales carefully from the ground up until they irresistibly, spookily combust. Agent: John Ware
From the Publisher
“Fantastic. . . . Right up there with In Cold Blood and The Executioner’s Song.” —San Francisco Chronicle

“Powerfully illuminating. . . . Almost every section of the book is fascinating in its own right, and together the chapters make a rich picture. . . . An arresting portrait of depravity.” —The New York Times Book Review

“This year’s most audacious work of nonfiction. . . . A white-knuckle mix of true-crime reporting and provocative history.” —New York Post

“Scrupulously reported and written with Krakauer’s usual exacting flair, Under the Banner of Heaven is both illuminating and thrilling. It is also the creepiest book anyone has written in a long time—and that’s meant as the highest possible praise.” —Newsweek

“Krakauer writes with almost astonishing narrative force. It is hard to stop reading.” —The Baltimore Sun

“Stunningly researched. . . . Elegant reportage. . . . An evenhanded inquiry into the nature of religious belief itself.” —Newsday

“Captivating. . . . Fascinating and appalling. . . . [Krakauer] should be applauded—and read.” —The San Diego Union-Tribune

“A great book. . . . Krakauer has found a fascinating story in plain sight, right in the heart of the American West, and told it with the narrative drive and unflinching honesty that marked his 1998 best seller, Into Thin Air.” —The Oregonian

“Jon Krakauer is at his provocative best.” —The New Orleans Times-Picayune

“A fascinating page-turner. . . . Engrossing. . . . Krakauer’s knack for crackling narrative and taut focus . . . drives this thought-provoking story.” —The Columbus Dispatch

“A hair-raising true-crimer.” —Chicago Sun-Times

“Terrifying. . . . Startling. . . . Mov[es] deftly between past and present [and] provides a fascinating glimpse of the church today.” —The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

“A powerful portrait of how two seemingly ordinary Americans became murderers.” —The Economist

“Illuminating . . . provocative. . . . Krakauer is an adept chronicler of extremists [and] the tour guide of choice for secular quests.” —Los Angeles Times Book Review

“Marvelous. . . . A departure from Into Thin Air and Into the Wild . . . but every bit as engrossing.” —Entertainment Weekly

“Well-researched and evenhanded. . . . Thought-provoking.” —USA Today

“Startling. . . . Timely. . . . Krakauer uncovers a ghastly trail of forced marriage, polygamy, violence and mind control. . . . A chilling look at Mormon fundamentalism.” —The Charlotte Observer

“Horrific, gripping. . . . Soberly written and courageously reported.” —Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel

“Engrossing. . . . Incisive. . . . [Krakauer is] a very careful reporter. . . . His clear-headed, unbiased examination of the church—leavened with genuine respect—and his conclusions . . . are hard to argue with.” —Boulder Daily Camera

“One hell of a chilling read.” —Maxim

“Compelling. . . . Provocative. . . . Illuminating. . . . A gripping tale.” —The Christian Science Monitor

“A disturbing picture of Mormon fundamentalists. . . . Krakauer’s straightforward style and excellent storytelling ability make the book interesting.” —Rocky Mountain News

“A terrific read.” —Reader’s Digest

“Riveting. . . . Intriguing. . . . Breezy, smooth and vigorously written, this ambitious book is entertaining and informative. . . . Krakauer reconstructs the Lafferty brothers’ descent into fatal fanaticism magnificently, interweaving their story throughout the book and giving this wide-ranging work narrative coherence and emotional resonance. . . . [He is] a superb storyteller.” —The News & Observer

“A powerful look at how religious belief can cross the line into fanaticism.” —San Jose Mercury News

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780641577864
  • Publisher: Random House, Incorporated
  • Publication date: 7/15/2003
  • Pages: 372
  • Product dimensions: 6.84 (w) x 9.30 (h) x 1.27 (d)

Meet the Author

Jon Krakauer is the author of Eiger Dreams, Into the Wild, and Into Thin Air and is editor of the Modern Library Exploration series.
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Read an Excerpt

 

ONE

THE CITY OF THE SAINTS

For thou art an holy people unto the Lord thy God, and the Lord hath chosen thee to be a peculiar people unto himself, above all the nations that are upon the earth.

Deuteronomy 14:2

 

And it shall come to pass that I, the Lord God, will send one mighty and strong, holding the scepter of power in his hand, clothed with light for a covering, whose mouth shall utter words, eternal words; while his bowels shall be a fountain of truth, to set in order the house of God.

