Book Review: Under the Banner of Heaven by John Krakauer

In Under the Banner of Heaven: A Story of Violent Faith best-selling author Jon Krakauer uses his investigative journalism skills and story-telling ability to shine a light on a dark and violent history of a religion that prides itself on good, clean family values.

As a springboard for examining the mormon faith,  Krakauer investigates the brutal 1984 murder of Brenda Lafferty and her infant daughter.  This heinous act was committed by her two brother-in-laws, excommunicated members of the mainline Latter Day Saints, and members of a fundamentalist Mormon sect.  They murdered Brenda and her daughter in response to what they believed was a revelation from God to do so.

Krakauer uses this story to tell the story of the many fundamentalist mormon sects that believe the mainstream LDS church has lost it’s way in leaving behind key teachings of mormon founder Joseph Smith and key early church leader Brigham Young. Specifically these groups wish to reinstate polygamy and other early church teachings such as blood atonement (certain sins can only be atoned for by the shedding of one’s own blood – interacial marriage for example).   Reading about these groups and their heinous acts of forced marriage and rape of girls as young as 13 often made me feel sick and angry.

Krakauer’s point in telling the story of today’s mormon fundamentalists is to connect the dots back through history to tell the story and violent history of the mormon church.  He shows, quite convincingly, that the church has always had a dark and violent side, and that the fundamentalist mormons today are merely trying to be faithful to the original teachings of their founders.

Certainly its true that any religion or group should not be judged by its outliers and crazy people.  Often, as I read about the Lafferty murder, I thought, any religion and many atheists have their quacks too, so is this a fair connection?  The question then becomes, as Krakauer tries to demonstrate, “what does the core beliefs and foundation of one’s faith really teach, and what would that kind of faith look like in today’s world if they were to do so?”  Thus, anyone who really examines the history and beliefs of the Book of Mormon and Doctrine and Covenantswill see that mormonism is not just another Christian denomination with great family values (as the last two decades of mormon public relations would have you believe).

However, I certainly don’t agree with everything Krakauer says.  For example, he often will show a scathing piece of historical evidence (or lack thereof) and then conclude something along the lines of, “Well, all religious belief systems require one to suspend logic and reason.”  Krakauer admits he’s an agnostic and is skeptical of any religious belief system.  Furthermore, while I think it is useful to understand the sordid history of mormonism, because the mormon church discourages in-depth investigation into its past, many mormons today have no idea, and I believe they are generally striving to be good, clean-cut families.

As a follower of historic orthodox Christianity, my concern centers more on the differences of key issues such as the nature of God, the Trinity, salvation, grace, and eternity.  Secondarily, I have concerns about mormonism’s history, Joseph Smith as a prophet of God, and  the Book of Mormon’s origins.

If you’re looking for an engaging storyline and some interesting history of mormonism, then Krakauer’s book is a decent read.  However, if you would like a more in-depth look at the history of mormonism, I would suggest reading One Nation Under Gods: A History of the Mormon Church by Richard Abanes.