Jon Krakauer wrote and published the book Under the Banner of Heaven: A Story of Violent Faith in 2004. In 2022, the book was made into a television series starring Andrew Garfield on FX of the same name, Under the Banner of Heaven. The church tried to silence the book before the show was even a thought but the author had a poignant response that shows he really does understand the church.
About the Book, Under the Banner of Heaven
The book tells the story of the Lafferty brothers who turn to a fundamentalist interpretation of the church teachings. They end up committing murder and claim the deed was for the Lord. The book (and the show) take the perspective of a Mormon detective, Jeb Pyre, investigating the crime and follows as he struggles with a faith crisis as he discovers the troubling truths and coverups of the church.
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.Inside Flap
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.
Banner of Heaven
Under The Banner of Heaven Series
The show, starring Andrew Garfield, Sam Worthington, and Daisy Edgar-Jones among others, was released in 2022 on Hulu and made headlines as a moving, true crime drama series. Here’s a clip with the two detectives, played by Andrew Garfield and Gil Birmingham, making progress in the case. They realize that in order to understand the Lafferty brothers, they must understand the obscure aspects of church history that the brothers were following. (content warning: strong language in the clip).
Another powerful scene of the show is when Detective Jeb (Andrew Garfield), has uncovered some very troubling history about his church. He is overwhelmed by the crisis it causes for his own personal faith and as he struggles to reconcile these things he studies the issue and realized that the church is not what he thought it was. His shattered worldview helps him to solve the case, but changes how he sees everything, and there’s no going back. This is a familiar and relatable feeling for any who have struggled through their own faith crisis – or rather discovered the truth crisis of the church.
The show, like the book, delves into the founding of the Church of Latter-day Saints (LDS Church) by Joseph Smith in 1830, looking to make sense of the double murder. It soon becomes clear that the rise of fundamentalism in Mormonism, which Krakauer called “the quintessential American religion,” is more dangerous than anyone imagined.
Under the Banner of Heaven was created by Dustin Lance Black, who was brought up in the Mormon church. Over the course of seven episodes, he wanted to explore “just how patriarchal the church had been, and in many ways still was,”https://time.com/6171741/under-the-banner-of-heaven-true-story/
The Official Church Response
One wonders just what the author hoped to accomplish in writing this book. Was it really to help others better understand the Latter-day Saints? to offer a glimpse of a violent and malicious side of Mormonism that few in today’s world know? Was it to study a vicious act of 1984 and to look for root causes? Or was it to demonstrate the author’s major thesis that to practice one’s religion, to be involved seriously in one’s faith, is to act irrationally? (68, 162, 306).
Under the Banner of Heaven suffers from an extremely unhealthy and unworkable overgeneralization. Notice the following statement early in the book: “To comprehend Brian David Mitchell [the kidnapper of Elizabeth Smart] — or to comprehend Dan Lafferty, or Tom Green, or the polygamous inhabitants of Bountiful and Colorado City — one must first understand the faith these people have in common, a faith that gives shape and purpose to every facet of their lives. And any such understanding must begin with the aforementioned Joseph Smith, Jr., the founder of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints” (53, emphasis added).
This is like asking someone: “Would you like to understand Catholicism today? Then study carefully the atrocities of the Crusades and the horrors of the Inquisition.” Or: “Would you like to gain a better insight into the minds and feelings of German people today? Then read Mein Kampf and become a serious student of Adolph Hitler.” Or: “Would you like a deeper glimpse into the hearts of Lutherans today? Then be certain to study the anti-Semitic writings of Martin Luther.” Or: “Would you care to better understand where Southern Baptists are coming from? Then simply read the many sermons of Baptist preachers in the Civil War who utilized biblical passages to justify the practice of slavery.”