The Doctrine and Covenants, Section 85

revealed to Joseph Smith on November 27, 1832

 

 

 

Balanced atop the highest spire of the Salt Lake Temple, gleaming in the Utah sun, a statue of the angel Moroni stands watch over downtown Salt Lake City with his golden trumpet raised. This massive granite edifice is the spiritual and temporal nexus of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS), which presents itself as the world’s only true religion. Temple Square is to Mormons what the Vatican is to Catholics, or the Kaaba in Mecca is to Muslims. At last count there were more than eleven million Saints the world over, and Mormonism is the fastest-growing faith in the Western Hemisphere. At present in the United States there are more Mormons than Presbyterians or Episcopalians. On the planet as a whole, there are now more Mormons than Jews. Mormonism is considered in some sober academic circles to be well on its way to becoming a major world religion—the first such faith to emerge since Islam.

Next door to the temple, the 325 voices of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir swell to fill the tabernacle’s vast interior with the robust, haunting chords of “Battle Hymn of the Republic,” the ensemble’s trademark song: “Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord . . .”

To much of the world, this choir and its impeccably rendered harmonies are emblematic of the Mormons as a people: chaste, optimistic, outgoing, dutiful. When Dan Lafferty quotes Mormon scripture to justify murder, the juxtaposition is so incongruous as to seem surreal.

The affairs of Mormondom are directed by a cadre of elderly white males in dark suits who carry out their holy duties from a twenty-six-story office tower beside Temple Square.* To a man, the LDS leadership adamantly insists that Lafferty should under no circumstances be considered a Mormon. The faith that moved Lafferty to slay his niece and sister-in-law is a brand of religion known as Mormon Fundamentalism; LDS Church authorities bristle visibly when Mormons and Mormon Fundamentalists are even mentioned in the same breath. As Gordon B. Hinckley, the then-eighty-eight-year-old LDS president and prophet, emphasized during a 1998 television interview on Larry King Live, “They have no connection with us whatever. They don’t belong to the church. There are actually no Mormon Fundamentalists.”

Nevertheless, Mormons and those who call themselves Mormon Fundamentalists (or FLDS) believe in the same holy texts and the same sacred history. Both believe that Joseph Smith, who founded Mormonism in 1830, played a vital role in God’s plan for mankind; both LDS and FLDS consider him to be a prophet comparable in stature to Moses and Isaiah. Mormons and Mormon Fundamentalists are each convinced that God regards them, and them alone, as his favored children: “a peculiar treasure unto me above all people.” But if both proudly refer to themselves as the Lord’s chosen, they diverge on one especially inflammatory point of religious doctrine: unlike their present-day Mormon compatriots, Mormon Fundamentalists passionately believe that Saints have a divine obligation to take multiple wives. Followers of the FLDS faith engage in polygamy, they explain, as a matter of religious duty.

There are more than thirty thousand FLDS polygamists living in Canada, Mexico, and throughout the American West. Some experts estimate there may be as many as one hundred thousand. Even this larger number amounts to less than 1 percent of the membership in the LDS Church worldwide, but all the same, leaders of the mainstream church are extremely discomfited by these legions of polygamous brethren. Mormon authorities treat the fundamentalists as they would a crazy uncle—they try to keep the “polygs” hidden in the attic, safely out of sight, but the fundamentalists always seem to be sneaking out to appear in public at inopportune moments to create unsavory scenes, embarrassing the entire LDS clan.

The LDS Church happens to be exceedingly prickly about its short, uncommonly rich history—and no aspect of that history makes the church more defensive than “plural marriage.” The LDS leadership has worked very hard to persuade both the modern church membership and the American public that polygamy was a quaint, long-abandoned idiosyncrasy practiced by a mere handful of nineteenth-century Mormons. The religious literature handed out by the earnest young missionaries in Temple Square makes no mention of the fact that Joseph Smith—still the religion’s focal personage—married at least thirty-three women, and probably as many as forty-eight. Nor does it mention that the youngest of these wives was just fourteen years old when Joseph explained to her that God had commanded that she marry him or face eternal damnation.

