Under the Banner of Heaven by Jon Krakauer

Read: 18, May, 2011

In 1984, Brenda Lafferty and her 15-month-old daughter, Erica, were murdered in their home in American Fork, Utah. Eighteen years later, Elizabeth Smart was abducted from her bedroom in Salt Lake City, Utah. In both cases, the crimes were committed by Mormon fundamentalists who believed in the doctrine of Celestial (plural) Marriage.

In Under the Banner of Heaven: A Story of Violent Faith, Krakauer investigates these two crimes, splicing in the Mormon story and the events that lead to the schism between the Fundamentalist church with the more mainstream LDS church. He also takes a hard look at some of the Mormon scriptures that the Lafferty brothers and Elizabeth Smart’s kidnapper, Brian David Mitchell, used to justify their actions.

In particular, Krakauer condemns the idea of continuing revelation, saying that it makes it possible for individuals to justify any action as revealed commandment from God. With this idea firmly entrenched in Mormonism, it is almost impossible for the more mainstream leaders to rein in the crazies. In the background, throughout all the narratives, patriarchal polygamy looms.

The book is very strong in its narrative, but doesn’t set out to make a point or place blame. As a result, Under the Banner of Heaven couldn’t legitimately be called an anti-Mormon book. It also meant that there wasn’t a good sense of scale – How many women are currently in polygamous relationships? How many children are being raised in these families and, potentially, being forced into marriages themselves? How often are crimes relating to Mormon polygamy committed?

Overall, I found it to be a very good read. Krakauer is a great storyteller and the stories themselves are interesting (albeit difficult to stomach). And, while Under the Banner of Heaven does give a fairly clear picture of the specific individuals and events covered, it’s hard to extrapolate that into any kind of knowledge about Mormonism or patriarchal polygamy.

Most quotable line: “If you want to know the truth, I think people within the religion, people who live here in Colorado City, they’re probably happier on the whole than people on the outside. But some things in life are more important than being happy – like being free to think for yourself.”

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