I agree wholeheartedly with Lee Benson of Salt Lake City’s Deseret News: “Throughout history,” he wrote, “perfectly respectable religions have been used as the jumping-off spot for hundreds and thousands of people aiming for an orbit outside of what’s right. From Henry VIII when he wanted to marry Anne Boleyn to Osama bin Laden when he wanted to topple the Twin Towers to Cain killing Abel, it is a practice as old as mankind itself. Blaming religions for these unauthorized, self-serving spinoffs is like blaming Philo Farnsworth for MTV” (Deseret News, 21 July, 2003).https://newsroom.churchofjesuschrist.org/ldsnewsroom/eng/commentary/church-response-to-jon-krakauer-s-under-the-banner-of-heaven
The church is wanting to excuse itself from the blame for these atrocious murders. They actually equate Joseph Smith to Hitler! They at least insinuate that he is irrelevant to modern-day Mormonism as Hitler is to Germany. How does this make any sense? First, it’s not true, Joseph Smith is the founder of the church, but Hitler was not Germany’s founder, he was the leader of the Nazi party. Second, it seems to be saying that understanding early Mormonism is also not relevant to understanding the Lafferty brothers and other fundamentalist Mormon groups. The whole thing about fundamentalists is they want to take things back to their roots! So yea, to understand fundamentalists, we need to look at their view and what they are considering to be true, in other words, the teachings of Joseph Smith!
The logic the church uses in its response is backward though. Jon is not saying that to understand the church we must understand the Lafferty brothers. The original statement is “To understand [specific items in a set] one must understand [the set itself]” and the church’s analogies are “to understand [the set itself] one must understand [specific items in the set].” A correct analogy would be “to understand the crusades, one must understand Catholicism,” or “to understand Hitler, one must understand German culture,” not vice versa – and that doesn’t seem so ridiculous.
The issue is the book is not claiming the fault lies on the religion, but that the religion creates a space that allows for such dangerous thinking to grow unchecked. He says as much in his response, which is copied here since it’s no longer online.
Jon Krakauer’s Response to the Church
Some readers may question whether Jon understands the church he wrote about. But his response here makes it entirely clear that he completely understands the goals, authority demands, and infallibility complex of the church. He points out that while the church criticizes his book as a “one-sided” view of the church, he believes his portrayal (as do nearly all reviews) was balanced, and that the church’s own version of the church history, is completely one-sided due to the single goal if portraying a “faith promoting” history.
At the end of June, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints issued an official “response” to my new book, Under the Banner of Heaven: A Story of Violent Faith. Disseminated nationwide more than two weeks before my book was scheduled to appear on bookstore shelves, this preemptive attack was authored by Richard E. Turley, Jr., a high-ranking church official who serves as managing director of the LDS Family and Church History Department. In his lengthy, carefully worded screed, Elder Turley characterized Under the Banner of Heaven as “a decidedly one-sided and negative view of Mormon history.” According to his assessment, my book was written as “a condemnation of religion generally,” and the Mormon faith in particular.
It saddens me that Elder Turley, speaking for the LDS leadership (and by extension for the church as a whole), elected to regard my book in such a reductionist light. Other reviewers have assessed Under the Banner of Heaven quite differently. As critic Edward Morris wrote in the July issue of BOOKPAGE, “Raised among Mormons he greatly admired, Krakauer treats their religion-in all its theological shades-quite seriously. There’s never a snide remark or sarcastic aside. But the studiously balanced reporting can’t soften the savagery of the [Lafferty murders].”
In fact it is impossible to comprehend the actions of the murderous Lafferty brothers, or any other Mormon Fundamentalist, without first making a serious effort to plumb their theological beliefs, and that requires some understanding of LDS history, along with an understanding of the complex and highly fluid teachings of the religion’s remarkable founder, Joseph Smith. The life of Smith and the history of his church may be considered from myriad perspectives, of course. And therein lies the basis for the Mormon leadership’s profound unhappiness with my book.
The leaders of the modern LDS Church deem the history of their religion to be sacred, and have long endeavored to retain tight proprietary control over how that history is presented to the world. Indeed, LDS leaders have explicitly stated that they believe accounts of Mormon history should be, above all else, “faith promoting”-that is to say, accounts of Mormon history should be celebratory rather than critical, and should downplay, omit, or deny sensitive or unsavory aspects of that history. As Apostle Boyd Packer (presently second in line to become LDS President and Prophet) declared in a notorious 1981 speech, “There is a temptation… to want to tell everything, whether it is worthy or faith-promoting or not. Some things that are true are not very useful…. In an effort to be objective, impartial, and scholarly, a writer or a teacher may unwittingly be giving equal time to the adversary… . In the Church we are not neutral. We are one-sided. There is a war going on, and we are engaged in it.” That war is for the minds and souls of the earth’s human population-a war that Latter-day Saints wage with all the resources at their disposal.