Polygamy was, in fact, one of the most sacred credos of Joseph’s church—a tenet important enough to be canonized for the ages as Section 132 of The Doctrine and Covenants, one of Mormonism’s primary scriptural texts.* The revered prophet described plural marriage as part of “the most holy and important doctrine ever revealed to man on earth” and taught that a man needed at least three wives to attain the “fullness of exaltation” in the afterlife. He warned that God had explicitly commanded that “all those who have this law revealed unto them must obey the same . . . and if ye abide not that covenant, then are ye damned; for no one can reject this covenant and be permitted to enter into my glory.”

Joseph was murdered in Illinois by a mob of Mormon haters in 1844. Brigham Young assumed leadership of the church and led the Saints to the barren wilds of the Great Basin, where in short order they established a remarkable empire and unabashedly embraced the covenant of “spiritual wifery.” This both titillated and shocked the sensibilities of Victorian-era Americans, who tended to regard polygamy as a brutish practice on a par with slavery.† In 1856, recognizing the strength of the anti-polygamy vote, Republican candidate John C. Frémont ran for president on a platform that pledged to “prohibit in the territories those twin relics of barbarism—Polygamy and Slavery.” Frémont lost the election, but a year later the man who did win, President James Buchanan, sent the U.S. Army to invade Utah, dismantle Brigham Young’s theocracy, and eradicate polygamy.

The so-called Utah War, however, neither removed Brigham from power nor ended the doctrine of plural marriage, to the annoyance and bafflement of a whole series of American presidents. An escalating sequence of judicial and legislative challenges to polygamy ensued, culminating in the Edmunds-Tucker Act of 1887, which disincorporated the LDS Church and forfeited to the federal government all church property worth more than $50,000. With their feet held fast to the fire, the Saints ultimately had no choice but to renounce polygamy. But even as LDS leaders publicly claimed, in 1890, to have relinquished the practice, they quietly dispatched bands of Mormons to establish polygamous colonies in Mexico and Canada, and some of the highest-ranking LDS authorities secretly continued to take multiple wives and perform plural marriages well into the twentieth century.

Although LDS leaders were initially loath to abandon plural marriage, eventually they adopted a more pragmatic approach to American politics, emphatically rejected the practice, and actually began urging government agencies to prosecute polygamists. It was this single change in ecclesiastical policy, more than anything else, that transformed the LDS Church into its astonishingly successful present-day iteration. Having jettisoned polygamy, Mormons gradually ceased to be regarded as a crackpot sect. The LDS Church acquired the trappings of a conventional faith so successfully that it is now widely considered to be the quintessential American religion.

Mormon Fundamentalists, however, believe that acceptance into the American mainstream came at way too high a price. They contend that the Mormon leaders made an unforgivable compromise by capitulating to the U.S. government on polygamy over a century ago. They insist that the church sold them out—that the LDS leadership abandoned one of the religion’s most crucial theological tenets for the sake of political expediency. These present-day polygamists therefore consider themselves to be the keepers of the flame—the only true and righteous Mormons. In forsaking Section 132—the sacred principle of plural marriage—the LDS Church has gone badly astray, they warn. Fundamentalist prophets bellow from their pulpits that the modern church has become “the wickedest whore of all the earth.”

Mormon Fundamentalists probably cite Section 132 of The Doctrine and Covenants more than any other piece of LDS scripture. Their second-most-popular citation is likely Section 85, in which it was revealed to Joseph that “I, the Lord God, will send one mighty and strong . . . to set in order the house of God.” Many fundamentalists are convinced that the one mighty and strong is already here on earth among them, “holding the scepter of power in his hand,” and that very soon now he will lead the Mormon Church back onto the right path and restore Joseph’s “most holy and important doctrine.”
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Introduction

NATIONAL BESTSELLER

“Fantastic. . . . Right up there with In Cold Blood and The Executioner’s Song.” —San Francisco Chronicle

The introduction, discussion questions, suggestions for further reading, and author biography that follow are designed to enhance your group’s discussion of Jon Krakauer’s deeply unsettling new book, Under the Banner of Heaven.
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Foreword

1. In his prologue, Jon Krakauer writes that the aim of his book is to “cast some light on Lafferty and his ilk,” which he concedes is a daunting but useful task for what it may tell us “about the roots of brutality, perhaps, but even more for what might be learned about the nature of faith” [p. XXIII]. What does the book reveal about fanatics such as Ron and Dan Lafferty? What does it reveal about brutality and faith and the connections between them?

2. Why does Krakauer move back and forth between Mormon history and contemporary events? What are the connections between the beliefs and practices of Joseph Smith and his followers in the nineteenth century and the behavior of people like Dan and Ron Lafferty, Brian David Mitchell, and others in the twentieth?

