Book review: Under the Banner of Heaven
Survey of Morman fundamentalism by Jon Krakauer.
FeedbackBy Preston Hunt, 01 August 2004

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I bought this book thinking that it was going to be another excellent outdoor adventure book from Jon Krakauer, from the same vein as "Into Thin Air" or "Into The Wild". I quickly learned that it was more a case study in fundamentalist mormonism (or the Fundamentalist Church of Latter Day Saints, FLDS), and also a general treatise and history on the more mainstream Latter Day Saints (LDS).

Many of my Judeo-Christian friends would be quick to dismiss Mormons as a bunch of quacks, but probably few of them know that Mormonism is a superset of Christianity. What makes Mormonism different from almost any other religion is that it came into being in the 19th century, a time when the printing press enabled every single piece of its tumultuous history to be documented for posterity. Other more established religions could be viewed as just as zany as Mormonism, but they have the benefit of having come into popularity at a time when record keeping was poor to non-existant (i.e., 2000 years ago).

To be sure, certain events from Mormonism's past do not fare well under the historical spotlight: The necromancy of Joseph Smith in his youth, including grave robbing and the use of mystical seer stones. The golden tablets delivered by the angel Moroni to Joseph Smith. The frequent visions from God, directing Joseph Smith to various actions. Section 132 of the Declarations & Covenants (which, after the old testmanet, new testament, and book of mormon, is the most sacred book in Mormonism), in which God commands polygamy (or "plural marriage"). The often violent exodus of early Mormon "saints", from Ohio to Illinois to their famous current home in Salt Lake City. Brigham Young's initial support and later capitulation on the subject of polygamy in order to prevent the religion from being obliterated by the federal government. The Mountain Meadows Massacre, in which Mormon settlers murdered "gentile" travelers on the way to settle in California.

The book introduces a concept called "religious genious", of which Joseph Smith certainly possessed. Indeed, Mormonism is a fascinating "how to" guide in creating a successful modern day religion, and how to adapt to ensure survival. Mormonism is the fastest growing religion in the world. By some estimates, in several decades, Mormons will comprise a large enough percentage of American society that presidential elections can be determined by how the Mormon "block" votes.

The story is told in the context of a double murder that was committed (in God's name) by Dan and Ron Lafferty, two extremely devout brothers who at one time were in the good graces of the LDS. As the book explains in great detail, the Mormon religion is attractive to many because it offers black and white clarity on moral issues: Do this and you go to heaven, do that and you'll go to hell. Unfortunately, the hierarchical nature of the LDS, the emphasis on obedience, and the precedent of conversing directly with God to get "phrophesies" taken together make regular people susceptible to the teachings of the FLDS.

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