A Holy Mess

Under the Banner of Heaven: A Story of Violent Faith BY Jon Krakauer. Anchor. Paperback, 432 pages. $16.

The cover of Under the Banner of Heaven: A Story of Violent Faith

ON JULY 24, 1984, Ron and Dan Lafferty, two fundamentalist Mormons, killed their sister-in-law Brenda Lafferty and her fifteen-month-old baby. They claimed they had done this because of divine revelation from God—that it had been a necessary act, and a holy one. They were caught soon after the murder. Dan readily admitted to the crime, and he has continued to insist for the past thirty-two years that slashing the throats of Brenda and her daughter was a righteous act and that he has no regrets.

Jon Krakauer’s Under the Banner of Heaven: A Story of Violent Faith (2003) is less interested in detailing the murder and the court trials (though it does this as well) than in trying to understand what made the Lafferty brothers believe that God wanted them to kill. What is it about fundamentalist Mormonism, the American West, and even the culture at large that encouraged the murders? The book digs especially deep in its exploration of violence in the early Mormon church: on the one hand, the hostility displayed toward Mormons, which drove them out of Illinois and Missouri in the nineteenth century and led to the martyrdom of Joseph Smith; on the other, violence instigated by Mormons, such as the Mountain Meadows Massacre, in which Mormons disguised as Indians killed over a hundred non-Mormon men, women, and children. Krakauer explores the complexities of early Mormon politics and discusses the notion of personal and church-wide revelation. He illustrates the beliefs of various fundamentalist Mormon sects and documents the abuse of women within polygamous communities. And he makes stops along the way to consider other cases: the Elizabeth Smart kidnapping, the Ervil LeBaron blood-atonement killings, and a murder committed by a grandson of Brigham Young, which would become the subject of my own novel The Open Curtain. By the end of Under the Banner of Heaven, you have a clear sense of Mormon culture’s undercurrent of foundational violence. Mormon fundamentalists, you learn, sometimes embrace that violence, while mainstream Mormons simply deny how much it has shaped their history.

What makes it possible for the book to be broad-ranging and yet still self-contained is how young Mormonism is: At the time of the Lafferty murders, it was just over 150 years old. Geographically contained, bound up in a very particular history of the settling of the American West, first sanctioning polygamy and then disavowing it and excommunicating members who chose to practice it, it is a religion shot through with contradictions. Krakauer doesn’t endorse the church, but he does capture its deep power over those who grow up in it. In the process, he does a wonderful job of presenting a case for why the Laffertys should not be considered insane so much as the by-product of the culture in which they were raised.

Brian Evenson is the author, most recently, of A Collapse of Horses (Coffee House Press, 2016).