3. Prosecutor David Leavitt argued that “People in the state of Utah simply do not understand, and have not understood for fifty years, the devastating effect that the practice of polygamy has on young girls in our society” [p. 24]. How does polygamy affect young girls? Is it, as Leavitt claims, pedophilia plain and simple?

4. Joseph Smith claimed that the doctrine of polygamy was divinely inspired. What earthly reasons might also explain Smith’s attraction to having plural wives?

5. When Krakauer asks Dan Lafferty if he has considered the parallels between himself and Osama bin Laden, Dan asserts that bin Laden is a “child of the Devil” and that the hijackers were “following a false prophet,” whereas he is following a true prophet [p. 321]. No doubt, bin Laden would say much the same of Lafferty. How are Dan Lafferty and Osama bin Ladenalike? In what ways are all religious fundamentalists alike?

6. Krakauer asks: “if Ron Lafferty were deemed mentally ill because he obeyed the voice of God, isn’t everyone who believes in God and seeks guidance through prayer mentally ill as well?” [p. 297] Given the nature of, and motive for, the murders of Brenda Lafferty and her child, should Ron Lafferty be considered mentally ill? If so, should all others who “talk to God” or receive revelations—a central tenant of Mormonism—also be considered mentally ill? What would the legal ramifications be of such a shift in thought?

7. Krakauer begins part III with a quote from Bertrand Russell, who asserts that “every single bit of progress
in humane feeling, every improvement in the criminal law, every step toward the diminution of war, every step toward better treatment of the colored races, or every mitigation of slavery, every moral progress that there has been in the world, has been consistently opposed by the organized churches of the world” [p. 191]. Is this a fair and accurate statement? What historical examples support it? What improvements in humane feeling and social justice has the Mormon church opposed?

8. How are mainstream and fundamentalist Mormons likely to react to Krakauer’s book?

9. Much of Under the Banner of Heaven explores the tensions between freedom of religion and governmental authority. How should these tensions be resolved? How can the state allow religious freedom to those who place obedience to God’s will above obedience to secular laws?

10. Joseph Smith called himself “a second Mohammed,” and Krakauer quotes George Arbaugh who suggests that Mormonism’s “aggressive theocratic claims, political aspirations, and use of force, make it akin to Islam” [p. 102]. What other similarities exist between the Mormon and Islamic faiths?

11. How should Joseph Smith be understood: as a delusional narcissist, a con man, or “an authentic religious genius” [p. 55], as Harold Bloom claims?

12. Krakauer suggests that much of John Wesley Powell’s book, The Exploration of the Colorado River and Its Canyons, particularly his account of his dealings with the Shivwit Indians, should be regarded with a “healthy dose of skepticism,” and that it embellishes and omits important facts [p. 245]. Is Krakauer himself a trustworthy guide to the events he describes in Under the Banner of Heaven? Are his writing and his judgments fair and reasonable? What makes them so?

13. What patterns emerge from looking at Mormon history? What do events like the Mountain Meadow massacre and the violence between Mormons and gentiles in Missouri and Illinois suggest about the nature of Mormonism? Have Mormons been more often the perpetrators or the victims of violence?

14. At the very end of the book, former Mormon fundamentalist DeLoy Bateman says that while the Mormon fundamentalists who live within Colorado City may be happier than those who live outside it, he believes that “some things in life are more important than being happy. Like being free to think for yourself” [p. 334]. Why does Krakauer end the book this way? In what ways are Mormons not free to think for themselves? Is such freedom more important than happiness?

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Reading Group Guide

1. In his prologue, Jon Krakauer writes that the aim of his book is to “cast some light on Lafferty and his ilk,” which he concedes is a daunting but useful task for what it may tell us “about the roots of brutality, perhaps, but even more for what might be learned about the nature of faith” [p. XXIII]. What does the book reveal about fanatics such as Ron and Dan Lafferty? What does it reveal about brutality and faith and the connections between them?

2. Why does Krakauer move back and forth between Mormon history and contemporary events? What are the connections between the beliefs and practices of Joseph Smith and his followers in the nineteenth century and the behavior of people like Dan and Ron Lafferty, Brian David Mitchell, and others in the twentieth?

3. Prosecutor David Leavitt argued that “People in the state of Utah simply do not understand, and have not understood for fifty years, the devastating effect that the practice of polygamy has on young girls in our society” [p. 24]. How does polygamy affect young girls? Is it, as Leavitt claims, pedophilia plain and simple?