Dissent from official church teachings is not tolerated in the LDS faith. Because of this obsession to rigidly control how the Mormon past is interpreted and presented, histories sanctioned by the LDS Church tend to be exceedingly partisan and notably incomplete. For example, in 1997 the church released a manual (published in 22 languages, and designated as required reading for virtually every Mormon adult) titled the Teaching of the Presidents of the Church: Brigham Young, in which this great Mormon leader was intentionally portrayed as being monogamous-despite the fact that few scholars, Mormon or otherwise, would dispute that Young actually was married to at least twenty women, and was probably married to more than fifty. Even a cursory survey of other LDS sanctioned publications will reveal a similarly disturbing sanitization of the historical record.
According to the eminent Mormon historian D. Michael Quinn, “The tragic reality is that there have been occasions when Church leaders, teachers, and writers have not told the truth they knew about difficulties of the Mormon past, but have offered to the Saints instead a mixture of platitudes, half-truths, omissions, and plausible denials.” As I wrote in Under the Banner of Heaven, Dr. Quinn argued that a “so-called ‘faith-promoting’ Church history which conceals controversies and difficulties of the Mormon past actually undermines the faith of Latter-day Saints who eventually learn about the problems from other sources. One of the most painful demonstrations of that fact has been the continued spread of unauthorized polygamy among the Latter-day Saints during the last seventy-five years, despite the concerted efforts of Church leaders to stop it.” Quinn pointed out that after officially renouncing the doctrine of plural marriage in 1890, the highest leaders in fact continued to sanction polygamy, covertly, for many years. And this casuistry, he insisted, has driven many Mormons into the embrace of fundamentalism.
“The central argument of the enemies of the LDS Church,” Quinn said, “is historical, and if we seek to build the Kingdom of God by ignoring or denying the problem areas of our past, we are leaving the Saints unprotected.” For his part, Quinn possesses what he describes as ‘a complex testimony.’ As he explains, “Instead of a black/white view of Mormonism, I have an Old Testament sort of faith. The writers of the Old Testament presented the prophets as very human vessels, warts and all. Yet God still chose them to be His leaders on earth. That’s how I see Mormonism: It is not a perfect church. It has huge flaws, in both the institution and the people who lead it. They are only human. And I have no trouble accepting that. It’s all part of my faith.
“On the very first page of The Book of Mormon,” Quinn continues, “Joseph Smith wrote that if it contained mistakes or faults, ‘it be the mistakes of men.’ And this same thing is stated in various ways throughout the text that follows-that errors in this sacred book are possible, even likely. I have always believed that Mormonism was the one true church, but I don’t think it has ever been infallible. And I certainly don’t believe it has a monopoly on the truth.”
I happen to share Dr. Quinn’s perspective. The LDS Church aggressively asserts that it is mankind’s “one true church,” and currently has more than 60,000 missionaries roaming the globe, intent on converting the world to the teachings of Joseph Smith. It seems to me that if Mormons are willing to make such a strong assertion-if Mormons aspire to convince non-believers that their religion is more valid than other faiths, and that the doctrines of Joseph Smith are truly handed down from God-Mormons should be equally willing to open the archives of the LDS Church to all interested parties, and to actively encourage a vigorous, unfettered examination of the church’s rich and fascinating past.
I am therefore disappointed that the men who direct the LDS Church and its twelve million members adamantly believe otherwise. I am disappointed that they continue to do everything in their considerable power to keep important aspects of the church’s past hidden in the shadows. And I am especially disappointed that they feel such an urgent need to attack writers, like me, who present balanced, carefully researched accounts of Mormon history that happen to diverge from the official, highly expurgated church version.Jon Krakauer
July 3, 2003