4. Joseph Smith claimed that the doctrine of polygamy was divinely inspired. What earthly reasons might also explain Smith’s attraction to having plural wives?

5. When Krakauer asks Dan Lafferty if he has considered the parallels between himself and Osama bin Laden, Dan asserts that bin Laden is a “child of the Devil” and that the hijackers were “following a false prophet,” whereas he is following a true prophet [p. 321]. No doubt, bin Laden would say much the same of Lafferty. How are Dan Lafferty and Osama bin Laden alike? In what ways are all religious fundamentalists alike?

6. Krakauer asks: “if Ron Lafferty were deemed mentally ill because he obeyed the voice of God, isn’t everyone who believes in God and seeks guidance through prayer mentally ill as well?” [p. 297] Given the nature of, and motive for, the murders of Brenda Lafferty and her child, should Ron Lafferty be considered mentally ill? If so, should all others who “talk to God” or receive revelations—a central tenant of Mormonism—also be considered mentally ill? What would the legal ramifications be of such a shift in thought?

7. Krakauer begins part III with a quote from Bertrand Russell, who asserts that “every single bit of progress in humane feeling, every improvement in the criminal law, every step toward the diminution of war, every step toward better treatment of the colored races, or every mitigation of slavery, every moral progress that there has been in the world, has been consistently opposed by the organized churches of the world” [p. 191]. Is this a fair and accurate statement? What historical examples support it? What improvements in humane feeling and social justice has the Mormon church opposed?

8. How are mainstream and fundamentalist Mormons likely to react to Krakauer’s book?

9. Much of Under the Banner of Heaven explores the tensions between freedom of religion and governmental authority. How should these tensions be resolved? How can the state allow religious freedom to those who place obedience to God’s will above obedience to secular laws?

10. Joseph Smith called himself “a second Mohammed,” and Krakauer quotes George Arbaugh who suggests that Mormonism’s “aggressive theocratic claims, political aspirations, and use of force, make it akin to Islam” [p. 102]. What other similarities exist between the Mormon and Islamic faiths?

11. How should Joseph Smith be understood: as a delusional narcissist, a con man, or “an authentic religious genius” [p. 55], as Harold Bloom claims?

12. Krakauer suggests that much of John Wesley Powell’s book, The Exploration of the Colorado River and Its Canyons, particularly his account of his dealings with the Shivwit Indians, should be regarded with a “healthy dose of skepticism,” and that it embellishes and omits important facts [p. 245]. Is Krakauer himself a trustworthy guide to the events he describes in Under the Banner of Heaven? Are his writing and his judgments fair and reasonable? What makes them so?

13. What patterns emerge from looking at Mormon history? What do events like the Mountain Meadow massacre and the violence between Mormons and gentiles in Missouri and Illinois suggest about the nature of Mormonism? Have Mormons been more often the perpetrators or the victims of violence?

14. At the very end of the book, former Mormon fundamentalist DeLoy Bateman says that while the Mormon fundamentalists who live within Colorado City may be happier than those who live outside it, he believes that “some things in life are more important than being happy. Like being free to think for yourself” [p. 334]. Why does Krakauer end the book this way? In what ways are Mormons not free to think for themselves? Is such freedom more important than happiness?

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 7, 2003

    Ready the flowcharts

    Under the Banner of Heaven is a fairly decent book. It's a good piece of history, but the book...is...not...organized. A small, seemingly unimportant character that the reader meets in the beginning of the book is suddenly referred to later on, leaving the reader thumbing back through the pages to once again read the person's entire life story. Said life stories are also a problem. Krakauer tends to ramble on through these people's lives. The life stories are excellent, but they are all alike. This book is billed as being the story of the murders of Brenda Lafferty, and her daughter, Erica. It does make a note on the cover that there will be some reference and background information on Mormonism in general; however, this background information, and the life stories, takes up most of the book. What I'm trying to get at, I suppose, is that Krakauer tried to do too much with this book, which only has 331 pages. He needs almost double that amount to organize his thoughts and say all that he wants to say. He also needs a central theme. The only one I can really find in this haphazard book is 'Polygamy is Bad!', which we all know anyway. This book is a fine piece of history, but it lacks a central theme and is poorly organized. Give it a read if you want some background on the Mormons, but prepare to become slightly confused.

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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